The downtown disappearing act

Faced with the Kansas-Missouri state line, massive suburbs, three interstates, a river and a spread out downtown, city planners in Kansas City have a complicated job.

“We are a bi-state community. That has a lot of implications especially about race and wealth in Kansas City. And we are sprawled all over the place,” Vicki Noteis, a Kansas City architect and city planner said. “It affects your neighborhoods.”

For half a century, downtown Kansas City resembled a ghost town. But a handful of women involved in planning, economic development and politics decided it was time to take back their city.

This is their story.

Downtown Kansas City, Missouri

A CITY DISAPPEARS

During the Second World War and the decades that followed, the American economy found itself out of the depression and in a massive boom. The previously city-dominated mentality of America changed forever.

“After WWII, four things happened to cities,” said Vicki Noteis, a Kansas City architect and city planner. “Eisenhower built the interstate highway system for military reasons; the Supreme Court lifted or said you can’t discriminate in housing anymore; the people trying to help returning veterans from the war passed the GI bill which included…a GI housing part that gave you a subsidized, reduced mortgage rate if you had served in war, but it only applied to returning white veterans…and then the baby boom and then Brown vs. Board of Education, all those things hit at the same time.”

And those things, from the highways that allowed movement out of the city to the money that gave the working class social mobility, led to a mass migration to the suburbs.

Once the site of the Colonial Theater, a local bakery, and other shops, the block of Woodland Avenue between 39th and 38th street stands empty with small details hinting at the past.

“They didn’t want to live above the store anymore and women didn’t have to live at home if they were single anymore,” Vicki said.

In fact, by 1950 more Americans lived in the suburbs than anywhere else. This contrasts starkly with the strong rural/urban divide that characterized the American population just two decades prior.

A growing suburbia was amplified in Kansas City where, like many cities in the west, land was plentiful.

“Land is cheap, so if you don’t like what’s happening in your neighborhood, you just go find something else,” Vicki said. “You can live in a big house and have a great yard, and it’s a quarter of what you would spend in California.”

Of course, as the city emptied from the inside, many of Kansas City’s problems, particularly with regard to segregation, perpetuated in the suburbs.

The City Hall of Leawood, Kansas, one of Kansas City’s wealthiest suburbs. Leawood was founded in 1948, when residents left the central city for the suburbs after the end of WWII.

“The White, wealthier population moved to the southwest right over the state line [into Kansas],” Vicki said. “And the Black middle class that was moving out for the very same reasons.”

While the White middle class moved to the southwestern suburbs, the Black middle class moved to the southeastern suburbs. This migration to the suburbs happened years before the Fair Housing Act, which made discrimination in housing illegal. So a major contributor to the segregation of the suburbs were banks and insurance agencies that denied loans to minority populations.

And not only were the suburbs racially segregated, but they were also segregated by income bracket. In the city, neighborhoods consisted of housing in a variety of price ranges. In a subdivision, everyone was the same.

The move of the Black and White middle classes to the suburbs drained the population of the city’s central core. The only people left in urban areas were those who couldn’t afford to leave.

It’s hard to track exactly how much downtown population was lost in the move to the suburbs. As people moved out of the center city, the city itself annexed a handful of the surrounding suburbs which, on paper, offset population losses. But personal anecdotes tell the real story of what happened downtown.

A broken sign sits in a parking lot of a boarded up theater off 39th street.

“It was just desolate,” said Joanne Collins. Collins, a proud moderate Republican, served as a Kansas City councilwoman for 17 years. As a member-at-large on the council, she served the whole city, but her home was in a predominately Black district just a few blocks east of the city’s central core.

Born in 1936 and politically active since youth involvement in her church, Joanne has seen downtown Kansas City through a rollercoaster of ups and downs.

IN THE DUST

“Letting your downtown run completely down into the ground was a stupid thing,” Vicki Noteis said.

When a city loses its population, a couple of things happen. The most immediate effect is a city’s monetary loss– there’s no one to collect taxes from. This was especially true in Kansas City where anyone who could afford to move outside the city limits, did.

“Government offices were not going to carry a downtown,” Joanne Collins said.

When a city has no money, it has no way to provide services. Thus the poorer classes and communities that were unable to afford a new, suburban home were left behind.

“Every city through the ‘50s and ‘60s started to see their central core deteriorate into tough neighborhoods, racial lines, and lack of jobs,” Vicki said. “And in Kansas City, that meant half that stuff was going into a completely other state.”

