Despite protests from a citizens watchdog group, the Kansas City Council on Thursday shortened the approval process and unanimously passed public financing plans for two downtown area hotel projects.
The quick-approval procedure averted the possibility of a petition drive like the one that toppled the plan by BNIM architects this year to relocate its headquarters into the Crossroads district.
No similar effort was proposed to fight these two hotel projects, but critics said the public deserved time to consider that option and blasted the council’s move.
“When they start rushing things through like this — gotta be done today — that’s scary,” Dan Coffey, spokesman for Citizens for Responsible Government, said before the meeting.
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But council member Katheryn Shields said the procedure used to pass the projects was not unusual. It’s been invoked dozens of times on other ordinances and both developers were facing tight deadlines with regard to financing.
“Timing is important,” Shields said.
Both hotel projects aim to bring life back to buildings that have been vacant for years.
Colorado-based Delta Quad Holdings plans to convert the 95-year-old former home of the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City at 925 Grand Blvd. into a 301-room Embassy Suites hotel.
The other project is in the Crossroads. Aparium Hotel Group of Chicago and the investment firm Agman Partners plan to turn the historic Pendergast and Pabst Brewing Co. buildings at 2101 and 2017 Central Ave. into a 125-room boutique hotel with a bar, restaurant and rooftop deck.
Both projects are receiving tax breaks and other government assistance. And both were advanced by the council’s Planning, Zoning and Economic Development Committee on Wednesday, although they were made public many months ago.
Normally, ordinances get three readings on three consecutive weeks before a final vote.
But the council’s planning and zoning committee suggested the full council skip the first two readings on the hotel projects because a delay might endanger the private financing that developers had arranged.
Coffey called that a “pathetic ruse” to ensure critics would not have time to mount a challenge that might have put the projects before the voters.
But one council member after another stood in support of the projects, which they said would not get done without help from the taxpayers.
“Sometimes we have to get involved and use incentives to make things happen,” Scott Taylor said.
Absent tax breaks equaling 18 percent of the total investment, the $146 million Federal Reserve project would not get done, Taylor said. And the building, which has sat empty for eight years, he said, might eventually become the city’s responsibility to tear down.
Despite their support, some council members said they worried about the public perception that they were rushing the projects through.
Council member Teresa Loar said citizens have a right under the charter to seek a public vote on projects with which they disagree.
“I don’t want this to be seen as a way around that,” she said. And like some others on the council, she said the governing body should discuss future use of the emergency legislation procedure that gives ordinances “an accelerated effective date.”
Council members said they received a number of phone calls opposing the proposed quick approval, yet the council chamber had fewer than a half dozen people in the audience and no one spoke in opposition. Coffey said he was unable to attend.