Nothing For Dinner

Walk down the streets at 18th and Vine on a warm spring afternoon, and you’re supposed to be able to step into a white-tablecloth steak house. Or slide into a booth at a cozy café or a loud bar and grill. Relax at a coffee house. Pick up some fresh vegetables at a grocery store, buy vitamins at a pharmacy, check out movies at a video store, get a facial at a beauty salon or a shave at a barber shop. Drop off your clothes at the dry cleaner. Stop next door for an ice cream cone. Today.

That’s what you’ve been promised by the Jazz District Redevelopment Corporation, the latest nonprofit organization to oversee the district’s redevelopment.

In 1998, Al Fleming, the JDRC’s executive director, told a reporter that his group was trying to finish the two-block stretch — from Paseo to Woodland, and from the north side of 18th to the north side of 19th — in 2000. If you drive by now, a sign greeting you at the corner of 18th and Paseo claims that all the new buildings will be filled with people and buzzing with activity — by last summer. But the storefronts are vacant. The sign on the block’s west end is mangled. Cars pass through on their way to the city’s east side; speed bumps slow traffic, but not enough for anyone to actually park and walk around.

This is not a “district” in a real city. This is blink-and-you’ll-miss-it. A shame. A joke.

One of the few people on the street one recent afternoon was a homeless man with beautiful brown-hazel eyes wearing a long olive-colored coat. “Think they’ll ever bring it back the way it was in the ’20s and ’30s?” he asks.

If you count the facades installed for Robert Altman’s period jazz epic Kansas City, the film director and KC native certainly tried. The so-called historic district is half new construction, half studio backlot and all irony, a fake place that becomes real — becomes historic — only if you rent the movie.

Legendary? Not anymore. Kansas City’s 18th and Vine can’t even be mentioned in the same conversation as Bourbon Street in New Orleans or Beale Street in Memphis. Those cities have capitalized on their histories as influential musical centers — checking out their sounds is a mandatory part of a trip to either city. Here, even the facades are giving up the ghost. The drywall is cracking. The thin brick veneers are starting to peel off.

Kansas City has dropped more than $20 million on 18th and Vine. An additional $41 million in public and private money is headed into the vortex.

Fleming has been in charge for four years. Part of his organization’s budget comes from taxpayers, the rest from loans and grants from foundations. His main responsibility is to find money for building — then get the properties filled. Yet despite his $110,000 annual salary, not a single store or business has opened with his support.

“What has he done?” asks Marie Young, head of the Black Chamber of Commerce of Greater Kansas City Inc. “Absolutely nothing.”

In fact, dozens of entrepreneurs have been stymied in their efforts to open businesses in the heavily subsidized two blocks. Many of them say Fleming makes it nearly impossible for small businesses to come to 18th and Vine. With poor communication and unreasonable leases, he is repelling more businesses than he’s attracting.

Fleming says he’d rather turn away business owners than have them “come in and fail, lose all their money.” He adds, “I’d still be the bad guy.”

From the early ’80s to the mid-’90s, the development of the district and its surrounding blocks was in the hands of Sylvester Holmes, executive director of the Black Economic Union. His group drew up the first plans for redeveloping 18th and Vine. But the BEU was largely unable to attract private dollars to the district, and in 1997, then-Mayor Emanuel Cleaver created a new organization, the Jazz District Redevelopment Corporation, to focus on 18th and Vine. (The BEU would continue to lead development efforts in a larger area of Kansas City’s east side.)

Cleaver appointed a board of directors, stacking it with heavyweights such as Aquila chairman Richard Green, Blue Cross Blue Shield executive Peter Yelorda (now the chairman of the city’s Tax Increment Financing Commission) and United Beverage CEO and former Kansas City Chiefs player Deron Cherry. They selected Fleming to run the organization in 1998. He had led urban redevelopment projects in Newark, New Jersey, and Maui, Hawaii, and had worked as an urban-studies researcher at Rutgers University. His swagger suggests that he is unfazed by the slow timetable in Kansas City.

Fleming doesn’t like ultimatums. He says that when he took over a troubled redevelopment project in Marin County, California, in 1986, he had to play hardball with one minority developer who had tried to arrange a sweetheart deal on the project. Fleming gave him a deadline to commit or bail; thinking it was a bluff, the developer threatened to quit the project. Fleming watched him go. Fleming then approached a second minority developer, who turned in what he calls a “stupid” bid and made his own demands on the project. Fleming turned him down, as well.

