Posted on Sat, Feb. 19, 2011 10:15 PM
‘Big solutions’ hamper KC's downtown appealAfter Tuesday’s primary, the race for Kansas City mayor will intensify and the issues will become more clear-cut. Here’s hoping the sad state of our downtown somehow worms its way into the debate.
Many Kansas Citians may have concluded that with the opening of the Sprint Center arena and the Power & Light District, downtown is on the way back. Problem solved, right? Not exactly.
The Sprint Center has been an unqualified success, but the P&L’s public-private financing mechanism turned out to include a feeding tube from the city treasury.
What concerns me here is not the Power & Light District’s finances but the continued emptiness of so many downtown streets. The root problem is too little diversity of use — the x-factor that makes for lively spaces. For all the vacuous pieties spouted over “diversity” these days, the city has made little provision for the small shops, restaurants, bars, clubs and the like that foster urban vitality.
On the east side of downtown, you have a government sector dominated by nine-to-five uses that go dead after working hours. It’s almost as if City Hall had imposed suburban-style single-use zoning on the whole area. Small-scale enterprises are scarce and the streets are chronically lifeless.
To the west, you have the convention district, dominated by gargantuan, faceless boxes with all the charm of gigantic tombs.
Even the Power & Light District is a world unto itself. The designers may have gotten the proportions right — the district is enjoyable to walk — but the overall product (that would be the right word) has a glitzy sterility that leaves it disconnected from the city it inhabits.
“Kansas City’s biggest problem is it tries for big solutions,” said former Milwaukee mayor John Norquist, now president of the Congress for the New Urbanism. “It really needs to focus on the finer-grain detail, and less on giant roads and giant convention centers.”
As early as the 1940s, many city leaders worried that downtown was in danger of being “engulfed” by blight, as one researcher put it. That, combined with the need to deal with severe congestion on the highways that criss-crossed downtown before interstates, led to the first grand “solution”: a freeway loop, partly submerged in a trench.
The loop turned out to be one of the tightest in the nation, with insufficient space for the merging and weaving movements drivers perform when shifting from one road to another. Worse, the roads hacked up the downtown area, isolating the central business district and the River Market.
Consider what was scraped out of the Truman Road corridor to make way for the loop’s southern leg. A 1955 crisscross directory listed small hotels, restaurants, dry cleaners, furniture and antique stores, jewelry stores, small offices, used car lots, a pawn shop and a sporting goods store.
An architectural jumble perhaps, but this was the same kind of structural endowment that just to the south, in the Crossroads arts district, has given birth to a genuine arts scene — not the “cultivated” sort of institutional thing associated with symphonies and museums but a bottom-up, spontaneous, smart-alecky, whimsical kind of environment — a real place in the city.
This happened in the Crossroads not only because the area was largely ignored by the ham-handed “planners” in City Hall, but because those old light-industrial buildings are almost infinitely adaptable. A body shop can become a restaurant, a bank outlet, an office, an artist’s studio, a loft or an art gallery.
In the 1950s and ‘60s — the era of urban renewal and freeway-building — Kansas City threw much of this away.
Our city needs to shift from giganticism toward charm and intimacy. As Norquist noted, “The smaller scale — the warehouse where a farmers’ market is — that kind of thing has grown more successful over time; something where there’s a lighter touch.”
People talk frequently about our crying need for “green space” in the city. Well, yes. But we don’t need the empty lawn-swaths that characterize so many of our parks. Too often, these parks don’t really mesh with their surroundings. What’s are techniques more formal and compact.
As the urbanist James Howard Kunstler has written, what would enliven many cities are small-scale green spaces and other amenities, woven right into the city’s fabric: flower beds, small fountains, statuary, plazas, landscaped courtyards, mini-parks. A point in favor of the Power & Light District is that it does make use of these techniques.
If we’re going to subsidize development, we should dial back incentives for sterile slabs with street-level blank walls, or perhaps confront these with outright penalties. We should boost incentives for developers who offer amenities like mini-parks or office buildings that provide space for non-office uses like restaurants and shops.
Let’s hope that in the campaign to come, the candidates for mayor or council offer and debate policies that can breathe more life into our city’s heart.
To reach E. Thomas McClanahan, call 816-234-4480 or send e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.