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Mending Our Broken Heart: Parking, Transit Woes Drive Folks From a Barren Loop (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.

Downtown housing may be hip. A performing arts center and an arena may be glitzy. But downtown revival hinges on the city finally coming to grips with storing cars and moving people.

Indeed, downtown often loses businesses and drives away visitors because of a long history of neglecting parking and transit issues.

“Why are our downtown buildings empty?” asks Andi Udris, chief executive of the Economic Development Corp. of Kansas City. “One of the biggest reasons right off the bat is they have no parking.”

That’s certainly true for many buildings. But the solution isn’t as simple as just adding parking spaces.

Consider this: Barren streets, bland parking lots and garages with all the street appeal of the Berlin Wall take up more than half of the land inside the downtown freeway loop. Block after block that once bustled with street life and commerce are almost entirely devoted to parked cars.

Kansas City’s downtown loop already has more parking spots per worker than all but three of 16 peer downtowns analyzed for this series.

But they’re not in the right places, parking experts say. And many of those spots are in vast surface lots that often add to the blight of surrounding properties.

In short, Kansas City has not used parking to help make downtown a more inviting place to live, work and play.

A weak transit system that carries a smaller share of commuters than 14 of 16 peer cities compounds the problem.

Graphic from “Downtown KC Mending Our Broken Heart” series courtesy The Kansas City Star

Just 8 percent of Kansas City’s downtown commuters ride the bus. In Minneapolis, a peer city visited by The Kansas City Star, 45 percent take the bus to work.

That means downtown Minneapolis needs less land for cars and has more room for offices, housing, shops and entertainment. Put simply, Minneapolis has more life.

“For downtown and any urban center, the biggest nemesis is parking, because it just sucks up the space,” says Kite Singleton, an architect and former chairman of the City Plan Commission. “It destroys the ambiance.”

Price of neglect

Kansas City’s downtown parking story has been defined by decades of denial, neglect and – at its most extreme – bloodshed.

In the 1960s, we decided to put our football and baseball stadiums in an outlying location. A big reason? The cost of parking. The Truman Sports Complex now has 19,200 surface parking spaces.

In the 1970s, the River Quay – a funky entertainment district centered on the City Market – blew up in a spasm of mob violence and murder. The underlying issue? Control of parking.

In the 1980s, Kansas City approved plans for new downtown skyscrapers that didn’t include enough parking to serve the workers who filled them. The result? Several big buildings still struggle to attract tenants because they don’t include enough parking.

Even today, our poor downtown parking system is a deal breaker for businesses. And the mere mention of parking inspires bitter comments from employees who have to park in dingy lots that are blocks from their workplace.

Graphic from “Downtown KC: Mending Our Broken Heart” series courtesy The Kansas City Star

“I think it’s atrocious,” grouses Carol Bliss, a government worker who parks four blocks from the Bolling Federal Building.

The window of Bliss’ 1999 Honda Accord was smashed a year ago when someone tried to steal its radio.

“We tried for years to get them to build a garage. There just isn’t enough parking,” she says.

It all adds up to lost opportunities for attracting workers, residents and entertainment seekers.

“Parking, quite frankly, is the biggest difference between downtown and the suburbs,” says Thomas McDonnell, president of DST Systems Inc. and co-chairman of the Greater Downtown Development Authority.

Graphic courtesy The Kansas City Star

In the suburbs, it costs about $2,000 per car to create surface parking. A parking garage downtown can cost $10,000 to $11,000 or more per space.

As a result, redevelopment deals routinely tumble into that financial crevasse, never to be seen again.

Some city officials estimate that downtown needs at least 10,000 more spaces spread among as many as 16 locations to assist redevelopment. At an average cost of $11,000 per space, those garages would cost upward of $110 million.

On a separate track, transit officials – responding to four voter rejections of light-rail proposals – are focusing attention on a less expensive alternative known as “bus rapid transit” to offer an alternative to the automobile. Estimated cost: about $60 million.

That may seem a steep price – about $170 million for downtown parking and transit. But that’s less than what’s being spent to revamp the Grandview Triangle, and about the same being proposed for a new intersection at Interstate 435 and Antioch Road in Johnson County.

Graphic courtesy The Kansas City Star

For a measure of how big an issue parking is for downtown, simply ask area residents. A poll conducted by The Kansas City Star for this series found that an overwhelming 90 percent of respondents think downtown needs free parking.

John Kepes of Kansas City echoes many residents on downtown parking: “It’s infuriating that one should have to pay for it.”

Since streetcar days

Downtown was originally developed when many workers and visitors rode on one of the nation’s biggest streetcar systems. Not much space was devoted to parking cars.

Today that’s a big problem. The city constantly struggles to balance regulations requiring adequate parking with financial assistance to help developers and employers bridge the financial gap versus the suburbs.

Businesses complain that the city doesn’t provide enough help, or is just plain unfriendly, when they try to meet the demands of the modern marketplace.

Look at the failed effort by Midland Loan Services to move into the old Stuart Hall building.

When the fast-growing downtown financial company needed a new headquarters, it liked the historic Freight House District and quickly focused on Stuart Hall. But providing parking for 450 employees got in the way.

Graphic courtesy The Kansas City Star

City officials tried to arrange subsidies needed to build a garage, but failed. Frustrated, Midland moved to Corporate Woods in Overland Park, where parking was plentiful.

“Clearly, the lack of a parking solution was the major negative,” says Douglas Danforth Jr., Midland’s chief executive.

Without more parking, the Freight House District, with 1.5 million square feet of buildings available, is woefully unprepared for a wave of new office workers and residents.
Small businesses also struggle with parking.

Ron Megee wanted to move his Late Night Theater from the River Market area to a building at 1531 Grand Blvd. Then city officials told him that zoning requirements mandated that he provide 20 additional off-street parking spaces, even though curbside parking was almost empty at night.

Megee was further stymied when he learned that a strip club already had dibs on nearby off-street parking. Eventually the city gave Megee a variance, but he lost three months of business.

Graphic courtesy The Kansas City Star

“You can tell they want people to make it in downtown,” Megee says of city officials. But “there’s a lot of red tape for people to jump through.”

Parking economics also are tough on housing projects because the rents aren’t high enough to cover the cost of building garages.

“Every project we do requires a reasonable level of parking,” said Matt Meier of the Alexander Co. of Madison, Wis. “It’s a challenge to get through that hurdle.”

Meier’s company is redeveloping the long-vacant Professional Building at 11th Street and Grand Boulevard into lofts. But it took an extraordinary $2.5 million federal grant obtained by Sen. Kit Bond and other incentives to help keep the deal alive.

The Land Clearance for Redevelopment Authority, a quasi-public agency, used the federal money to buy the decrepit Shoppers Parkade garage across the street. The agency is keeping ownership and leasing the 650-space garage to Alexander Co.

It will clean up the garage and use up to 175 spaces for the residents at the Professional Building. The remaining stalls will be rented to nearby office users, and that money also will help subsidize the loft project.

While such ad hoc solutions are certainly creative, downtown advocates say the city needs a more comprehensive strategy.

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