Main Street’s most respected chefs wonder how they’ll survive streetcar construction
Over the half-century since the last electric streetcar zipped up and down Kansas City’s Main Street, the destinations along the route faded away. The movie palaces, the grand local hotels, the big department stores: gone.
The fancy restaurants, too — until the past few years, when buzzed-about dining returned to the corridor between Crown Center and the River Market. That long-moribund strip has experienced a significant culinary revitalization, thanks to a handful of ambitious restaurateurs and chefs.
The city now means to capitalize on a larger interest in downtown and its living and work spaces by adding a new streetcar. There was a controversial run-up to voting to add the line (and the taxes that go with it), and the construction has proved more complex than many anticipated.
For business owners along the Main Street route, the streetcar was touted as a serious shot of medicine. But some are wondering whether it will turn out to be fatal.
The city’s plan to deliver a high-voltage resuscitation to Main Street via the 2-mile streetcar project has turned the downtown artery into a chaotic jumble of orange cones, steel plates, metal barriers and deep holes. Lots of holes. To get the first streetcar line since Eisenhower was in the White House, the city has had to address a sewer system that dates back to the days of William Howard Taft.
Downtown workers have become inured to the cones, the plates, the barriers and the trenches. But the months of construction have edged some of the restaurateurs — who pushed the slow, organic re-emergence of the surrounding Crossroads Arts District onto Main Street, already a risk given how long the thoroughfare was a culinary wasteland — toward a fiscal crater.
Nancy Smith, who co-owns the stylish Michael Smith restaurant and the more casual Extra Virgin bistro at 19th Street and Main with her husband, chef Michael Smith, hasn’t been sheepish about expressing her opinions to the mayor, to the City Council, even to the construction workers.
“I’m constantly out there fighting with them,” Nancy Smith says. “I’ll go marching out there and tell the guys jackhammering, ‘Really? Are you trying to kill us? Because by the time you get this thing built, there won’t be any businesses left for people taking the streetcar to patronize.'”
That’s typical of the tension between the restaurant owners and the streetcar project’s backers. The restaurants already gambling on Main Street — Michael Smith opened in 2007, the Rieger Hotel Grill & Exchange in 2011, and both Affäre and Anton’s Taproom in 2012 — have done so in spite of the economic fallout since 2008. But the people running those businesses say they find the streetcar project, sold to them as a financial boon, to be an even greater challenge than the post-2008 credit crisis.
Late last month, The Pitch sat down with Main Street restaurateurs Michael and Nancy Smith, Howard Hanna of the Rieger, Martin Heuser of Affäre, and Anton Kotar of Anton’s Taproom for a conversation about just what obstacles they face as streetcar-line construction continues.
The Pitch: Did all of you vote for the streetcar project?
Michael Smith: We didn’t have a vote. We don’t own our building, and we don’t live in the area. I understand that only 532 people who lived or owned property in the neighborhoods impacted by the streetcar had a vote. [In the first transportation-development-district balloting, 460 votes were cast; 549 votes were cast in the second TDD election. Both were open only to voters residing within the district.]
Heuser: I did not vote for it.
Hanna: I did not vote for it.
Kotar: I didn’t have a vote, but my argument was less about the streetcar than the process in which the voting was done.
Has the actual construction and tearing up of the streets been worse than you expected?
Michael Smith: Yes, but we’re in a slightly different position. The streetcar lines go right by Martin’s front door, Anton’s front door and Howard’s front door. It doesn’t literally go by our front door. We were luckier than the others. Yes, we were affected by the construction. But when it’s right in front of your fucking front door? That hurts.
Kotar: Worse than I expected? Yeah. I did ask the questions about all the underground construction. I knew that was coming, and the city implied that there would be minimal impact. They needed to come clean with us about the infrastructure. If they didn’t want to come off as the Grinch later, they needed to be honest up front. We started hunkering down, at least financially, as soon as we knew what was coming.
What I didn’t anticipate — and the city got me again on this — was that they issued a permit for a hotel to be built on the north side of my building at the same time. That hurt me the worst because they had my entrance and my parking lot completely blocked off. As you drive by on Main Street, you can see that you can’t get into my parking lot. And the next entrance to my lot is to come around on Baltimore, but then you can’t turn west for three more blocks. By then, the customer has lost interest in Anton’s. And we only get one shot.
Michael Smith: Our customers come from many places in the metro and not just downtown. So it’s already hard to drive downtown. And any little reason you give them not to continue the process, they don’t want the hassle, even if it’s just driving around the block.
