Midtown redevelopment’s big boxes already may be a thing of the past

The offices of HNTB, an architectural design firm, are spread out over the seventh floor of 1201 Walnut with a grand view of downtown and the Missouri River. Amid scale models of HNTB projects — Kauffman and Arrowhead stadiums, several buildings including 1201 Walnut and what looks to be a train station platform — Kevin Klinkenberg sits looking though the tinted glass over a city he loves, but a city he is leaving.

Klinkenberg is one of a handful of architects working in Kansas City who is willing to go on record criticizing the city’s patterns of development and the business and civic elites who direct them. Klinkenberg, however, is moving out of Kansas City for other opportunities and does not feel the same pressure his peers do.

At issue is the Midtown Redevelopment Plan, otherwise known as the Glover Plan. “Basically, what you have now is a suburban design,” he says. “The developers are creating a spaceship landing in the middle of Midtown. It looks, and will feel, as if foreign creatures dropped in there.”

Klinkenberg says he has spoken with architects close to the project. They feel frustrated at what seems to be inflexibility on the part of the developers, Steve Block and Roger Cohen. To compound the problem, the tenants, Costco and Home Depot, have a specialized design for their stores that the companies use everywhere and will not willingly change.

“We are going to use public money to build a place where you can buy in bulk,” he says. “It is a place, like so many others in the suburbs, that is built to drive to and load up with cheap stuff. The question is whether that is appropriate in the city. We have complained for a long time that we can’t buy what we need in the city, but is this the right way to get that stuff there?

“I think it is the wrong way.”

The city council recently began undertaking procedural measures to set up $49 million in public financing for the $66 million development. The Kansas City, Mo., Tax Increment Financing Commission owns the 33 acres of weedy, empty ground at Linwood and Gillham. The city is committed to the project in its present design but is taking steps to release tax increment financing bonds and other subsidies for the project — possibly most important to getting the project underway.

It’s about time say nearby residents. The Glover Plan, in part, began in the early-1980s as the Warner-Miller Plaza Redevelopment, a two block long redevelopment scheme that sought to revitalize the heart of a once-vibrant commercial and residential strip. The plan languished, however, and as it did, the uncertainty of residents around the redevelopment also grew. Another redevelopment project, the Luzier Plaza plan at Gillham and Linwood, also grew but went nowhere.

By the time Jim Glover was elected to the city council in 1991, neighborhood groups were desperate to do something about the crime and blight that had bloomed with the neighborhood’s deterioration. In reality, say some neighbors, a group of unscrupulous landlords and a few drug houses caused most problems. Redevelopment plans gone awry did most of the damage.

Glover and the city council cobbled together the Luzier Plaza plan and what had grown from Warner-Miller into one, giant, allegedly grand plan. Although many individual residents and businesses protested, neighborhood groups bought into a plan to start with a clean slate, getting rid of drugs and prostitution — but also homes and legitimate businesses in the area stretching from Linwood to 35th Terrace and from Main to Gillham.

The land was cleared by the end of 1993. The developers and Glover seemed to have tenants for the big-box development in the bag. But then months of delays extended into years. The weeds grew. The morale of Midtown residents sunk. Buildings on the periphery of the empty land now stand boarded and vacant. Block did not return repeated calls for this story.

Councilman Evert Asjes criticizes the way Glover and the developers kept discussions with prospective tenants secret. Asjes also chafed at continual delays due to “almost getting a tenant signed,” he says. “There was nothing we could do to get it moving. But when the new council (elected in 1999) came in, we gave the developer a deadline, the first of August, to give us something tangible, something signed in ink. If we didn’t get it, we were going to start over and re-bid the project.”

Miraculously, Costco and Home Depot were committed by the council deadline.

But the new council did not have a lot of say on a project that had been in the works for two council terms before them, says Councilman Jim Rowland, who was elected to city council early last year. “We are getting to the point where we will be comfortable with anything,” he says. “I think most everything was determined before we got here.

“The plan now is good from what I know about it and given its history. We had to make sure we have a development that looks like it is placed correctly. That was the hardest task — and given the ups and downs of the plan, we had to proceed forward.”

“What we have now is a parking lot with a lot of trees,” Klinkenberg says. “The plan they have now is the plan they have had in the works for months. At the beginning, back in the early and mid-1990s, they were going to have a Price Chopper and a Payless Cashways. Now they have a Costco and a Home Depot. The designs may be different, but they are just big-box stores that have no place in an urban environment. We are to a point now where people are excited to get anything there at all.”

The Glover Plan has been a long frustrating experience for everyone closely involved with it, says Brendan Smith, who has lived in the neighborhood of the redevelopment throughout its history. “Certainly it was for Glover, the neighborhood, the people who lost their homes and those on the periphery who were under threat at one time,” she says. “But this is not the plan we were sold. That was more of an area that urban and elderly people could use — people in apartments who don’t have cars.

“It has been so long, I am happy to see anything there. I feel my street suffered. Housing stalled, rehab and purchasing on our street that was so prevalent in the late-1980s came to a standstill because of the uncertainty. I was glad my house was not threatened in the end, but we were always in an uncertain situation.”

