Steve Paul

Steve Paul: Wish list for KC includes mo’ mo for midtown

Kansas City’s first two streetcars have been undergoing testing along the rails downtown. Once the line opens in spring 2016, it will help clarify whether the line should extend through midtown in the future.
Kansas City’s first two streetcars have been undergoing testing along the rails downtown. Once the line opens in spring 2016, it will help clarify whether the line should extend through midtown in the future. rsugg@kcstar.com

In my personal archive there exists a boy-with-Santa photo that seems to predict a lifetime of sadness and disappointment.

This was the No. 1 Santa, in residence at Macy’s in New York and affirmed by that holiday classic movie “Miracle on 34th Street.”

So what was that kid thinking? That the bearded Mr. Claus had no real power to spread joy to the world? Or that he had no intention of satisfying the selfish, pathetically cranky, pint-sized listmaker on his lap?

But let’s get over that and just imagine for the moment that the fat guy in a red suit were still making the rounds and penciling in his itinerary for this week’s annual miracle.

I can think of one or two things I’d put on Kansas City’s wish list.

First, some accelerated momentum for midtown. So much attention and energy has focused in recent years on the city’s downtown revival. The concentration of development and asset-building that has occurred inside the central highway loop and the Crossroads Arts District to the south has done wonders for the city’s profile, self-esteem and street life.

But a spinoff effect, somewhat more under the radar, is spurring another urban turnaround in a wide swath of midtown.

Housing developments are transforming the Gillham Road streetscape from 29th Street or so southward. Punctuating some of that activity will be the community and tech-oriented plans in the works to repurpose the former Westport senior high and middle schools at Gillham and 39th Street. That project, under the forward-looking guidance of KC Sustainable Development Partners, has a good chance of stabilizing and catalyzing new interest in adjacent neighborhoods.

Just last week a new development proposal for the four corners of Armour Boulevard and Troost Avenue got a thumbs up from the Planned Industrial Expansion Authority. Though still rather speculative, the plan by MAC Properties envisions a collaborative effort to create housing and commercial/retail spaces. It garnered an enthusiastic response from the Troost Coalition, which has been working, rather successfully, to boost the fortunes of that important but long neglected corridor in midtown. Every good bit helps.

Encouraging new visions are emerging along Main Street, including housing and commercial developments. The city’s new Midtown/Plaza Area Plan, the evolution of a “cultural district” idea surrounding the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art and the early stirrings of the Urban Neighborhood Initiative hold promise for further rebirth.

Eventually, the old Mayor Kay Barnes-era concept of a greater downtown consisting of River-Crown-Plaza will become an interconnected reality rather than a disjointed triad of activity islands.

The zipper in that big-picture fabric would be a streetcar line extension from Union Station to Volker Boulevard or so, near the northwestern corner of the UMKC campus. This would be a major boon for the midtown spine, an appropriate and welcome parallel to the economic activity already underway.

But, of course, the negativos are already grumbling about the prospects for that civic streetcar-building campaign, just as they oppose every bit of civic progress on the boards or in the air. Perhaps our wise Santa will sprinkle a little optimism-dust on their lumpy pillows.

Which brings up another item on the wish list. Maybe old Saint Nick can find it in his heart to bring some sanity and enlightenment to all these battles over economic development. Sure, taxpayer-supported development has spun somewhat out of control. But the way the debate has shaped up in recent months has created a real buzz-kill, an environment of chaos and uncertainty that economic markets would rather avoid.

As one downtowner put it to me last week, we are long overdue for some real and useful policy guidance on incentives and general development issues. If Santa can help generate an effort to clarify the city’s needs and better codify and prioritize how, when and where incentives and abatements should be used, then we would all be better off. Downtown. Midtown. East Side. That would be a real miracle on Kansas City’s 34th Street, on Armour Boulevard, Troost Avenue and all surrounding blocks in need of a boost.

Steve Paul: paul@kcstar.com, @sbpaul

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