Here's how KC's downtown can get even better
The Kansas City Star
EDITOR’S NOTE: This editorial, originally scheduled to be printed in Saturday’s Star, is now scheduled to appear in Sunday’s Star.)
Downtown’s admirable resurgence over the last decade hasn’t won over all the skeptics.
They point out — accurately enough — that the heart of Kansas City still has too many surface parking lots and too few pedestrians. Major office buildings are abandoned or half-full. The streetscape is unimpressive. And a large part of downtown is too often a ghost town at night and on weekends.
Some of these problems also were noted in The Star’s 2002 series titled “Downtown: Mending our Broken Heart.”
Downtown needs to deal with these longstanding woes to become an increasingly attractive place to live, work, shop and play.
There’s no shortage of projects on the wish lists of residents, city officials and business leaders. They include the desire to get “more” of something downtown already has — such as more restaurants, bars, funky shops and food trucks. Plus more families, trees, charter schools and grocery stores.
It will also take one more thing — lots of private and public funds. But even bigger steps forward can be made. Among the priorities:
Construct an arts campus for the University of Missouri-Kansas City near the fabulous Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts. That would enliven the streets with more students and build upon downtown’s cultural strengths.
Through judicious use of taxpayer subsidies, build more condominiums and apartments.
Plenty of space exists to add units in the area, from the southern tip of downtown near 31st Street through the Crossroads Arts District through the central business district to the River Market. It would be doubly great if some of these residential projects replaced often-empty parking lots.
Downtown’s population has soared from 6,300 in 2002 to 19,590 a decade later. But the Downtown Council’s goal is 40,000. That will require adding more young people to use the bars and other entertainment attractions, while also attracting older people and retirees who want to quit taking care of large houses and yards, and who are ready for a more urban experience.
- Boost employment, sometimes with targeted incentives.
Downtown already is set to gain about 1,000 federal employees from the old Bannister Road complex that will be closing, although the move won’t require a new office building. The city also must continue to recruit out-of-area companies looking to locate in downtowns. Using reasonable subsidies should be part of the package.
The new high-speed Google Fiber will help attract companies that tend to employ younger people, exactly the kinds of residents who often want to live in downtown environments. Building employment rolls creates more customers for transit, restaurants and retail shops.
- Construct the two-mile streetcar starter line that voters approved this week so it opens on schedule by mid-2015.
The biggest upside for the project is the ability of fixed rail to spur economic development. Owners of office buildings, shops or living units along the route will invest in new buildings that bring them potential workers, customers or residents.
- Make downtown more bike friendly. The Bike Share KC program was a start, putting almost 100 bikes for rent on the street. Adding bike lanes on streets would encourage ridership while alerting motorists to their presence. And don’t forget more bike racks.
Downtown has come a long way since 2002. But this is no time to relax.
One overarching goal should drive downtown’s boosters to make even more progress: Just think how strongly the heart of Kansas City could be beating in 2022.