Joanne, as a resident of an urban neighborhood, saw first hand what happens when the government fails to provide services. In fact she got her start in city government when trash piled up along her neighborhood’s streets.

She called down to city hall and told them that their scheduled street cleaning took place the day before trash day in her neighborhood and that she thought that was, “just stupid.” She suggested they change the schedule so that street cleaning took place after trash collection.

“So they did the pilot,” Joanne said. “And it worked out so well, of course, that they decided next year that they would make sure that was added to all schedules across the city. And everybody in my little neighborhood thought that was powerful.”

Aside from a lack of money and services, a forgotten downtown creates a spatial problem for residents as well.

“One of our problems with Kansas City,” Vicki said. “We’ve just flung everything all over the place: the airports up here, the stadiums over here. And it’s because of who politically owned the land at the time.”

A spread out city with no central heart makes it difficult for residents to get to and from where they need to go.

39th and Woodland. A man waits for the bus on a weekday morning in one of the neighborhoods east of Troost Avenue.

Vicki noted that this transportation void also creates health concerns. “The physical environment is very tied to your public health.”

A city large in area and low in population density like Kansas City means residents spend a lot of time commuting. A 2012 study published in the American Journal of Preventative Medicine found that commutes upwards of ten miles each way correlated to a rise in obesity, blood pressure and a general decline in fitness.

And the pollution caused by that daily traffic is also a health concern. Another study found that in 2012, urban metros accounted for 63 percent of carbon emissions in the U.S.

As public health, infrastructure and money concerns multiplied, one thing became obvious. Kansas City was rotting from the inside.

A SEAT AT THE TABLE

In the final decades of the 20th century, something changed in Kansas City’s downtown.

A view of the Kansas City skyline from the city’s WWI memorial. In the foreground is Union Station, a historic rail station that served the city and its massive stockyards in the early part of the 20th century. In 1985, the station closed and has now been converted to a public museum.

When asked what was different, Joanne Collins smiled, and noted that for the first time, women were involved in decisionmaking. 

In 1973, Joanne won a city council seat. “We were called J.C. and the 12 because I was the only woman on the city council,” she said.

When Vicki Noteis graduated from Kansas State University’s architecture program in 1976 and went out to look for a job, she got a reaction she never expected.

“Some of the biggest firms in town said, ‘We don’t hire women,’” Vicki said. But by the late ‘80s, she was working in public planning and helping desegregate the city’s public schools.

Then, in 1999, Kansas City elected its first female mayor, Kay Barnes.

These women, and others among them, decided it was time to rebuild their city.

In 1992 when Vicki was the director of city planning and development, she began work on a comprehensive plan for the city. The city’s most recent plan was from 1947.

“Not only was it clearly outdated, it had no detail,” Vicki said. “So development zoning issues were just going all over the place.”

Vicki and her team knew from the start that they didn’t want to use a standard model for their city plan. Typically when cities put together a comprehensive plan they structure it around specific public services. A standard plan will have a section for transportation, a section for housing and a section for utilities.

“Stop making a decision over here that without thinking about it you created a problem over here, and then you go and fix that problem and you create a different problem over there,” Vicki said.

Vicki wasn’t satisfied with the original structure. She wanted a plan that recognized and addressed how these problems played off of and connected to each other. Nothing like that had ever been done before in Kansas City government. She, like Joanne, cited the involvement of women in city government as being a driving force for forging a new path. Her team, and the city planning department in general, had a largely female staff.

It was natural, Vicki said, to the women on her team that cities issues were inseparable from one another. She noted that because women were relatively new to city planning they were free from the constraints of tradition.

“A lot of guys who have been in the workforce a long time and were trained under all these other background things,” Vicki said. “It’s all very linear.”

In addition to women planners, another group of people finally got a seat at the decision-making table.

For the first time, the city held open-ended conversations with residents and neighborhoods to find out what they needed from a comprehensive plan.

The 18th and Vine neighborhood is the historic Kansas City jazz district. “Individuals come from every part of the country to tour it and know the history and so we’re trying to maintain it,” said Joanne Collins.

“When I got on the city council, I just started promoting the power of neighborhoods ‘cause I loved angry residents,” Joanne said. “I found out that the irate citizen usually knew the answer to the question; they just didn’t know how to execute it or who to contact.”

So Vicki’s team, named FOCUS for Forging Our Comprehensive Urban Strategy, assembled  over 15,000 people in an empty downtown warehouse. Together full time staff and volunteers mapped out the number of cars families owned, where the single head of households were, the childcare facilities in the city and where jobs are.

