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Mending Our Broken Heart: Diversions Needed for Downtown to Thrive (Part 1)

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5 minute read

“Downtown KC: Mending Our Broken Heart,” was a groundbreaking series originally published by The Kansas City Star 20 years ago this month.

It was written by former staffers Jeffrey Spivak, Kevin Collison and Steve Paul, with photographs by Rich Suggs. It was edited by former deputy national editor Keith Chrostowski.

CityScene KC thanks The Kansas City Star and Mike Fannin, its president and editor, for granting permission to republish this report.

While The Star retained the text of “Mending Our Broken Heart,” the original photos and graphics were unavailable. Photos of that missing material from a reprint of the series were used as much as possible.

Saturday night, Labor Day weekend. Downtown Kansas City at 10:30 p.m. The red and white lights of the skyline sparkle above. This is, after all, a big city.

But check out the streets. They’re empty. No pedestrians amble on the sidewalks. Just a few cars park along Main Street and Grand Boulevard. A lone pickup truck turns the wrong way on a one-way street.

The Labor Day holiday is usually an event-filled weekend in the metropolitan area. But downtown, no touring Broadway production is offered, no big-name concert is playing and no music fest takes over the streets. So at the chic Main Street restaurant Zin, dinner passes with a trickle of customers.

“It was a terrible weekend,” owner Alex Pryor laments. “I see it all the time. I’ll look at the streets and expect to see tumbleweeds come by, because there’s nothing going on.”

That’s the reality in downtown Kansas City. Why? Because we missed the wave of entertainment development washing over American downtowns since 1990.

Look at what happened in Kansas City’s peer cities – 16 similar-size inland cities selected for this series from Charlotte to Denver, Milwaukee to Memphis. Fourteen added new sports venues, 10 built or renovated performing arts centers and nine opened new retail malls. All downtown.

Kansas City did none of these.

Reviving a downtown is a puzzle, and while adding residents is one piece, another is giving people more things to do, making the heart of the metropolitan area the heart of entertainment again.

The Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts which opened in 2011 was advocated in the “Downtown KC: Mending Our Broken Heart” series

A performing arts center is on the drawing board here. But that’s not enough, according to downtown’s latest blueprint plan and The Kansas City Star’s interviews with national urban experts and planners. Downtown also needs a bigger Bartle Hall. And a bulked-up Union Station. And a new sports/entertainment arena.

Doing all these could build on downtown’s arts and cultural strengths, and if you add up all the additional people who would potentially come to these new or expanded attractions, that’s 1.4 million more people a year in downtown.

That’s almost double the number of people who attend conventions and cultural attractions in downtown now, providing that many more potential patrons for restaurants, nightclubs and coffee shops.

“The prescription for success is how interesting and lively and desirable you make downtown,” says Michael Beyard of the Urban Land Institute in Washington.

Making that happen wouldn’t be cheap. The combination of big new attractions here, from an arts center to an arena, would cost roughly $700 million – 50 percent more than the community spent in the past decade on expanding Bartle and renovating Union Station and the Liberty Memorial.

Take a look, though, at what such investments meant in some other downtowns during Labor Day weekend:

Indianapolis was busy with a basketball tournament. Minneapolis offered plays at three theaters and the acrobatic spectacle of Cirque du Soleil. Pittsburgh enjoyed the touring musical “Mamma Mia” and a professional football game.

Pittsburgh, in fact, shows how to take advantage of arts and cultural attractions.

There, a zone of massage parlors and peep shows was transformed into a cultural district anchored by four new or refurbished performance halls and a small movie house. The Star visited Pittsburgh, and there martini bars and coffee shops occupy formerly run-down or vacant storefronts, actors live in lofts and people clog the sidewalks day and night.

In Kansas City, urbanites and suburbanites alike are pining for something similar for our downtown. In an opinion poll done for The Star, residents were asked whether downtown should still be the region’s entertainment center, and 92 percent answered “yes.”

