Downtown Kansas City’s appeal is growing, though tough challenges remain

Downtown Kansas City’s attractions include the streetcar line that runs by Union Station (background) and under The Link, which connects the station to Crown Center.
Downtown Kansas City’s attractions include the streetcar line that runs by Union Station (background) and under The Link, which connects the station to Crown Center. tljungblad@kcstar.com

The gravitational pull of downtown seems to have finally become so strong that instead of companies fleeing the traditional business center of Kansas City for suburban sites, some are compelled to find a good spot in it.

That was brought home with the architectural firm BNIM announcing recently that it was signing a five-year lease to move into Crown Center office space. That was after a very public battle forced BNIM this year to abandon its plans to redevelop a vacant building at 1640 Baltimore Ave.

A citizens group with strong ties to Kansas City Public Schools fought that proposal because of the tax giveaways the city planned to offer. The school district and groups that benefit from the tax revenue say they would have been shorted in the deal.

BNIM instead decided to stay in the downtown neighborhood, moving from interim office space at 1735 Baltimore Ave. into two lower floors at 2460 Pershing Road. The company’s decision also should show city officials that tax breaks they too often rely on are not always needed as much these days.

Downtown has a lot of appeal now, which should help attract more companies and workers to the area. Like those in other metropolitan areas, Kansas City’s downtown is experiencing a resurgence that has been long overdue.

This new energy has led to major convention bookings next year through 2022, Visit KC announced recently. They are expected to generate more than $32 million in revenue for the local economy based on attendance and room nights.

The 2.2-mile streetcar has helped spur downtown’s appeal for tourists, convention-goers and area residents, providing people with free rides from Union Station to the River Market area to eat, shop and drink. Plenty of riders are enjoying time with friends while avoiding the hassles of trying to find a parking space.

On Wednesday, KC Streetcar officials announced the system had carried 700,000 passengers since opening in early May, far ahead of projections.

A proposal to expand the streetcar south to the Country Club Plaza area could make downtown more appealing as a destination, although that idea is up to six years away from completion even if approved.

Other amenities added over the last decade or so continue to do well.

The Sprint Center is still a popular destination for concerts and sporting events, right across from the Power & Light District. Downtown has the full-service grocery store, which many people had desired for years. And it has a few churches that are fairly new — along with some that serve decades-old congregations.

About 20,000 people now call downtown home, partly because many old office buildings have been converted to apartments and condominiums. New construction has added other multi-unit dwellings. The Two Light luxury apartment tower going up at Grand Boulevard south of 14th Street is one of the latest additions to the skyline.

The Crossroads Art District offers many galleries of interest as well as the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts, which is a major tourist attraction.

Downtown also is the jumping off point that connects to the West Side and its many Latino restaurants and bars as well as to the 18th and Vine District, which features the American Jazz Museum, Negro Leagues Baseball Museum, restaurants, bars and jazz.

Union Station, which used to be the place where people met for travel purposes, is an attraction. So are Crown Center, nearby hotels, Liberty Memorial and the World War I Museum and Memorial.

Finally, Downtown is the center of government for Kansas City, Jackson County, the state of Missouri and the United States.

Yet even downtown’s most ardent backers realize many concerns still must be addressed.

▪ Too little redevelopment has occurred on the east fringes.

▪ Too many dead zones still exist, occupied by empty buildings or half-full surface parking lots.

▪ Services for homeless people need further improvement.

▪ Long-promised bike lanes on Grand Boulevard and other streets aren’t done yet.

▪ A large convention hotel remains on the drawing boards.

▪ The fear of crime still keeps too many people out of the area.

▪ And the job losses of recent years haven’t come close to being reversed.

Summed up, there’s still plenty of work needed to add housing units, bring in new companies and create a more successful and vibrant area.

The rebuilding of downtown is a long-term project with many challenges — but also many champions. Working together, they can make the heart of the Kansas City area a better place to live, work or visit in coming years.