That project took twelve years, Fleming says, but resulted in 150,000 square feet of commercial space, anchored by Best Buy, Ross Dress for Less, Linens and Things and Long’s Drugs, with a child-care center and 355 units of housing. “He got the job done here,” says Benny Stewart, the executive director of the Marin City Community Development Corporation. “Three or four months after Al left, we had a packed-to-the-hilt appreciation dinner for him, entitled ‘The Dream Builder.'”

When Fleming arrived in Kansas City, he read a BEU report that estimated the cost of restoring and redeveloping every building in the 18th and Vine District at about $90 million. Under the Cleaver plan, the city provided more than $20 million, which went toward the construction of the American Jazz and the Negro Leagues Baseball museums, the restoration of the Gem Theater, the rebuilding of water and sewer lines and the repair of 18th Street itself. Cleaver also tapped a federal program, which has provided $14.2 million. Fleming has rounded up between $3 million and $4 million in financing from Sun America, a financial services group that sometimes invests in housing projects; $400,000 in tax credits from the Missouri Housing Development Corporation; and $3 million in grants from the Hall Family Foundation and the Kauffman Foundation. The Federal National Mortgage Association has also pledged as much as $20 million for the back end of the project, promising to buy out some construction loans.

The redevelopment is divided into three phases, which gradually will add new buildings with apartments on the upper floors and stores at street-level. So far, two buildings are complete, one between Paseo and Vine, the other between Highland and Woodland. Apartment renters have already moved in, but no retail space has opened.

Instead of progress, there has been delay. Fleming blames this on city hall bureaucracy. He also blames the weather — a very cold winter in 2000-2001 and a very hot following summer — for putting construction behind schedule. “Some of our crews couldn’t work beyond 12 o’clock,” he says. “Look around the city and tell me what construction projects weren’t delayed.”

As Fleming tried to get the buildings off the ground, he also began shepherding prospective businesses through the lease process. He says that when he first started at the JDRC, he looked through 144 “so-called business plans.” He found 28 that, at first glance, looked viable. So what happened?

“I threw them all out,” he says.

Greg Baker is an assistant to the city manager. When he was a kid, he sold newspapers on Friday mornings throughout the bustling neighborhood. “Call! Don’t forget your Kansas City Call,” he sings, remembering the delivery boys’ musical slogan. With his earnings he bought boiled potatoes and boiled crawdads for a quarter.

Back in the ’30s, you might have hung out at Lucille’s Paradise, a restaurant and bar, or loaded up on ribs at Henry Perry’s, named for Kansas City’s onetime “king of barbecue.” Good food was a given in those days.

Now food is the next big hope for saving the district. The museums haven’t done it. New residential projects such as nearby Basie Court, the gated townhome community just south of 19th Street, haven’t done it. Employers such as Sprint, which closed its call center in the Lincoln Building last month, haven’t done it. But the restaurants will.

That’s been a promise for a long time, too.

In 1994, to make way for the museum complex, the BEU moved out Papa Lew’s Barbecue and promised owner Dorriss Lyman a chance to come back when the museums were completed. A year later, after Lyman realized she would have to meet financial guidelines that had never been an issue in her old space, she turned down the offer. The BEU contacted established restaurateurs such as Manny Lopez and Ollie Gates about coming to the district. They weren’t interested.

In 1997, the year the museums opened, the BEU’s Holmes began to court Sylvia’s Restaurant and House of Soul, the famous New York City soul-food establishment. Local restaurant owners were not happy that Holmes was courting an out-of-town business. The Southeast Bar and Restaurant Association, an organization of black-owned restaurants, bars and nightclubs formed in 1979, led the charge in favor of a local business instead.

“We felt if nothing else, as a courtesy, you would come to these people first and make an offer,” recalls the group’s Betty Brown.

The local restaurant owners complained to the press to try to get the BEU to consider working with them. But in 1998, everyone was still claiming the restaurant would come to the district. By June 1999, though, the deal had fallen apart. In the middle of the slow negotiations, Sylvia’s had lost its appetite for expansion, having opened a restaurant in Atlanta that did not perform as well as expected.

The Sylvia’s experience turned out to be a preview of other efforts to bring restaurants to the district.

At the end of 1999 Fleming began holding monthly meetings. Some of the people who attended were experienced businesspeople; some were newcomers. Everyone, it seemed, was excited about opening a restaurant at 18th and Vine. But during the next two and a half years, negotiating the lease process turned into a nightmare.

Fleming had devised a difficult process for business owners who sought financial aid from the JDRC. Entrepreneurs with viable business plans had to come up with their own money for a third of their projects. They had to secure a bank loan for another third. Then they had to get a loan approval from the JDRC for the last third.

