Government & Politics

Parking could dwindle as streetcar development continues in KC’s Crossroads district

Many Crossroads district parking lots are private, such as this one north of 19th and Main streets. The private lots are a sore spot for some nearby businesses, which say they need places for their customers to park and wonder whether private lots could be shared. On Tuesday, drivers navigated the maze of construction for the streetcar line being installed on Main.
Many Crossroads district parking lots are private, such as this one north of 19th and Main streets. The private lots are a sore spot for some nearby businesses, which say they need places for their customers to park and wonder whether private lots could be shared. On Tuesday, drivers navigated the maze of construction for the streetcar line being installed on Main. The Kansas City Star

Between the new craft breweries, funky restaurants and new construction prompted by the streetcar project, Kansas City’s Crossroads arts district is fast becoming a hipster paradise.

But there’s a downside to all that increased vitality beyond the higher rents, unkempt beards and First Fridays gridlock.

Parking’s becoming an issue. Some nights it’s hard to find a space close in, and now some worry that paradise is in danger of being paved over to accommodate the growth.

“We just can’t keep destroying buildings for surface parking lots,” says Eric Bunch, advocacy director at BikeWalkKC.

It’s not as if the older buildings that give the area its kitschy character are being flattened left and right for parking.

But historic preservationists and neighborhood activists say they were right to fear that a pattern was being set two years ago when a nearly 70-year-old former movie distribution office at 17th and Wyandotte streets was razed purely to provide parking for nearby businesses.

Because now the same sort of thing is being proposed a few blocks to the south.

The owner of the Cashew restaurant, 2000 Grand Blvd., wants a permit to tear down a century-old, one-time auto showroom at 1916 Grand Blvd. to replace the parking lot he’s losing to development along the streetcar line.

The permit has created a stir at City Hall, with officials looking harder at new ways to address the growing parking crisis in the Crossroads, downtown and River Market.

Among the possible solutions: more shared uses of private parking lots, better enforcement of on-street parking limits and so-called parking benefit districts, where part of the parking fees would go to pay for the public use of private lots.

It all boiled over early this month when news surfaced on Twitter of the pending demolition at 1916 Grand.

“Can I ask nicely that they just not tear down part of my neighborhood?” one resident tweeted in the flame war that followed.

Demolition plans are on hold for now as city officials and the Cashew look for ways to address the parking needs of the restaurant, which recently lost 60 leased spaces on a lot at 20th and Main streets that could become home to a 110-room hotel along the streetcar line.

But if a solution to his parking concerns can’t be found soon, Cashew owner Shane Glazer says he’ll have no choice but to bring in the wrecking crew.

“I’d like to have another option besides tearing down another building,” said Glazer, who bought the onetime home of Franklin Motor Car Co. and the parking lot next to it as an insurance policy a few years ago.

“But the 30 spots we have now aren’t going to cut it.”

Shared lots

There is no actual shortage of parking spaces in the Crossroads.

“Over 50 percent of the land use in the Crossroads is parking,” says City Councilman Russ Johnson, chairman of the council’s transportation committee and the citizens parking and transportation commission.

Problem is, most of the parking lots are private and not open for public use even for a fee. The fact that many of them sit empty at night is frustrating for neighboring restaurants and retailers that are short on spaces.

The Cashew is a good example, assistant city manager Rick Usher said.

Although the restaurant has limited parking of its own, there’s an entire city block taken up with parking spaces across the street.

During the day, that lot is filled with vehicles belonging to the employees of Assurant Employee Benefits.

But at night and weekends, when the Cashew’s parking needs are the greatest, the lot is mostly empty because it’s fenced and not open for public use.

The same is true for the parking lots of many other Crossroads employers, including The Kansas City Star.

Liability concerns are one reason property owners restrict parking during off hours, except for some special events. Companies don’t want to open themselves up to lawsuits should something bad happen in their parking areas. Nor do they want to shoulder the costs of patrolling the lots and picking up the messes left behind.

So one approach now being considered at City Hall would have the city becoming a parking broker, of sorts. The city would take on the liability and cleanup costs, with the money coming out of a special parking fund.

No formal discussions have taken place, but Usher in recent days has been trying to work out a deal with Assurant on behalf of the Cashew.

Some businesses in the district have worked out similar deals on their own, or with the help of third parties. But Crossroads developer Scott Richardson is glad to see City Hall get involved.

“I think it’s the proper role for the city to get the stakeholders together and examine in a strategic way how parking can be better coordinated,” said Richardson, a partner in a company building a five-story, $10 million apartment building at 1914 Main St.

Creating density

Shared parking will become increasingly important, he said, if the streetcar draws the development city officials hope it will when the streetcars begin regular runs next year.

Some existing parking lots will be eliminated as new buildings sprout on those sites.

Further putting pressure on the parking supply: not all of those new buildings or reused old ones will have parking of their own. Property owners for two blocks on either side of Main Street no longer have to provide spaces the way businesses do in other parts of town.

That’s one wrinkle of the streetcar financing arrangement. To qualify for federal aid to build the two-mile line, the city had to show it was promoting population density.

“You can’t have density and surface parking lots,” Johnson said.

To alleviate the strain that creates on the parking situation, the Crossroads Community Association has been working with the city to maximize the number of spaces along the curbs throughout the district, association vice president David Johnson said.

Even after losing some spaces along the streetcar route, an additional 75 or 80 spaces were created in the Crossroads, for example, by removing “no parking” areas in former bus zones and allowing parking in front of curb cuts that are no longer used.

The city has also reduced parking time limits in some cases, and there’s talk of reintroducing paid street parking in areas.

“There’s been a lot of opposition to parking meters,” Usher said.

Instead of meters, motorists would pay for numbered parking spaces through a phone app. Those fees would underwrite a parking benefit district, which might pay for the off-hours use of private lots.

“I feel like we’re in a transition period,” Usher said, “where three to five years from now this isn’t going to be as big an issue as it is now.”

Perhaps, but by that time the building at 1916 Grand could be as much a memory as McClure flats, the slum housing that once occupied the land where the Assurant parking lot is now.

“I need parking,” Glazer said. “If I can’t get it somewhere else, I’ll have to create it.”

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