How long can Crossroads landlords keep the district quiet?
When Brad Nicholson greets a visitor at his office in Crown Center’s San Francisco Tower, he’s eager to show his art collection. Among its prizes: an original Andy Warhol portrait and a Lester Goldman mural that covers nearly the entire south wall of his office.
It figures that Nicholson takes a keen interest in the arts. Most of the developer and landowner’s holdings are in the Crossroads Arts District.
Most developers in Kansas City are eager for publicity. Not Nicholson. He says he’s a private person, that he’d just as soon not be written about — positively or negatively. (He declined to be photographed for this story.) But it’s hard to stay out of the public conversation when you have considerable holdings in one of Kansas City’s most sought-after neighborhoods.
And it’s harder still when you find yourself — as Nicholson now does — at the nexus of a debate over liquor licensure in the Crossroads that has become the subject of a citywide ordinance.
The Kansas City Council on April 28 passed a new ordinance that limits the number of consents — votes, essentially — that owners of multiple parcels can have on a nearby liquor-license application. That ordinance has been stalled, however, by a petition drive requesting that the council repeal the ordinance or put the question to a public vote.
For Nicholson, whose properties are concentrated in the middle of the Crossroads, the ordinance represents a diminution of his property rights. For new businesses rising in the Crossroads, the ordinance addresses a question of fairness: Should Nicholson (or any property owner) be able to hold up a liquor-license application, or kill it altogether, if these newcomers to the Crossroads don’t do business the way he wants them to.
It’s not an altogether rhetorical question. The owners of Tom’s Town, a new distillery at 1701 Main, claim that Nicholson has been able to dictate granular details of their business, under the threat of withholding consent to their liquor license.
“I thought we fought a revolution over this,” says Tom’s Town co-founder David Epstein.
Nicholson says he feels misled by Epstein and his business partner, Steve Revare; he says when the two men purchased the three-story building from him, they misrepresented what type of business Tom’s Town would be.
Standing in front of Tom’s Town, facing Main Street, you’re essentially surrounded by Nicholson’s property. He owns the old TWA building, the newly renovated Globe building next door, and the Mainmark building at 16th and Main (where The Pitch leases office space).
Those holdings are relevant to current liquor-license laws. To apply for a liquor license and serve adult beverages, you have to get consent from a majority of parcel owners within 250 feet of your establishment. Consent laws were passed to give nearby property owners some say in whether nearby parcels became home to bars or clubs. In the context of neighborhoods that exist near commercial nodes — West 39th Street’s Restaurant Row is a good example — residential parcels are typically one vote per house.
The concept is harder to apply in predominantly commercial areas such as the Crossroads where it’s far more common for one person or one company to own several parcels.
In the 250-foot radius around Tom’s Town, Nicholson owns well over half the parcels within that consent zone. That means Tom’s Town’s liquor license — its ability to operate as a distillery — in many ways depends on Nicholson.
Listen to Epstein describe his dealings with Nicholson, and you’ll hear a story of a property owner dictating the details of the Tom’s Town business model, requiring menu approval and signoff on wine and beer offerings and operating hours under the threat of vetoing their liquor license.
Epstein, an affable man who’s somewhat given to hyperbole, invokes a sense of feudalism when he talks about the Crossroads: large property owners enjoying dominion over struggling serfs. “It just doesn’t exist in America,” he says. “It existed in the Soviet Union. It exists in a monarchy.”
Epstein says Nicholson didn’t impose conditions — under threat of vetoing the liquor license — until after Nicholson sold Tom’s Town the building, in late 2014.
Nicholson counters that he made it clear before he sold the building that he wasn’t interested in watching the property (for years the offices for this newspaper) become a bar. Nicholson tells The Pitch that Epstein and Revare told him Tom’s Town would be a distillery with a small tasting room.
This conversation, according to Nicholson, took place before the building traded hands. “I said, ‘Listen, that sounds OK,’” he says.
Only after the building went under contract, Nicholson says, did the Tom’s Town project begin to take on a different form.
“They started asking me questions and telling me things that were different from what they told me they wanted to do,” Nicholson says.
One example: Nicholson says Epstein and Revare approached him about offering wine in the tasting room to satisfy an investor who wasn’t interested in hard liquor. Later, Nicholson says, they characterized that request to sell wine as a necessary way to appeal to a broader customer base.
In this version of the story, Tom’s Town’s founders keep returning to Nicholson with further requests: to serve beer, to add mixers, to have an event space, to serve food, to stay open later.
“I was trying to provide compromise totally against what they told me they were going to do,” Nicholson says. “It got to a point where they turned out to be a bar.”
What’s wrong with another place to have a beer or a cocktail in the Crossroads?
That depends, Nicholson says, on if the bar stays true to the intent of its liquor-license application. “What I want to know is what are you going to do now and what are you going to do in the future,” he says. Requests involving dancing and live music, he says, can lead to businesses that are out of character with surrounding properties.