Heuser: I have two parking lots, one down from the restaurant and another one on Walnut. But customers still couldn’t seem to find them.
Have you found yourselves constantly explaining to patrons how to maneuver the area and how and where to park?
Nancy Smith: Well, that’s been an issue since we first opened, in 2007. We served lunch for over six years at Michael Smith, but once they started with the drilling and the jackhammering, and then the Rieger closed for lunch, it forced us to make a decision. We had to stop lunch service as well.
Michael Smith: They had their porta-potties positioned right in front of our front windows.
Nancy Smith: I would go out and ask the construction crews to move it away from our windows and doors. I mean, at least move them to places with no windows. And there were plenty of those places.
Michael Smith: I know they’re there to do their jobs. I don’t blame the construction crews.
Nancy Smith: One thing that gets me fired up on a daily basis is that, first, there’s no place to park or drive down here. And then, on top of that, the KC Police Department has been all over the neighborhood, ticketing cars when there’s no other option to park. Give us a break! And they will come out and ticket every single day.
There’s no place even for our staff to park, and they’ve been getting tickets. And if we complain, we’re told, “Just have your staff take public transportation.” Public transportation? So I say, “Oh, really, it’s built already?” And, of course, it’s not.
But the city doesn’t understand that it’s costing everybody — and I’m including retail like Hammerpress and Black Bamboo — just to come in to work. We have prominent businesspeople, city leaders, philanthropists and supporters of Kansas City who come in here for a lunch meeting, and they leave the restaurant to find tickets on their cars.
Heuser: Or their cars are towed away.
Michael Smith: And they don’t want to come back.
Hanna: That’s been one of the biggest problems for us, these predatory towing companies. There are all these vacant surface lots around us, and yes, I understand the owners want to make money,but the ways the companies go about it is all wrong.
Nancy Smith: Why aren’t these companies supporting the businesses that are already there instead of sitting on dead pavement?
How seriously have you been affected financially?
Hanna: It’s been a mess and a nuisance, but it’s not hurting us that much. Our sales numbers are up this year. People come into the restaurant in a horrible mood because of the construction, but once they’re there, they can hang out, and we turn that negativity around.
Heuser: Before the construction started, we were 30 percent above last year and we thought we would have a really good year. But the mayhem and traffic really changed things. I think that there should have been a fund set aside for all the businesses on Main Street for the times when people stopped coming down — even as a low-interest loan or for promotion to let customers know that these businesses were still open.
Kotar: We’ve actually had a pretty good year. Even August was a record month — and with a 10-foot-deep hole in front of our building! But the last two months have been off about 30 percent.
Nancy Smith: We’re lucky. We had a lot of holiday parties booked, and they’re really making the difference. If we didn’t have them, our business wouldn’t be up this year.
Michael Smith: We also had the benefit of being here in this location for several years. I think it’s really hurt Martin and Affäre because it’s a new restaurant. He was just getting rolling, just getting started.
What has been the most maddening issue?
Heuser: At the beginning, it seemed like nothing was organized. Barriers would just go up, without rhyme or reason. And if I’m having a hard time getting to my restaurant, what can I expect from my customers? And sometimes there would be heavy equipment parked in the street in front of the restaurant, and they never moved it. It was standing there for two weeks, doing nothing, until we said something, and then they moved it. It’s much cleaner now, thank God, but all through the summer, it was —
Michael Smith: Messy. And hard to get through.
Nancy Smith: We started keeping the curtains closed in the dining room at Michael Smith, even on First Fridays, so that customers wouldn’t have to see the construction. And people would ask, “Can you please open the curtains?” So we did, and then they would say, “Can you close them?” Because outside there would be three porta-potties and trucks. We understood, but why did those things have to be left there, unused, over the weekend?
What have you been told about the end date? And can you hang on until then?
Kotar: It was supposed to be September of 2015. Now we’re hearing that it’s most likely going to be the first quarter of 2016. They are definitely three or four months back. They say that they’re going to finish on time, either way. They’re going to make up the difference, I understand, because there are penalties for running behind.
Michael Smith: We’re definitely going to be here when it’s all done.
When the streetcar line is finished, will it help your business?
Michael Smith: I’ll be interested to see if more tourists than locals will be using it.
Kotar: I think it would have helped if the streetcar was extended to different parts of the city. I understand that the Northland and Riverside are interested in that.
Heuser: I hope it will.