Kansas City voters reject Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd., restore The Paseo as street name

After a nine-month existence as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, an iconic 10-mile thoroughfare on Kansas City’s East Side will once again be known as The Paseo, Kansas City voters decided by an overwhelming margin Tuesday.

Save The Paseo, the grassroots group that pushed for restoration of the boulevard’s original name, cruised to victory. Unofficial results showed nearly 70% of voters favoring The Paseo with just two of 124 precincts in the Jackson County portion of Kansas City still not reporting late in the evening. All other precincts across the city reported results.

The outcome was a stunning rebuke of the City Council’s January decision to rename The Paseo to honor King, the late civil rights leader. Now, Kansas City is expected to take down well over 100 signs along the road, which cuts through the heart of the predominantly black East Side.

Tuesday’s long-awaited election ends a period of uncertainty over the fate of the MLK Blvd. name. Shortly after the City Council approved the renaming, a group of residents that later became Save The Paseo launched a petition drive to put the issue to voters. They argued that the Paseo name is a significant part of Kansas City’s history.

Designed in the late 19th century by landscape architect George Kessler as part of the city’s original parks and boulevard system, the road is named for Paseo De La Reforma in Mexico City. A portion of the street was added to the National Register of Historic Places along with parks and boulevards in Midtown and the Historic Northeast.

“I’m proud of Kansas City — so proud,” Diane Euston, a member of Save The Paseo, said in a video posted to the group’s Facebook page, “because we felt like people just weren’t heard.”

The group objected to the City Council’s decision to waive a rule requiring that 75 percent of residents sign off on any street name changes. Supporters of MLK Blvd. said that rule has rarely been enforced.

Euston said the group wanted to see King honored in Kansas City but not at the expense of “people who didn’t have a say.”

“And now, today, they had a say,” she said.

Former Councilwoman Alissia Canady, who voted against renaming The Paseo for King, said in the video the issue was difficult because she respected the MLK Blvd. supporters, led primarily by the Kansas City chapter of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and a group of clergy from the East Side. King helped found the SCLC.

“They wanted to do a good thing, but they went about it the wrong way,” Canady said. “And the voters of Kansas City have decided.”

The victory for Save The Paseo means a major fear has come true for the ministers supporting MLK Blvd: that Kansas City will have to remove King’s name from a major city street. Before the City Council voted to change The Paseo, Kansas City was one of the nation’s only major cities without a street named for King.

“So we’re the last to do that, and now we’ll be the first to strip that away if it were to occur,” Vernon Howard, president of the Kansas City chapter of SCLC, said in an interview last month.

Howard didn’t return calls requesting comment Tuesday.

Euston said that Tuesday’s results were about Kansas City and Wednesday would mark the start of a conversation about how to honor King.

Save The Paseo supporters have said frequently they support naming a Kansas City landmark, such as a fountain or another street, for King.

Mayor Quinton Lucas, who championed the name change as a councilman earlier this year, said he knew Kansas City to be a “welcoming and diverse community.”

“And today’s vote does not change that,” Lucas said. “This ballot measure should remind all of us in City Hall that the way we do things matters: We must continue to legislate by bringing people together, seeking input from people with different perspectives and working to consensus-build on the issues that matter most to our community.”

The vote caps a year and a half of debate, which started after the ministers approached the Board of Parks and Recreation Commissioners with the idea of renaming The Paseo for King and were rebuffed. The parks department oversees the city’s boulevard system.

The ministers then began collecting signatures to put the issue on the August or November 2018 ballot, but fell short.

At the same time, then-Mayor Sly James formed a citizens’ commission to hold public hearings and make recommendations on how to honor King. That commission recommended The Paseo as a third option behind the forthcoming single terminal at Kansas City International Airport and 63rd Street.

Then-Councilman Lucas attached an amendment renaming The Paseo to then-Councilman Scott Taylor’s economic development ordinance to “Revive the East Side.” But Lucas’ amendment was stripped out before passage.

Council members briefly debated naming the street “Martin Luther King Jr. on The Paseo,” a compromise suggestion that never gained traction. After numerous delays, they voted 8-4 in favor of the name change. Weeks later, crews began installing the first signs along the boulevard.

Voters on Tuesday also approved four ballot questions that allowed the city’s parks department to dispose of parcels of land it says it no longer needs or could be used for future school sites.

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Allison Kite reports on City Hall and local politics for The Star. She joined the paper in February 2018 and covered Midterm election races on both sides of the state line. She holds a bachelor’s degree in journalism with minors in economics and public policy from the University of Kansas.