Carl Schramm: KC is America's 'least dynamic town'
The Kansas City Star
When Carl Schramm left his post as chief executive of the Kauffman Foundation late last year, he said he planned to become a “working scholar.” One of his pieces showed up recently at the site of the George W. Bush Institute, entitled “The Town-Gown Connection.”
He begins by asking “What makes cities grow?” but then moves on to how to measure that growth. Jobs, he says. And what’s the key element in fostering more jobs? A university that helps expand the city’s entrepreneurial culture.
Along the way, he talks about what NOT to do, such as give undue weight to experts from outside. “Sometimes this expert advice proves ruinous,” he observes. “Kansas City provides an example.”
This leads into a riff on the folly of the Power & Light District, which after eight years only produces a fraction of the revenue needed to service the accompanying debt. The hope was that such a development would give “some needed vibrancy to America’s least dynamic town…” as Schramm put it.
I tried to reach Schramm, but had no luck. What he means is that Kansas City “won’t grow and it won’t shrink.” Without getting too literal-minded about this, he’s right, in my opinion. The local economy is pretty stable. It’s not imploding like Detroit. It’s not growing like Denver.
Schramm: “History tells us that the essence of growth in any place is the exertions of people who already live there. Any city’s history of economic success is a story of its resident entrepreneurs (even if they were born someplace else) who decided to take the risk of starting a business.”
Schramm’s emphasis on the role of universities in metro growth isn’t unqualified. Some towns like Baltimore have important universities, yet still stagnate. MIT, by contrast, has helped generate “so many companies that together they have revenues exceeding those of some entire nations,” Schramm writes.
But to return to Schramm’s opening question, How does a city grow?
To me, a good university presence is only part of the picture. I touched on this in a piece I wrote several years ago on the death of the urbanist Jane Jacobs, who understood better than most what makes cities tick. Here’s an excerpt from that column:
“Jacobs’ main point was that economic growth happened not in small towns but in cities, where enterprises could draw on vast networks for raw materials and talent. Cities spur innovation, which springs from the unplanned combination of existing ideas.
“And how does growth occur? It occurs when people add new work to existing work. … The 3M Co. began by selling abrasive sand to the makers of metal castings. That led to sandpaper, which led to experimentation with adhesives, which led to new lines of adhesive tapes and many other products.
“For Jacobs, diversity in the urban fabric was critical. What she had in mind was real diversity - not the sterile, mandated kind we obsess about today, but the kind that occurs spontaneously when old buildings co-exist with new buildings.
“That kind of cross-pollination encourages variety of rents and variety of uses - which draws a variety of occupants. New ideas, she added, require the inexpensive rents that come with older buildings.
“In Kansas City, we see this process under way in the Crossroads area between Union Station and the freeway loop. There you encounter an improbable mix of uses and people no planner could conceive - restaurants, law firms, advertising agencies, body shops, magazine offices, yoga studios, art studios, art galleries, machine shops, optical supply houses, warehouses, lofts, security-alarm companies, dealers in cut flowers. …
“In a passage that seems especially apt to Kansas City, given its fixation on parks - no matter how large or how empty - she wrote: ‘It is curious how frequently the immediate neighborhoods surrounding big-city university campuses, City Beautiful civic centers, large hospital grounds, and even large parks, are extraordinarily blight-prone, and how frequently, even when they are not smitten by physical decay, they are apt to be stagnant - a condition that precedes decay.’”
(OK, end of excerpt.)
Jacobs made an important distinction that applies to Kansas City — the difference between “cataclysmic” money (the Power & Light District) and “gradual” money, “the kind that allows cities to constantly regenerate and avoid decline in the first place.”
Which brings us to the city’s latest initiative, Launch KC. It gets a cheer from this corner because it seems aimed at “gradual money” — small IT firms that can occupy space in the Crossroads, West Bottoms and downtown.
But at the same time, I worry. This is a city that is always chasing the latest trend. After World War II, it was manufacturing. Then the economy made the shift to services and KC found itself over-invested in smokestack industries. Now the latest bright shiny object is IT. This looks like “pixel chasing” rather than “smokestack chasing.”
This is also a city that utterly mutilated its central business district — girdled it with a freeway moat and used the tools of “urban renewal” to scrape away the old buildings that foster urban regeneration (a warehouse can become a loft can become an artist’s studio can become an office …) in favor of faceless slabs and sterilized districts. The government district dies at 5 p.m. The convention district is a zone of tombs.
The city had billiions of dollars at its disposal and this is what they did with it.
Now that City Hall has decided to turn its eager attention to the Crossroads, I think it’s best that those who want to “help” are closely watched.