Published August 2nd, 2023 at 11:30 AM6 minute read
By Kevin Collison
When it comes to ‘Lighting’ up downtown, Cordish and the city are far from over partnering on residential towers with four additional high-rise projects potentially in the works, according to City Manager Brian Platt.
In a continuation of his recent interview with CityScene, Platt also said he’s pushing for a rail transit between downtown and Kansas City International Airport, wants to streamline economic development policy and is optimistic about working with the new City Council.
Here’s his responses to questions about downtown development, transit and other topics edited for brevity and clarity:
The city is negotiating with Cordish to take over development rights to the Strata site (Block 124), a speculative office tower proposal approved by the Council in 2019 for 13th and Main. Bring us up to speed?
The premise here is the previously approved deal was likely not going to move forward for various reasons. We’re trying to unwind from that and assign the development rights to another entity (Cordish) and then maybe get more out of this deal.
We’re taking the previously approved rights and incentives, and moving it from one site to three sites. Cordish would be the development entity that would handle all of those sites with no new incentives from the city…just spreading them out and accelerating the time frame to move things forward.
Are the other two sites on Main between Truman Road and 16th Street south of the Loop?
Yes, Main just south of Truman, two sites. We don’t have the deal terms finalized. We want to make sure Council is OK with it before we finish all that. We won’t be able to show pretty pictures or numbers yet.
Also the Block 124 site which would likely be one tower and than two sites south of Truman on Main, likely two towers depending on how the numbers work out. There would be hundreds of new apartments, potentially office space, ground floor retail, parking, all of it.
Is Four Light part of this proposal?
Four Light is approved and ready to go on the parking lot next to (Mainstreet) movie theater. That is going forward no matter what.
Why does the city continue working with Cordish?
Cordish has the land and they’re trying to build stuff. They acquired the land (on other side of Loop.) This was their idea that maybe you could just take the incentive from that one site and spread it to the other two.
(Subsidized) parking is part of it, whatever was approved before is there. We would push to cap the parking ratio and if we’re getting three buildings instead of one of two, either way it’s a better deal than it was before.
What’s great about Cordish is they’re building and it’s successful, all their apartments are full. Also, they very much want to diversify their portfolio and build different types of things. The Midland Lofts are really interesting in that its historic preservation.
Strata was intended to help downtown attract more private employers, why aren’t companies embracing downtown?
Probably a lot of factors there, the pandemic was one that pushed people to not go into office every day. Everybody paused their search for new office space at the larger scale because people are scaling back on their office space.
Also, the specualtion about a new Royals stadium has absolutely caused negative effects on development downtown. Several developers have told us we’re waiting to see what happens and this 10 years of waiting has meant we’ve not had a lot of activity on those nearby parcels.
Southern Johnson County appears to be doing a better job with business attraction and office development, why?
Incentives and cost of building and location, a lot of variables there. We have to, on the city side, focus on what our strategy and vision is.
This new Council will be immensely important to making sure we’ve got clear expectations and priorities, and we’re doing what we can to attract these new businesses. They’re not going to fall into our laps.
Has the perception of crime hurt downtown’s reputation with businesses?
Potentially, it doesn’t come up in conversations I have, but yes, for sure, it’s probably one of the metrics they’re evaluating.
What’s City Hall doing to be more business friendly, both to developers and small businesses?
We’ve made some big improvements over the last few years to how we manage permits, inspections and applications on the planning and development side. On the permits and inspection side, our average approval time is two or three days. we have data to show this.
We get about 1,500 or so applications coming through every month and about 95 percent get through on time and without issue. We’re doing a lot better. We’ve added staff, reallocated more resources, using technology in better ways.
We’ve also changed some rules and possibilities to allow more flexibilty for certain things. for example, certain types of inspections we allow for third party reviewers for sort of self approval of certain things that maybe aren’t the highest urgency of safety.
