Steve Paul

Steve Paul: Kansas City development battle puts an unfortunate squeeze on BNIM

BNIM design director Steve McDowell discusses the firm’s research into how daylighting planned for its proposed headquarters affects employee moods and productivity.
BNIM design director Steve McDowell discusses the firm’s research into how daylighting planned for its proposed headquarters affects employee moods and productivity. paul@kcstar.com

Steve McDowell looked like a man under siege. When I saw him at an event Tuesday night, he was reeling a bit, partly from a bug he’d picked up on an overseas trip, partly from the news he’d just received that a referendum petition drive could very well torpedo a deal to build a new headquarters for his architecture firm, BNIM.

All the options were bad, he said.

By Wednesday morning, when we talked again, McDowell confessed to having had a sleepless night but vowed that his general sense of optimism had returned.

McDowell is a principal and director of design at BNIM, the Kansas City firm that has become collateral damage in the new civic battle over taxpayer-supported economic development.

BNIM would be the principal tenant in a building owned by developer and philanthropist Shirley Helzberg, and its staffers have reconceived the bland brick edifice into an environmental showcase, workspace and research lab. As McDowell puts it, the plan would serve to benefit not only BNIM and its clients but the city and the wider world as the firm develops data and replicable systems involving “net zero” power and water usage, optimum daylighting and other sustainable practices.

As election officials count petition signatures and as Mayor Sly James and others complain that “this is no way to do economic development,” McDowell is counting the minutes. BNIM is living on borrowed time at its current temporary headquarters. It shares space in the historic former TWA building, where the Barkley advertising firm is itching to expand.

When BNIM left its longtime home in the historic Kansas City Power & Light building, just five blocks north on Baltimore Avenue, it gave away much of its furniture, McDowell said. That is in keeping with the firm’s ethos of doing good for its community. Its disaster response work in New Orleans, Greensburg, Kan., and elsewhere was exemplary. It donated planning services to the project that repurposed the former Bancroft school and helped envision a housing revival in the surrounding Manheim Park neighborhood. The firm offers summer internships to public school students interested in design.

McDowell feels betrayed by Kansas City Public Schools officials, who first committed to the tax increment financing agreement and then changed their mind. Reneging on the deal, McDowell said in an impassioned statement issued later Wednesday, “is terrible policy for a public body and emboldened the opponents to initiate the campaign that became the problem facing our firm.”

McDowell planned to meet on Friday with Helzberg and the development team. Despite some of the battering Helzberg has received in the public arena, she also remains optimistic, he said. Whether that means Helzberg can work out a compromise with the city and taxing entities or overcome the uncertainties of a possible public vote in April remains to be seen. But April is too long for BNIM to wait.

And for the firm, there is much practical work at stake if it is forced to move on to another site.

Eight and a half months of design work has gone into the plan to gut and rebuild the building at 1640 Baltimore Ave., just a few steps from BNIM’s current offices. Much of that would have to start over, and its move-out date a year from now would not change.

Data and phone systems involving its headquarters, seven other offices and people and projects around the world must be ordered and configured. About 90 people now work out of the Kansas City office, out of about 160 total.

For McDowell, frustration is not far away from his declared optimism.

“We didn’t wake up one morning and say we wanted to do a TIF project,” he said.

A lot of things happened that were out of the firm’s control.

The bottom line penciled out to a rental rate of $26 a square foot, which committed BNIM to a higher-than-expected nut. That’s pretty much at the top of the commercial market and more than twice what the firm was paying at the KCP&L tower. But the firm plowed ahead, sure of its plan to build something great for the city.

The public conversation has been distorted as opponents toss out misleading figures about what the school district and other taxing agencies could or should get out of this neighborhood improvement.

And with other development battles in the air, it was inevitable that some people rose up to find a clear line where tax incentives should not be needed. It’s unfortunate that BNIM has become the “poster child” for this fight.

Is the Crossroads Arts District fully built out and non-blighted? Not really. Should tax incentives be more available in the East Crossroads, 18th and Vine and other more needy districts? By all means. Bring on those valuable, city-enhancing projects. Why does it seem as if every proposal becomes an either/or equation?

McDowell said that in the course of planning for this move he had looked at 33 buildings and vacant lots, mostly in an area from the River Market to the old El Torreon Ballroom, at 31st Street and Gillham Road.

As the firm has settled into the Crossroads, its employees enjoy the bicycle culture, the coming of the streetcar and other urban amenities on which architects and designers seem to thrive.

As a product of the Kansas City school district and Van Horn High School, McDowell has deep roots in the area. But business is business. And he needs to make a decision very soon about his firm’s future. His mother, he said, “would be thrilled if I returned to western Independence.”

Well, hold on, McDowell. The best outcome for BNIM and Kansas City is to make this project work out for everyone involved — in the urban core.

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