Kansas City’s Downtown Council has released a detailed, ambitious report outlining a decade-long agenda for the city’s core.
It’s called Imagine Downtown KC: 2030 Strategic Plan. It tackles housing, transportation, office space — and a Maserati (er, downtown baseball stadium). It offers a vision for downtown that is inclusive and relevant, providing a new blueprint for what’s possible in Kansas City.
But let’s be clear: Downtown has claimed significant public resources for decades. That means major financial commitments for significant downtown projects must come from the private sector, not the long-neglected neighborhood residents who don’t happen to live downtown.
In this century alone, Kansas Citians have subsidized a downtown arena, the Power & Light District, luxury high-rise apartments, the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts, The Kansas City Star’s former printing facility, several large office buildings and a convention hotel.
A new Buck O’Neil Bridge is on its way. The streetcar system stretches through downtown. Some old downtown buildings have been torn down, in part to provide new parkland. Other structures have been rescued and restored.
A district once known for emptiness and danger now welcomes residents and visitors, a sea change from the 1980s and 1990s.
Sadly, however, many Kansas City neighborhoods on the east and south sides can’t make the same claim. That’s why major public infrastructure support must be directed to those areas first, and not downtown.
The 2030 downtown plan recognizes some of this. The blueprint calls for safer, more walkable (and bikeable) streets. Downtown neighborhoods must be connected, the plan says. Job creation and wealth inclusiveness are key goals.
Building better east-west connections through mass transit and streetscape improvements is also a good idea, and relatively inexpensive.
Downtown needs more shade trees, the study says. Anyone who has walked downtown streets in August can agree with that recommendation. Affordable housing, sustainable development and helping restore restaurants and entertainment venues are on the to-do list.
So far, so good. But a section called “Catalytic Projects” should worry everyone who reads it, because the costs escalate, and quickly.
“Downtown lacks a large open programmable space for festivals and community gatherings,” the study says. “If revitalized in the right way, Barney Allis Plaza could play this role.”
Well, yes. But the estimated cost for rebuilding the plaza now exceeds $110 million. That’s an extraordinary amount of money for a parking garage and a park.
Other ideas? Cover the South Loop with a deck. Rebuild the North Loop. Those projects would cost hundreds of millions of dollars more. Refurbishing Washington Square Park, as the plan envisions, would also cost money.
Then there’s the biggest expense of all, downtown baseball. “Kansas City has an opportunity to build a state-of-the-art urban ballpark in downtown with new and enthusiastic owners who value the urban experience,” the study says.
The blueprint provides no estimate of cost, or a site, or a financing model for a new stadium. Make no mistake, however: The price for a new ballpark (and a football stadium) would be enormous.
We’re not opposed to downtown baseball. We’re not opposed to a deck over the highway, or better parks, or office buildings. We are opposed to massive public subsidies for these projects and others, when some Kansas Citians struggle to pay their heating bills, or their property taxes.
Downtown has seen important improvements for a generation, at great and ongoing public expense. We must turn our attention to the areas that still need help to build a vibrant Kansas City for everyone.