“This was the early part of GIS mapping.” Vicki said. “You’d laugh because we did this with hardly any computers, but we were one of the first cities to use GIS mapping for this stuff.”

They took those maps into communities and worked with them to figure out how to solve urban problems relating to transportation, housing and other services. The solutions that emerged created a formal plan.

“You have to figure out creative ways for people to actually get involved in the issues enough that they come up with the solutions themselves as opposed to just listing what you came up with and say, ‘Oh you guys are going to love this,’” Vicki said.

By 1997, the FOCUS plan was adopted by the city.

THE RISE OF POWER AND LIGHT

Among other things, FOCUS called for a massive reinvestment in downtown. This meant spending 25% of capital improvement on downtown for at least five years.  “People wanted to take care of what we have instead of continuing to build farther out and leave 150 year old pipes [downtown] to break,” Vicki Noteis said.

One of the city’s biggest investments came in a part of downtown called Power and Light. In 1998, the city approved a plan to create an entertainment district downtown out of empty industrial buildings and warehouses. Kansas City subsidized costs for the Baltimore-based the Cordish Company to redevelop the district.

The Kansas City Power and Light district sits north of interstate 670 in the heart of downtown. The eight city blocks of mixed-development along with the Sprint Center is the entertainment hub for the city.

A year later, Kay Barnes was elected mayor. “She was the mayor that planned and got the election for the Power and Light district,” Joanne said. “She’s taken a lot of criticism over it because it’s been tough, but it’s the best thing to happen to Kansas City in over 80 years.”

With FOCUS as a backdrop and an already approved decision to invest in downtown, Mayor Barnes decided that the city needed a brand-new, indoor concert and sports venue. In the summer of 2005, Kansas City broke ground on the Sprint Center, an arena with capacity for over 18,000 people. It brings in events from the NCAA regional and national basketball tournaments to Maroon 5.

“First the city built [Sprint Center] and, of course, the city has underwritten the Power and Light district, and it’s now beginning to pay for itself,” Joanne Collins said.

Throughout her two terms as mayor, Kay Barnes led the city in directing business and capital to Power and Light. In addition to Sprint Center, the district now is home to luxury apartments, the headquarters of H&R block and five theaters.

H&R Block’s 17 story international headquarters (left) relocated to Power and Light in 2006 to be apart of the downtown revitalization. One Light, a luxury apartment building, was over 80% leased when it opened. According to the Kansas City Star, rent is between $1,500 and $2,250 a month for a one or two bedroom apartment.

Joanne Collins lives in Power and Light and loves what it has become. “You always rate the economic development of a city by the number of cranes that you see,” she said. “Two months ago there were seven cranes within a block of my house.”

On any given evening, Power and Light is teeming with people seeking entertainment. As you turn down 14th Street, just a few blocks east of the city’s convention center, the Sprint Center comes into view. It looks like the sides of a massive glass bowl and, because it’s a short building surrounded by skyscrapers, the arena’s enormous scale and modern architecture pop out of nowhere.

Joanne Collins, longtime city council woman, now lives in the Power and Light district. “Down main street we used to have 1 theater. we have four down main and off broadway’s just off main street so we have 5 theaters that are fully functional. so the theater industry has really taken off since the revitalization of downtown, ” she said.

“When you throw in the whole creative sector factor and how much emphasis the arts have here in Kansas City, it is truly unique and one of the most special places in the country to live and work,” Kerrie Tyndall, Kansas City’s director of economic development, said.

In addition to a range of entertainment options, Power and Light boasts one of the few open container laws in the U.S. And on the blocks around the arena, people pour out of the district’s many restaurants and bars.

Standing in Power and Light, it’s hard to believe that just 20 years ago, downtown was a ghost town.

14th Street in Downtown Kansas City Missouri looking west towards the Kansas City Convention Center.

BEHIND THE CURTAIN

In other, parts of Kansas City, ones that weren’t given a makeover of $850 million, the wear and tear of the postwar era is still very evident.

“Residents said, ‘Okay we’ll support this downtown thing and when it gets going and on its feet, then it’s our turn.’’” Vicki Noteis said. “But after I left the city and a new manager came in, the neighborhoods never got their turn. So they’re sitting out here, not waiting patiently.”

A group of houses sit on Highland, Avenue in one of Kansas City’s neighborhoods that has yet to benefit from downtown investment.