But that was only the beginning. Once a would-be restaurateur had signed a lease, he had to contract a whole new round of construction. The landlord of a commercial space usually puts up the building but leaves the interior spaces a “white box” — just the walls, ceiling and floor. The tenant then pays to install the plumbing, wiring and ventilation systems to suit his specific needs.

At 18th and Vine, though, tenants have to put in the floor and ceiling, too. “It’s concrete above you, concrete below,” says Terri Moore, another could-have-been 18th and Vine restaurant owner. For making the improvements, tenants could expect a rebate of $15 a square foot — not enough to make up for the district’s high rents.

Jerry Gaines, food and beverage specialist for Block and Company Real Estate, explains that commercial real estate comes in two categories: Class A spaces are on major streets and offer excellent exposure; Class B spaces are set back from main thoroughfares. The average Class A space in metro Kansas City leases for $16.80 a square foot. Class B spaces average $11 a square foot.

Until businesses open and customers start spending money, Gaines considers commercial space at 18th and Vine strictly Class B. He thinks the JDRC’s asking price of $14 a square foot might explain why getting businesses on the block has been so tough. “They’re going to have to give good deals to get prospects in there,” he says. “They’re not going to get that kind of price. They’re going to have to sell for a hell of a lower rate to get people in there.”

Tell that to the people who have tried to get in there.

We’re hustlers,” says John DiCapo. “Maybe they need to get a hustler to run that operation. It’d probably be a good idea to get the local realtors, who are involved in this area, people who know Kansas City. If the city allowed them to lease that space, it would be full by now.”

DiCapo has food in his blood. His mother operated a drive-in restaurant at 27th and Van Brunt from 1968 to 1976, and his father owned and operated the Italian Gardens restaurant downtown for more than 45 years. DiCapo himself spent 25 years at Italian Gardens, ran a successful country-and-western bar in Overland Park in the early ’80s, and operated a profitable Northeast neighborhood liquor store. In April 2000 his company, DiCapo Foods, started turning out tamales, and DiCapo started thinking about selling them, along with chili, on 18th and Vine.

“They need people like me,” he says. “I come from a family background. We’ve been in business 75 years downtown. We’ve outlasted everybody. We know how to do business.”

DiCapo attended meetings in January 2001 but quickly became discouraged when they began late, sometimes by as much as half an hour. “I’m a businessman. When I tell you I’m going to be someplace, you can pretty much bank on it,” he says. To make matters worse, the meetings were largely unproductive. “We’d ask the same questions every month, and we never got a straight answer because Al didn’t know,” DiCapo says.

DiCapo says he was supposed to open last August. Then in September. Then in October. Fleming gave him a lease, but it contained no specific clauses about the time or duration of the contract. “They wanted you to fill in the blanks. But you can’t fill in the blanks, because you don’t have the space done,” he says.

He didn’t sign it. After ninety days passed without a word from Fleming, in January of this year DiCapo decided he was through.

“If they’re not calling me, I don’t need to call them.”

Fleming argues that DiCapo bogged down the meetings with redundant questions and that his “financials are terrible.” “He didn’t fulfill some of the requirements,” Fleming says.

DiCapo admits that his resources for the project were probably limited, but says, “I’ve been undercapitalized my whole life, and I still get things done.” DiCapo adds that everyone interested in opening at 18th and Vine was probably undercapitalized. “If we had a lot of money, we wouldn’t be going to 18th and Vine,” he says. “We’d be going to 119th and Metcalf, where all the people are. You’re taking a hell of a risk going down there.”

Terri Moore, a manager at a mutual funds company, began attending the monthly meetings in November 1999. She’d been thinking about starting a restaurant for years. Like the others, Moore saw 18th and Vine as a good opportunity, although she had no restaurant experience.

Moore submitted a preliminary business plan in February 2000. She was in for many surprises.

The first was the unexpected cost of additional construction. Realizing that she would have to install her own walls and floors, she recalculated her costs. The difference was dramatic. She had figured she could be up and running for less than $75,000, but it now looked more like $300,000.

Despite warnings from contractors that the improvements would be expensive, she pressed on. “Al was very supportive of me and my business plan,” she says. But nothing got done. “For the most part, the same four or five people sat around that table for a year and a half.”

In 2001, a Bank of America representative came to talk about financing strategies. Moore says the bank told her it would approve her for a $100,000 loan.