Tom Gould, a Midtown resident, says many in the area of the redevelopment, not merely in the neighborhood, have suffered for the empty space where people should be. “What did we lose?” he says. “It’s difficult to remember clearly. The destruction started in mid-1980s when redevelopment started. Now the small businesses are gone. I grieve that almost as much as the passing of the housing.”

Both Smith and Gould believe the project will go forward now, despite the legacy of long delays. Neither will complain about the stores, they say, because both will use them. They are glad to spend their money close to home.

But Gould says the stores will still not accomplish something Midtown and the urban core needs — real economic development. “That means to use the resources and the people that are already there to improve the neighborhood and the quality of life,” he says. “The city and redevelopers don’t care about us. These will be corporate businesses, regional and national businesses. They are not there to serve us, but to make their numbers. Their markets are much broader. They want our money, but don’t want us to get in their way.”

Klinkenberg not only argues the designs of the Costco and the Home Depot, set up like boxes on a board in the overwhelmingly large parking lot, do not belong in an urban environment. He also says that the big-box stores may soon be a thing of the past, that the redevelopment will soon need to be redeveloped.

“The nature of retail business is changing so fast,” he says. “What is most scary about the redevelopment is that every trend in retailing indicates that big boxes have passed their peak. When investment firms advise their clients, it is no longer to invest in the big retailers. E-commerce will be where people put their time and money.

“E-commerce will allow people to eliminate trips they don’t enjoy. They don’t enjoy fighting traffic driving to big stores, devoting a large part of a day to do nothing but buy cheap stuff. What you need, you will get from the Internet. You won’t be going to the Costco, especially in the city, where the Web will work well.”

Some may see Klinkenberg’s ideas as impossibly futuristic. But in cities such as Seattle, Portland, New York, and Chicago, as well as in highly suburban areas of Los Angeles, companies like Webvan are bringing back the concept of home delivery of food staples and bulk items. Green grocers and neighborhood shops are finding their niches again. Shoe repair and barber shops are taking hold in places they were driven out of just 20 years ago.

This retail shift, combined with trends in city planning and architecture, points to a renaissance for old-style, Brookside- and Westside-type neighborhoods. There, within walking distance of residences, people find nearly everything they need for daily life in smaller stores.

“Internet commerce will definitely help neighborhood business,” Klinkenberg says. “What will thrive will be places that people like to go, like restaurants, coffee shops, small grocers for produce and convenience items. Conceivably, large grocers are on the way out in favor of bulk grocery distributors linked either by telephone or Internet to their customers. We are looki ng at a return to the days at the turn of the last century when home delivery from competing vendors was prominent.

“It is hard to know how things are going to change, but we are seeing glimpses. I would be surprised if in 10 years, these big boxes will be the stores they are slated to be at opening.”

More likely, Klinkenberg says, the biggest problem for the Glover Plan will come with changes in retailing away from the giant stores for the giant users. The spaces are so large and unwieldy that they cannot be adapted to other retail uses. “We will have decreasingly attractive tenants, from second tier retailers to third and possibly fourth,” he says. “Then we will have a flea market, then vacant buildings.”

Critics of the Glover Plan argued for years for the development of a neighborhood-style residence and retail center. “Is this the project for Midtown?” asks Rowland. “No, it isn’t. We could have done a number of different types of development — the urban village, for instance, with multiple smaller types of development, with more owner/operator businesses.”

Developers and city officials, however, argued the investment of public money needed to bring the redevelopment off would not pay for itself. The result is a development, that, as it stands, neither fits well into the Kansas City strategic plan, FOCUS, nor into the recent groundswell of interest in improving public transportation.

Several council members say that the FOCUS plan is flexible enough to allow this kind of exception to it. But Asjes, on the other hand, says, “About the only way this fits into FOCUS is the way it is in line (south to north) with the Plaza, Westport, downtown and the River Market — but that’s an accident.”

Rowland says not enough people were looking at the next decade when the project was conceived. “Too often, we look at a development as a single transaction rather than where it places itself in the entire fabric of the city. Public policy in development is not getting the weight it deserves.”

“I just don’t see how anyone in their right mind sees this project as appropriate for Midtown,” Klinkenberg says. He argues that flexible marketplaces span generations. The Plaza and Brookside are the ultimate examples of that sort of development. Rowland and Asjes both say the best development would be that which can change over time. Like Klinkenberg, both fear that the Glover Plan may have to be redeveloped long before the project is old.

But city council members say that momentum is building around the project now. People are ready to see progress on the plan and will take just about anything that lands there.

But Klinkenberg says things don’t have to be this way. Things would be vastly different with a shift of leadership on the part of the city council, a willingness on the part of neighbors to stand up to the developer, and a general sense that “just anything” is not good to revamp Kansas City’s urban environment.

“The present plan sacrifices all the things that allow people who chose to live in an urban environment — and many do for many reasons,” says Klinkenberg. This runs counter to having an attractive neighborhood, where people can walk or use public transportation instead of driving, where the architecture brings people outside.

“In fact, this hurts Kansas City. People are willing to pay big money to live in quality urban areas. Unfortunately, people just want something, the developer wants his investment, and the city wants that easy sales tax money and the short-term revenues it needs to stay out of its budget troubles.”

Contact Patrick Dobson at 816-218-6777 or

patrick.dobson@pitch.com.

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