One major success that FOCUS did have in the neighborhoods was in the creation of a new daycare and bus station at what was the city’s largest bus stop.

“We built a facility that was a transfer station that had bathrooms with changing tables and access and nobody was prohibited from going in there,” Vicki said. “We had a waiting area, transfer area, place with kiosk where you could get your fare and all that stuff. And then we hooked it up with a childcare facility.”

The metro center has a prominent location on the corner of 39th Street and Troost Avenue, a major bus transfer intersection in the Kansas City area. The center includes public bathrooms, changing tables, a childcare facility, and a place to reload bus far cards. The bus route that runs down Troost Avenue is one of two of the most frequently traveled routes in the entire city.

But even with all of FOCUS’s success, things change. And so far, development of Kansas City has been unable to avoid the inevitable currents of city politics.

Vicki moved from the city planning department to the private sector in 2004, Kay Barnes left office in 2007, and in that same year the American economy collapsed.

“We just came out of a major recession and the mayor was saying, I don’t care what it is, whoever comes by with something, we’re going to build it because we need jobs. And that just flung us right back 30 years ago where we started this thing,” Vicki said.

So development, or more specifically what Vicki would refer to as meaningful development, stagnated in some areas of the city.

But Kerrie Tyndall notes that the recession also forced the city to be proactive in its economic development. “There was a lot of declining job opportunities obviously. We experienced impacts in our housing market and a lot of businesses really pulled back on their expansions,” she said. “But I think that what Kansas City did during the recession was to really take advantage of the the opportunity to do more long-range planning and looking at how to position ourselves coming out of that recession to be more competitive.”

One of the ways the city did that was by refocusing on area plans which were planning and development strategies for specific areas of the city. This helps them to both focus resources on a smaller area and assess and account for the differences in each area.

“There’s also a lot of different development patterns throughout the city and so not one size fits all,” she said. “It’s much more effective for us to invest money in sort of more constrained and focused either corridors or nodes or specific districts versus just trying to do things on a scattered-site type of basis.”

Within these area plans, there’s also a focus on keeping the culture and history of each neighborhood at the forefront, which can be very difficult. As Vicki noted, issues like gentrification are always a byproduct of revitalization.

She thinks the city could do more to keep updated neighborhoods affordable. “There’s always going to be this argument of pull yourself up by your bootstraps even if you don’t have any boots and even if we took your boots away,” she said.

But Kerrie’s work with neighborhoods aims to keep those neighborhoods accessible and affordable even as services and infrastructure are improved.

“We have to be very nimble in terms of how we regulate development and how we work with neighborhoods so that as those changes happen in our society that we have stable neighborhoods where everybody has access to quality amenities, quality schools, quality roads and that we can provide lots of options for people into the future.” Kerrie said.

She also recognized that there are limitations to what public sector planning and development can do on its own. One of the areas that Kerrie notes needs reinvestment is the Troost Corridor which is a low-income, minority community. But the city’s major reinvestment projects are occurring in other areas where businesses and federal grants are interested in working.

She’s hopeful that the Troost area will get the help it needs based on what’s she’s seeing at the neighborhood-activist level.

“I’m seeing a lot of excitement at a very grassroots level in reinvesting in some of those historic corridors like that and when that stuff happens it does attract the interests of the philanthropic and the business community, and then when they step in and they start supporting it then that’s kind of just gets the momentum of it going even more quickly than the public sector can act on its own.”

THE HEART

There is still much work to be done in downtown Kansas City. Vicki, Joanne and Kerrie all emphasize the importance of community involvement in creating meaningful social and economic change in the city.

Muralists paint a side of the building near the Kauffman Center for the Arts to celebrate the Kansas City Royals 2015 World Series Championship.

“People have different degrees of how they want to give back to a city. And Kansas City actually has a lot of people who work really hard.” Vicki said. “Working with neighborhoods and understanding people is a knack that I think as cities get bigger, it’s harder and harder to keep that element part of your city. It’s an active effort to try to do that. So that’s what we try to do.”

As Kansas City grows, reinvests and improves, it wants to retain its culture and history. “Kansas City has this old soul,” Kerrie said. “But it also the very intimate feel because people are so close and so positive and nice.”

Joanne agrees and believes that her city is an example for others that planning and development are most effective when you approach decisions with thoughtfulness and compassion for residents.

“The East and West Coast think they have all the power, but it is the Midwest that is the true heart of America,” she said.

“And I tell everybody: Kansas City is the heart.”

Construction continues in the heart of downtown Kansas City, Missouri.