But lease negotiations with the JDRC, which lasted from July to November of last year, killed the whole deal. Fleming warned her that the price per square foot was still being worked out but could be anywhere from $8 to $14. After September 11 left the economy in tatters, Moore figured the JDRC would want to negotiate. “This is a blighted area,” Moore remembers thinking. “And business is down here. It won’t be $14 [a square foot].”

It was $14. Moore’s advisors told her she should be paying $10 a square foot for her 4,400-square-foot space. Fleming wouldn’t budge.

She eventually offered Fleming $12 a square foot. He said no. He granted her some concessions on payment schedules and three months’ free rent for the time it would take to finish her space. But her attorney and a commercial real estate advisor told her she should have gotten six months or more. Moore says she was “not doing hand flips about three months.”

After trying to hash out a deal in December, Moore sent Fleming a letter indicating that if they couldn’t come to terms on the lease price, she would have to bow out.

Fleming doesn’t like ultimatums. He never responded. He says he had “bent over backward” to help Moore. “Her letter just rubbed me the wrong way,” he says.

“I had a great relationship,” says Moore. “I’m surprised he was willing to just let me walk out the door. The darn place is empty, and they’re not getting a dime. It’s hard to imagine they couldn’t do something.”

Tony Privitieri, whose local holdings include warehouses, office buildings and strip malls, contacted Fleming last summer about courting the federal Social Security Administration to move into the Attucks School, a stout red-brick building at the southeastern corner of 18th and Woodland, the eastern edge of the jazz district. Privitieri’s plan was to buy the building and renovate it; he says he had been in contact with a government rep who was interested.

“When you let the property owner know the prospective tenant is the federal government, they bend over backwards,” Privitieri says. And Bond Faulwell, deputy regional administrator for the General Services Administration, which scouts for federal office space, notes that the government favors offers to move into historic buildings. But Privitieri could never get a sit-down meeting with Fleming.

“He came at me like he’s a developer,” says Fleming, adding that Privitieri acted as if the JDRC didn’t know what it was doing and needed to turn the building over to Privitieri. He says Privitieri called just as he was trying to move the JDRC office from the Black Chamber of Commerce building to the Lincoln Building and preparing for a vacation. “He didn’t come at me like, ‘Let’s sit down and talk.’ If he’d have been a serious developer, he’d have been back.”

“It don’t take a rocket scientist to figure out he ain’t doing jack shit,” counters Privitieri. “Something’s wrong there.”

Myra Harper also wanted to start a restaurant in the district. “I felt that would be a wonderful place,” she says. “I still feel it could be pretty successful.”

Harper is an account executive for a health benefits agency. Four years ago, she envisioned a health-food restaurant with a smoothie bar. She submitted her plan and began to work with the JDRC. A bank had agreed to lend her a third of the startup costs, the JDRC would front a third, and she would put up the rest.

Last March Fleming told Harper her building would be ready in July. “In July it was nowhere near ready,” she says. “If you’re working on your numbers, you need to be able to tell the bank.”

Fleming also missed projected openings last November and December. “They couldn’t give you good answers,” Harper says. “They couldn’t give you good information.”

Like DiCapo and others, Harper could not agree with the JDRC on the lease. She had $330,000 in available start-up money, yet the rules were stifling. “You had to pour your own concrete slab,” Harper says. “You had to do your own signage, but it had to be consistent with the historic district. The market was unproven. We felt it needed to be a better partnership for me to take on a risk like this.”

Harper wrote a memo to the JDRC “requesting a viable marketing plan with some indication of the amount of money that would be spent by JDRC to help attract and bring potential customers to the district.” She also wanted the JRDC to supply the furnace, air conditioning and ductwork and pay six months’ rent. And she asked for a bigger rebate for the improvements she would have to make on her own, writing, “The current amount of $15 per square foot we feel is inadequate for leasehold improvements such as: plumbing, bathrooms, walls, ceilings and electrical, all of which benefit the landlord (JDRC) in an area that has no proven track record or enticement for potential customers.”

Fleming told Harper she would have to install her own air conditioning. And, he said, if he waived her rent for six months, he wouldn’t be able to pay the project’s construction bills. Harper, he says, has “known for a year and a half that she was responsible for leasehold improvements.”

Despite the delays, Harper decided to move forward. In January she contacted architects and designers to plan for a summer opening. But then Fleming told her that her numbers were too consistent — they did not take into account changes in the number of people coming to eat on a given day or the varying amounts they would spend. She replied that several advisors had signed off on her numbers.

“I don’t think you know what the hell you guys are doing,” she told him.