As an example, he points to the old Oldham Hotel building, in the River Market. A liquor-license application for the historic building at 105 East Fifth Street several years ago contemplated low-key dancing at a ground-level restaurant there. The restaurant eventually became the infamous nightclub Skybox, allowable in part because the liquor license permitted dancing. Skybox was the site of several police visits, fights and a few homicides before the city finally shut it down.
Nicholson doesn’t want a Skybox in the Crossroads, a neighborhood he views as having been built on the arts. Even so, he says he has been largely supportive of most liquor-license requests he has received.
Epstein challenges Nicholson’s version of the Tom’s Town tale, which he says has been repeated with other recent Crossroads additions.
“The problem with Brad’s argument is, the city is now filled with examples where he’s done exactly to us what he’s done to others,” Epstein says. “Did we think we’d have some conditions like every one of his neighbors and his tenants? Absolutely. Did we think for a minute that he would dictate our menu selections? Never, never, never.”
Epstein is referring to the Sundry, a small deli and grocery store in a building owned by Shirley Helzberg, and the Ruins, a new bar and restaurant next door to the adult-entertainment business Bazooka’s.
The Sundry’s owners say Nicholson sought restrictions on their closing times and their beer and wine sales, as well as a prohibition against liquor. Ryan Wing, who started the Sundry in a space that had been empty for 15 years, says he’d like to expand his concept — one in which local growers and food producers are highlighted — beyond Kansas City if the Sundry is successful.
“We’re trying to do this big, socially responsible thing,” Wing tells The Pitch.
Nicholson says the Sundry, like Tom’s Town, amended its original request with something he says doesn’t make sense for a grocer: live music.
“I said, ‘Wow, I’m not really getting it,’” Nicholson says.
But another of the Sundry’s add-ons, retail liquor, isn’t necessarily out of place for a business selling specialty foods, and those suspicious of Nicholson cite some of his other holdings. He owns buildings that lease space to the wine shop Cellar Rat and to sushi restaurant Nara, which could be sensitive to competition.
Nicholson says he found out about the new liquor-license ordinance on a Thursday, a day after the measure passed out of the Kansas City Neighborhoods and Public Safety Committee. Epstein showed up to testify in support of the bill; Nicholson says he had no idea it existed until a lawyer called him about it the same day the full City Council was expected to vote on it.
Jolie Justus, a 4th District councilwoman, and Quinton Lucas, a 3rd District at-large councilman, sponsored the measure.
Justus says the origin of the ordinance goes back about 10 months, when she started hearing complaints from businesses in the Crossroads and, later, the West Bottoms.
The ordinance says, within a liquor-license-consent zone, any property owner holding more than 10 percent of the parcels is restricted to votes in an amount equal to 10 percent of the parcels in question. For example, if a consent zone has 20 parcels and one person or company owns 10 parcels, that owner gets only two consent votes. The ordinance would also expand the consent zone so that more parcel owners could have a say.
“Neighborhoods love it because they see this as expanding their say,” Justus tells The Pitch.
Nicholson sees it differently. He worries that expanding the reach of the consent zone will include parcel owners who won’t care as much about a liquor license two or three blocks away. “If this was your property and you were on that boat, you would care,” he says. “The issue at hand is the issue at hand. The way this thing went down is what has people perplexed.”
Nicholson and his attorney, former Jackson County Executive Mike White, appealed to council members to hold off on the final vote for a week. That view was echoed by some council members, including Scott Taylor, who wondered about certain aspects of the measure, such as how its sponsors had arrived at the 10-percent clause.
The bill passed anyway, by a 10-2 vote, causing Nicholson and others to contend that the measure had been crammed through.
Lucas disputes this, saying ordinances are regularly passed within a few hours or days following committee.
Nicholson and others have responded with a petition drive that has effectively halted the ordinance for at least a month. Also unhappy with the ordinance is the owners of the Country Club Plaza and Kansas City Life.
Jill Cockson wants to start Swordfish Tom’s, a pre-Prohibition-style cocktail bar inspired by the Other Room, the James Beard Award-nominated bar where she worked in Lincoln, Nebraska.
The address where she means to open her tavern, 210 West 19th Terrace, is a building owned by a limited-liability corporation based in Denver. And she says, in seeking a liquor license, she has run into pressure to close at hours that won’t let her run a viable business, which suggests that Nicholson isn’t the only Crossroads property owner pushing back against liquor licenses.
“This conversation is not about liquor licensure,” Cockson writes in an e-mail to The Pitch. “It is about the healthy growth and development of a business ecosystem.
“The fear mongering needs to stop,” Cockson adds. “When articles reference a ‘Drinking Problem’ in an attempt to make a cute pun, they reinforce what is fueling the debate: an antiquated stereotype that all bars are evil and debaucherous. Like others who inspire me, I work hard to set a new standard for bar business operation that focuses on quality, responsible consumption.”
For Nicholson and others in the Crossroads, part of the debate hinges on maintaining the nature of the Crossroads.
“To me, our foundation is art,” Nicholson says. “When we’ve lost that, we’ve lost everything. We have something that’s unique. But it’s fragile.”