December 14, 2012

A decade later, downtown has stronger heartbeat

Downtown’s comeback from being way down on its luck just a decade ago has been close to a miracle.


Yes, it has been a very expensive near-miracle. It has sometimes been an acrimonious one, as civic and elected officials touted clashing visions.


And the transformation is far from complete, which will be a topic discussed today at the Downtown Council’s 2013 annual lunch at Bartle Hall.


In late 2002 The Star published a series of articles titled “Downtown: Mending our Broken Heart” about the problems and possible fixes to Kansas City’s core.


This was downtown’s dreary state: It had no $250 million Sprint Center, no yellow-coated ambassadors patrolling the streets, no $400 million Kauffman center for the Performing Arts, no bus rapid transit line, no $850 million Power & Light District, no sprawling Internal Revenue Services operation near Union Station, no Legoland Discovery Center or Sea Life Aquarium at Crown Center, no renovated Central Public Library, no H&R Block work headquarters, no $200 million Star printing press building and no expanded Bartle Hall ballroom.


Only 6,300 people lived between the River Market and 31st Street.


Here, however, is what downtown did have a decade ago that made it possible for all the improvements named above to take place.


-Led by the Civic Council of Greater Kansas City, the business community had a solid plan for the physical revival of downtown, put together by a nationally recognized consultant, Sasaki Associates.


-Business executives once known for whining about how City Hall didn’t provide enough services downtown approved a community improvement district that now pays for the ambassadors to clean up the area and make it safer.


-At City Hall, Kay Barnes, a passionate pro-downtown mayor, was getting ready for her second term. She deserves plenty of credit for focusing the downtown community on three concrete ways to bolster the area’s fortunes.


She pushed for a new arena, facing down “naysayers” who wanted to merely keep Kemper Arena open in the West Bottoms. Voters embraced that approach, creating a successful facility that has been a huge attraction.


Barnes brushes aside concerns about bringing outside developers to Kansas City.  She worked with the Cordish Co. from Baltimore to invest in and finally build a long-delayed entertainment district.  While struggling financially today, the project cleared blight and comes alive during weekends and sporting events.


Barnes also promoted tax breaks and other funding for residential units in new and rehabilitated buildings downtown.  Remember that puny 6,300 population figure of 2002? It’s jumped to a more impressive 19,590 today.


Along the way, some excessive public support was given away from city officials.  The biggest misfire was on the Power & Light District, where bonds used to build it have cost taxpayers up to an extra $12 million a year.


Hundreds of neighborhood leaders, civic activists and others also pushed for park upgrades, the just-approved streetcar line, a skywalk connecting Union Station to the Crossroads Arts District and dozens of other projects.


With successes came failures, such as the inability to renovate the Power & Light building and other abandoned or under-used structures.  Convention traffic hasn’t soared as predicted.


Many big challenges remain.  But downtown today is a livelier place, populated by more optimistic residents and civic leaders who are working for an even brighter future.

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