Steve Paul

Steve Paul: Building progress takes time and debate

This is a view from the east of a proposed hotel, apartment and retail project on West 46th Terrace, on the north edge of the Country Club Plaza.
This is a view from the east of a proposed hotel, apartment and retail project on West 46th Terrace, on the north edge of the Country Club Plaza.

The city grows and remakes itself block by block. Sometimes it’s easy. More often it’s hard. The way anything gets done these days — well, democracy is a messy game.

Another give-and-take encounter is unfolding in the environs of the Country Club Plaza. The City Plan Commission last week postponed a decision on a development plan for a new mixed-used project, which includes a hotel, an apartment tower, retail uses, open-air spaces and a drive-in bank on much of a hillside block.

The project would replace a parking lot and an existing 1990s-era drive-in bank. Despite that we’re talking about the Plaza, we should be grateful that apparently no one is arguing to preserve that unhistorical enterprise.

Some neighbors and preservationists have spoken up, however, and, as usual, they have concerns about the project’s building heights, traffic consequences and architectural affinity with the Plaza’s old-world appearance.

This kind of feedback and public debate is healthy and often can lead to workable compromises, improvements and real progress.

A months-long neighborhood tussle over a proposed hotel at 24th Street and Troost Avenue offers a recent case in point. The location is on the eastern edge of Hospital Hill and a block north of a new student apartment complex for the University of Missouri-Kansas City.

Neighbors, including those in the adjacent Beacon Hill development of new and modern homes, expressed concern over the possibility of a generic design and the quality of the hotel. They feared something seedy. They would have preferred a real mixed-use project, including retail options, such as a neighborhood bar or a coffee shop that could become a community gathering place.

The developers promised a quality project, a hotel to serve the hospital communities nearby. They continue to make design alterations, partly in response to neighbors, and are addressing engineering issues relating to the hilltop site before re-entering the city approval process.

The hotel would be a net gain for the Troost corridor, which is attracting new and positive development interest, and it could help spark other investments the pioneering residential neighbors want and deserve.

Unfortunately, good outcomes do not always ensue from public discourse. The grassroots effort that shut down the proposed new headquarters for BNIM in the Crossroads Arts District was a shameful bit of demagoguery.

Sure, the city’s use of tax incentives for developers needs a serious review. But the loss of what could have been a world-class experiment in sustainable urban design is hugely regrettable. Also regrettable is the buzzkill for innovation and urban enthusiasm that this case represents. I, for one, believe the stubborn negativos picked the wrong fight.

They might very well have had an argument if the Plaza Hotels LLC project currently on the boards had sought the same sort of tax-increment financing. Avoiding that route adds to the project’s likely success as the city weighs its virtues against a variety of factors, including the pertinent urban planning documents.

Architect Matthew Hufft appears to be doing the right thing as he and the developer refine their proposal. As a 21st-century architect, Hufft is by no means obligated to replicate the tiled roofs and Spanish flavor of the Plaza buildings of the 1920s. But he is certainly sensitive to the language of materials, ornamentation and context as his firm designs a wholly modern and attractive complex.

What the city could use lots more of is growth that balances history with the needs and expectations of today.

Steve Paul: paul@kcstar.com, @sbpaul

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