Published August 30th, 2023 at 11:30 AM3 minute read
By Kevin Collison
A new group with the mayor’s ear is pushing to convert some Country Club Plaza streets to pedestrian use, the latest expression of public concern over the direction of the venerable civic landmark.
The loose-knit group of civic-minded, mostly younger adults call themselves Urban Lab KC. A conceptual rendering it posted on social media earlier this month showing pedestrians replacing cars on Plaza streets caught the attention of Mayor Quinton Lucas.
This week, the mayor joined several Urban Lab members at a meeting at the Kansas City Library Plaza branch to discuss their idea. The hour-long session attracted more than 100 people.
“We (Urban Lab) don’t have any capacity to advance the project forward by any means, but all of us involved in the team are incredibly passionate about Kansas City and are incredibly passionate about this idea,” said Anthony Hugo.
With the Plaza celebrating its 100th anniversary this year, Urban Lab KC joins the newly founded Plaza District Council in addressing what many observers believe has been a decline at the Kansas City civic centerpiece in recent years.
That topic was on the minds of many in the audience at the Urban Lab briefing, where questions about the lackluster retail lineup and public safety joined the discussion over converting streets to pedestrian use.
“This is obviously not a silver bullet solution,” said Matthew Hasek of Urban KC. “This is one component that we believe could lift the Plaza up.
“This isn’t going to solve every problem the Plaza has, but something that we think can help revitalize it in a way.”
Urban KC members said examples of converting streets to pedestrian walkways in the Union Square area of New York City and Church Street in Burlington, Vermont, led to increased retail sales and lower vacancies.
They also cited statistics indicating the number of burglaries, vandalism and drug-related crimes had been reduced 20- to 30 percent. Finally, they said closing streets for pedestrians increased social interaction and civic pride.
“When you look at places that are successful, they have connections to universities, they have dense walkable development around that pedestrianized areas and they’re also tourist attractions in of themselves,” Hasek said.
“The Plaza is a tourism attraction right now. Because it meets most of the criteria that makes pedestrian spaces successful, we’re pretty confident this could be successful.”
While the rendering presented by Urban KC showed all of Nichols Road and Broadway within the Plaza being converted to pedestrian walkways, members acknowledge their vision wouldn’t be implemented quickly.
“I’d like to remind everyone here, we’re showing frame visions of what this could be in the future, maybe a 20- or 30-year view of what the Plaza could be,” Chad Grittman said.
Lucas supported a more gradual approach that could start with having some Plaza streets closed to traffic on a temporary basis, perhaps a weekend.
“Our only goal in testing this is attracting more people, thus more customers, more people looking for that (walkable) experience,” he said.
“How do you just make it more accessible, more available to the pedestrian experience to make it work interactively with vehicles as well?…For us, the question is how can we enhance the people experience?”
Notably absent from the pedestrian discussion was a representative of the Country Club Plaza ownership. It was purchased in 2016 by a consortium comprised of Simon Property Group of Indianapolis, Macerich of Santa Monica and Taubman Centers of suburban Detroit.
A spokesperson for the Plaza declined to comment about the Urban Lab KC event.
While the Plaza streets are publicly owned and controlled, Lucas said it was very doubtful the city would alter them without support from the Plaza’s private ownership.
“I believe the best way to do these things is through some level of cooperation,” he said. “I don’t think the city has any interest in forcing this solution onto the Plaza.”
The mayor said the next step in exploring the idea of converting Plaza streets to pedestrian walkways or making them more pedestrian friendly would be to solicit public opinion over the next six months.
“What are people concerned with? What are priorities?” he asked “Some may think it’s the worst idea, some may think it’s vastly overdue.”
The City Council also would have to determine if the idea was worthwhile enough to assign city staff to research.
If the concept has enough support, formal traffic and economic impact studies would have to be conducted. The city also would have to work closely with the Plaza ownership, Lucas noted.
“I don’t see something happening in a period faster than nine months unless you’re doing a (temporary closure),” he said.
As for Urban KC Lab, Grittman said his group was pleased its online posting of renderings of a pedestrianized Plaza had garnered enough attention to attract a sizable group to the Plaza library.
“We’re all community members, none of us are paid, everyone has zero dollars, we pay out of our own pockets for the website…we wanted to be committee members, not representing a larger entity,” he said.