When the Kansas City Council took up an ordinance last month to establish an urban renewal plan for the East Crossroads area, Quinton Lucas, one of nine new members, spent a couple of minutes to announce his opposition.
The plan was shortsighted, he’d concluded, because the easternmost boundary of the 92-acre area prime for redevelopment was Watkins Drive, or U.S. 71. Why didn’t the plan, along with its tax abatement possibilities, stretch farther down 18th Street beyond Troost Avenue? Lucas wanted to know. Here was a lost opportunity, he implied, to promote development in a way that could better knit together the East Crossroads and the 18th and Vine area.
No matter that he’d voted for the plan just the day before at a meeting of the Planning, Zoning and Economic Development Committee. And no matter that the plan had come up the usual channels from the Economic Development Corp. through city planning staff and the City Plan Commission.
In the legislative tally, Lucas led a cadre of a half dozen council members voting no, but the plan passed, 7-6. Still, Lucas got his point across. Sometimes, he suggested, we really need to think bigger and better.
In retrospect, Lucas conceded that he was an inexperienced newcomer tripped up by law-making procedure. After the committee meeting, the council’s legislative session came up so quickly, he realized he hadn’t had enough time to get answers to all of his questions.
Well, that’s how the city sausage often gets made.
There’s nothing really wrong with the East Crossroads Urban Renewal Plan, which promotes mixed-used development in an area deemed blighted. The boundaries generally run from Oak Street east to U.S. 71, I-70 to railroad right of ways south of 20th Street.
It falls under the larger planning umbrella of the Greater Downtown Area Plan, adopted in 2010.
One developer jump-started the East Crossroads plan at the EDC’s Land Clearance for Redevelopment Authority, hoping to extend some of the enthusiasm and liveliness that has occurred in the Crossroads Arts District, generally west of Main Street.
“I’m eager to take something on,” developer Matt Abbott said in July, before the authority passed the plan on to city consideration. Abbott had been buying dilapidated properties since last winter.
A few scattered art galleries, the Grinders restaurant and concert complex and a swelling influx of retailers, breweries and distilleries have been bringing increased interest to the blocks east of Oak.
Lucas is right to prompt a greater consideration of the potential of 18th Street as an important developed spine in the urban core. It’s barely a mile from 18th and Vine, the heart of Kansas City jazz history, to 18th and Central streets, where, if all goes to plan, the UMKC Conservatory of Music and Dance would take up residence. With music and downtown lifestyles converging in between, the path for city progress should seem clear. And that path should take an important stride across the city’s historical racial boundary.
“We should be past the point of talking about the Troost divide,” Lucas told me last week, “but we need to make sure that we’re really thinking about ways of doing development not just on one side of town.”
Lucas should have an ally in Mayor Sly James, who has staked out East Side development as a major impetus of his second term. But James voted for the East Crossroads plan, perhaps understanding that it could be easily amended down the road — or a new plan written — when specific visions emerge for transforming the light industrial blocks east of the highway.
This episode in city planning took place in the early weeks of the new council’s tenure, a period when jockeying for power, position, credibility and loyalty has become part of the daily grind.
Lucas agrees it was a learning experience. But he vows to stay on message and work toward real progress in the 18th Street revival.