Earlier this year, downtown resident Tom Davis helped start a downtown advocacy group called Rev-Up. Yet, when relatives came into town recently, they spent Saturday night on the Country Club Plaza.

“There are some places downtown, but they’re isolated,” Davis says. “You want to be able to walk around. The great thing about a performing arts center, the great thing about an arena, they give you core destinations that downtown needs.

“That’s how it can distinguish itself from the Plaza.”

The Power & Light District, Kansas City Live! has become a downtown center of public celebration since opening in 2007. (Photo courtesy Power & Light District)

Fun and taxes

Denver opened a performing arts center and a baseball stadium downtown. Indianapolis complemented a domed stadium downtown with an arena and a shopping complex. Milwaukee overhauled its performing arts district and now is revamping a shopping center downtown.

In all these cities, downtown’s population and employment enjoyed double-digit growth in the 1990s.

Yet, the truth is, mega-attractions alone are no cure-all for downtowns.

Consider: Oklahoma City, St. Louis and Buffalo all completed at least two major downtown entertainment projects that decade, too. And in all three of these cities, downtown’s population and employment declined.

But residents and jobs are not the sole benchmarks of a successful downtown. Cities still build downtown attractions because, in many cases, the attractions are magnets that can spur even more investment around them, boost a city’s tax base and ultimately add to the community’s quality of life. Here’s how:

First, if such facilities are placed near other centers of activity, they inject new life into a downtown and make it more fun for people choosing to live there.

Elizabeth Strom of Rutgers University studied new performing arts centers across the country and found “more restaurants and other businesses investing in the immediate area surrounding the new centers.” Similarly, restaurants and bars sprouted up near new, well-planned arenas in Minneapolis and Columbus.

Second, downtown is usually a city’s largest tax producer, and that’s true for Kansas City, too. So if more people spend money downtown, that increases the city’s tax base, which provides more money for the government to, say, pave roads in the Northland.

“If we’re going to have the revenue base so the city can provide services for all neighborhoods, we have to build an increasingly viable greater downtown,” says Mayor Kay Barnes.

Finally, downtown attractions offer advantages that just can’t be measured. They make downtown feel more like a big city. They bolster the quality of life that corporations and talented workers consider when choosing a new community. And they could keep local residents from looking for fun elsewhere.

Maureen Ruf of Lee’s Summit majored in music in college and enjoys seeing big-name singers and Broadway-type plays. But she ends up going to Minneapolis or Chicago to catch such shows.

“If downtown had more than a couple of good shows every year, if it had more things and was a more exciting place to go, I’d go,” Ruf says. “I wish we had that.”

The blueprint

What should Kansas City do, then?

Initially, says David Feehan of the International Downtown Association, downtowns should “figure out who they are, what makes them special and build a strategy around that.”

In Kansas City, that has been done in the business community’s downtown blueprint, called the Sasaki plan. In terms of facilities, it calls for building on downtown’s strengths and clustering destinations.

The plan is notable for what it does not endorse, suggesting some of what has been done in other downtowns should not be emulated here.

That includes a baseball stadium, because the Truman Sports Complex is still serviceable; a huge retail complex, because we already have Crown Center; and an aquarium, because we don’t have a niche to distinguish our aquarium from others.

But the Sasaki plan does mention what is worthwhile for downtown Kansas City, and The Star’s own analysis of alternatives concurs with this list:

–The performing arts center, because it expands downtown’s cultural strengths. Also, a philanthropic family is putting up one-third of its cost.

–Another Bartle Hall expansion, because it brings people downtown looking to spend money.

–And a new multipurpose arena, because Kansas City has the second-oldest arena among its peer cities, and a replacement belongs downtown, to draw people there.

Each of these projects is in some stage of planning, and they have the potential to fit together and enhance one another.

“No single project is ever sufficient, but rather it is a long-term combination of interrelated investments planned over time,” says Kent Robertson, a Minnesota professor who is a leading national analyst on downtown redevelopment.

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