Yet, Harper says, she recently received a letter of intent from the JDRC, which has improved her likelihood of getting a loan. Now she thinks she’ll sign a lease at the end of June, start her improvements in June or July and be open for business by late fall.

Jerry Gaines says that when it comes to commercial real estate deals, that sort of timetable is pushing it. For buildings that are already up, it usually takes three to four months for a tenant to sign the lease, make the leasehold improvements and open. With new buildings, the process might take six more months, though those figures can vary with changes in weather or exotic leasehold construction. But when it comes to the wait at 18th and Vine, he says, “That’s way too long.”

Still, other restaurateurs are also making it through the process. Mike Hughes and his family started working with the BEU back in 1997 on plans to open a Cajun restaurant called New Iberian Heaven, which he hopes will be up and running this summer.

“Business is not easy anywhere,” Hughes says. “Entrepreneurs have to do some things they didn’t expect to have to do. I feel Al and them have some challenges. He’s doing all he can do.”

It also appears that the district will finally have a local soul-food anchor — years after the Sylvia’s debacle. Vera Willis plans to open a second Peach Tree restaurant; its 6,400 square feet is almost twice the size of the buffet she owns on Eastwood Trafficway. “Restaurants are risky businesses,” she says. “Banks are reluctant to even loan you money.”

Willis knows. She and her husband, James, started the Peach Tree in 1996 after James, a longtime operations manager with the Kansas City school district, was laid off. Most of their start-up money went toward removing the concrete floor and installing new pipes at her original location.

At first, Willis didn’t pay much attention to the jazz district. She had her own restaurant to worry about. But when Sylvia’s bailed out in 1999, Willis got in touch with Fleming. She found the process as difficult as others have, but she says she knew what she was getting into. “When I looked at that lease, I knew I wasn’t signing it without negotiating. Leases are always drawn in the landlord’s favor.”

Willis submitted the Peach Tree’s plans to the city last October. She finally received a construction permit in late March. “Now that I have the key in my hand, my knees are shaking,” she says. She faces astronomical quotes from builders. Haggling with them will push the opening date back to sometime in June or early July.

She says Fleming has been professional and congenial and has accomplished more than anyone else at the district. “What these entrepreneurs are saying is, ‘We want some help up front,’ and what Fleming’s said from day one is, ‘There is none,'” Willis says.

Willis wanted more concessions from Fleming, too. She wanted him to approve her purchase of more expensive awnings, like those at the Plaza’s P.F. Chang’s or Capital Grille. Her awnings are cheaper, but she got them. “I’m still not happy with everything,” she says. “I thought they should pay my attorney. I was trying to get what I could get. This is war.”

Even critics like Marie Young haven’t given up on 18th and Vine — the Black Chamber of Commerce still has its headquarters there. Though Sprint recently announced it would close its 18th and Vine call center and transfer its 28 employees to Lenexa, Fleming points out that there are other employers in the area, such as the Full Employment Council, the city’s water department and the Area Transportation Authority. Those three combined employ more than 1,300 workers.

Still, during the lunch rush at the Vine Street Deli, owner Marguerite Walker has time to smoke four cigarettes, chat at length with a few customers and thumb through an architectural catalog.

She is ready to bolt.

Walker and her husband bought the property at 1827 Vine Street in the early ’90s. She knew she could make a hell of a sandwich, so she decided to open a deli last summer. Mayor Kay Barnes attended her grand opening, but there hasn’t been much action since.

Now Walker wants to sell. “I had to be insane,” she says of her decision to open on 18th and Vine. But even Walker has some hope: She also owns the old Club Mardi Gras and says she wants to reopen it later this year.

For his part, Fleming is proud of his work. “I think the JDRC has done an excellent job to get the project off the ground and running,” he says. He notes that the residential parts of the buildings are almost 100 percent occupied — proof, he says, that the area is about ready to “kick off.” Redevelopment projects to the south could bring in more than 1,000 housing units in the coming years. By the fall, he says, the district will also be home to a new jazz club and a lounge.

“I’ve never second-guessed my process,” Fleming says. “I think it’s laid out in a way that is fair to everyone.”

But if 18th and Vine continues to be beset by delays and hollow promises, the message will be clear: Kansas City was once great, but now it’s second-rate.

Behind the Jazz and Negro Leagues museums is the Jay McShann Pavilion, a small concrete plaza covered by a white tent designed to host outdoor concerts. The structure is only a few years old, but a hole has already ripped through its center. Nearby, a giant, oddly disconcerting Charlie Parker statue keeps its eyes closed. As if Bird refuses to watch.

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