Moving forward, we’re working to leverage different technology to improve the process. for example, one challenge we’re hearing about now is communciation and knowing the process.
A lot of time applicants make it part of the way through the process and didn’t know they had to have another inspection or permit because why would you if you’ve never done it before. We have to make sure the minute you start you know everything.
We’re working with some consulting companies and doing an audit of the process to try to understand what these processes are. Also, we’re likely going to go through code and think about what rules and regulations we made not want or need anymore.
The city has issued a request for proposals to provide transit between the airport and downtown for the 2026 World Cup Games. Would you like to see a fixed-rail option?
Ideally, we’d like to move in that direction, but we’ll see what the numbers say and how quickly we can build it and how good of service it is. The interesting thing about rail is it would allow us to not stop at the airport.
We would be thinking more about continuing on to St. Joe and then Omaha and then connecting other cities. We would not operate it, but as long as we have the service, it changes people’s interaction with the region.
What about the World Cup, it’s only a couple years away?
We will likely have to spool up ATA bus service. Probably some amount of busing and using transit options we have now. Industry experts tell me we could probably build the rail lines, it’s the cars themselves that are on back order and delayed.
Would the KC Area Transportation Authority be the likely operator?
It could be separate. We’re not wed to any single operator. Competition is important for this sort of thing to make sure we get best service at lowest cost to taxpayers. Like streetcar, it’s a different type of service.
What about the streetcar, what does the future hold for expansion beyond the current Main Street plan from the river to UMKC?
We’re looking at east-west and also north to the airport and thinking about alternative funding sources. Federal funding opportunities have come up recently that might make these things make more financial sense.
When you think about an airport connection, there’s going to be a rider cost, but a minimal cost, $5- $10 to go from airport to downtown. Once you start charging for it and layering in federal grants and funding opportunties it becomes a different game and vision for it.
It also unlocks development in different neighborhoods too. And that’s interesting for us, if we get that return from investment because a neighborhood will grow around some of those stops, that changes things.
We have to make sure it’s between places lots of people want to go. Airport to downtown is a no brainer. We can generate revenue, it will unlock development north, it will connect new neighborhoods.
East-west is interesting, but where is it going to go? There is not enough density yet in some of those areas. You have to have density and some foundation of activity before it makes sense. Putting it down Linwood is a great idea, but we’ve got to also have development strategy there first.
What are your ideas for reforming city economic development policy?
We need more transparency and certainty with the incentive process. That probably means some level of consolidation with all the agencies out there.
Developers shouldn’t need to go to multiple boards and get multiple layers of approvals to get their incentives. It should be one stop and you should know clearly here’s what you’ll get based on what you want to build…it shouldn’t be based on the whim of an appointed agency that maybe doesn’t have consistency in approvals.
We’ve been talking inside City Hall about a standard incentive list where the Council could authorize staff on the administrative side to grant approvals up to a certain amount granted that those applications meet certain criteria–affordable housing, maximum parking–that would allow process to be much faster.
That way, you’re not waiting months and its transparent, everyong knows that this is all you can get and makes process smoother. If you want a deviation because project is unique, you can certainly go to a board.
This sounds a lot like the proposal made by Mayor Lucas last year that the City Council has declined to consider so far.
I don’t think those conversations are done. This new council is going to be receptive to any or all ideas. On the staff side, we weren’t saying what those levels should be for incentives, that’s a policy decision the Council needs to make.
They would then say these are things we want to see and this is what you get if you provide those things. We just provide for accuracy and compliance.
Do you believe you’ll have the support of the newly-elected Council moving forward?
I hope so, we’ve built some great momentum. We haven’t obviously solved every problem but we’ve made great progress in changing the way the city operates. We hear a lot about how the city has never operated better.
We still have a lot to do, crime and development are two big ones, affordable housing and homelessness are two things we’ve made some progress on but not nearly enough.
We’re all commited to solving problems and improving quality of life for the city and moving it in a great direction and helping it grow and thrive.