Development lawyer Jim Bowers offered a telling moment, perhaps unintentionally, when he argued before a City Council committee in favor of loosening proposed design standards along the city’s parkways and boulevards.
He was showing pictures of properties that violated design principles along southern stretches of Ward Parkway — areas where postwar city planners, charged with protecting the integrity of our beloved parks and boulevard system, must have been asleep at the wheel. Fenced backyards, rather than homes’ front entrances, face the parkway here and there; surface parking lots in front of commercial properties spoil the boulevard view. These were not photographic beauty shots.
And neither of those conditions, Bowers said, would be allowed under a proposed revamp of parks and boulevard design guidelines.
In other words, Bowers implied, we should have the right to do as badly as this.
The new ordinance, fashioned after nearly two years of discussion, had been approved by parks commissioners, and the City Plan Commission passed it the day before.
Bowers and a group of mostly Northland developers submitted a substitute ordinance that eliminated at least five significant guidelines and set up a contentious hearing Wednesday before the City Council’s Planning, Zoning and Economic Development Committee.
This is important. The legacy of Kansas City’s parks and boulevard system is at stake. The revised ordinance was prompted at least in part by major roadway expansions and development in Kansas City, North. Developers want maximum exposure for their gas stations and suburban-style big-box stores. Planners and residents want the best that can be made, especially along the gracious and green contours of new boulevards and parkways, which serve to define Kansas City’s “city within a park” image. Walkability and biking access should be major ingredients of new development, especially as new neighborhoods sprout.
Jeffrey Williams, the city’s thoughtful planning director, pledged to work toward further compromise in the next week. Whether that means forestalling some of the developers’ worst notions or finding workaround solutions remains to be seen. But, if anything, the design guidelines should err on the side of preserving one of the best ideas Kansas City ever adopted.
Design guidelines can also be useful as a restorative for blighted areas. And you can get a pretty good briefing on what makes for desirable urban design by reading the details of a new planning document currently making its way to City Council approval.
The Troost Overlay District is the result of a formal planning process meant to revive, improve and re-imagine a long-neglected stretch of an important midtown corridor.
Like reams of other city plans and zoning documents, this one lays out rules for siting, materials, building types, signage and other aspects of “design excellence.” The guidelines will help property owners and developers build and rehab structures that respect the rich and varied architectural history of Troost, between 22nd Street and Volker Boulevard. And they will allow “new buildings to fit seamlessly into the existing inventory,” as the document states. Of course, some developers will gripe about excellence. As ever.
The goals include promoting density and a wide variety of uses, creating a sense of place, embracing authenticity and historical preservation, and encouraging the idea that “each site adds value to the overall corridor” and the whole becomes a cohesively developed urban street.
So transparency, or a predominance of clear windows facing Troost at ground level, is a core principle. And there’s an assortment of suggested building elements — roof lines, bay windows, balconies, parapets — which help create the language and visual rhythms of a vibrant streetscape.
Troost is slowly coming back, thanks to young settlers, artists, pioneering developers and neighboring institutions. The design process helped create a sense of DIY community-building among neighborhood groups and the city.
May the great momentum continue.