Yesterday, I went looking for possible sites for big, new office buildings on the north side of 47th Street, east of Broadway.
I’m not a developer, let me assure you; I’m just a 4th District, Kansas City resident who is, and long has been, interested in what happens on the Country Club Plaza, the distinctive and true jewel of the city.
I went looking for possible construction sites because, if The Cowardly and Lame Duck City Council does what a lot of people expect it to do tomorrow, we could be seeing several more new office buildings between Broadway and J.C. Nichols Parkway in the coming years.
The issue tomorrow will be rezoning a site behind the Balcony Building, where the Neptune Apartments now sit, on the northeast corner of 47th Street and Broadway. Highwoods Properties, which owns the Plaza is seeking the rezoning to allow for construction of a high-rise office building, to be used by the Polsinelli Shughart law firm or perhaps another tenant, if Polsinelli Shughart can’t make the timing work.
In an interview yesterday, Vicki Noteis, a former city planning director who is advising the rezoning opponents, a group called Save the Plaza, warned that the rezoning could be precedent setting; it could mark the beginning of the end of the 1989 Plaza Urban Design and Development Plan, which essentially limits commercial development to the west and northwest parts of the Plaza.
Everywhere else, retail holds sway. Retail, which makes the Plaza a fun place to spend time and generates the bulk of pedestrian traffic, including our beloved visitors from Iowa, Nebraska and other Midwestern states.
“It’s really important to hold the line on this,” Noteis said. “It you break this line, I think you’ve got a problem. You have to respect a line someplace.”
If that line is trampled in the sand…
Well, how would you like to see a big, new office building on the site of Fogo de Chao, the Brazilian steak house between Wornall and Wyandotte? Or at the site of the Commerce Bank Building and P.F. Chang’s, between Wyandotte and J.C. Nichols Parkway?
Could happen. It would take more rezoning, but, once the line is blurred, what’s to stop commercial creep from breaking into a run?
Highwoods, which bought the J.C. Nichols Co. more than 10 years ago, is primarily in the business of owning and leasing commercial properties — office buildings, that is. Its aim, said Noteis, is “higher density” on the Plaza. That means fewer low-level retail buildings and more high-rise office buildings.
And that’s exactly what opponents of this ill-conceived plan — including me — believe would ruin the character of the Plaza.
It’s true, of course, that Highwoods, which owns the place, has a right to put its vision forward. But we, the Kansas City residents who honor and appreciate what we see as the greater vision of the late Jesse Clyde Nichols and his son, the late Miller Nichols, should have something to say about what happens there.
If this deal goes through, the opponents will mount an initiative petition, which would put the rezoning to a public vote. If you’ll recall, voters rejected another grandiose plan — the Sailors project, on 47th, east of Main Street — in the 1980s.
I would expect a similar result on this issue.
Keep in mind that The Cowardly and Lame Duck City Council is taking up this issue three days before its collective term expires.
Seven of the 13 council members are leaving office. They are Mayor Mark Funkhouser, Deb Hermann, Bill Skaggs, Sharon Sanders Brooks, Beth Gottstein, Terry Riley and Cathy Jolly. The other six — Ed Ford, Russ Johnson, Melba Curls, Jan Marcason, Cindy Circo and John Sharp — are going into their second terms and will be prohibited, by the city’s two-term limit, from seeking re-election in 2015.
Essentially, then, these council members — with the exception of any that might run for mayor in the future — can jam this rezoning down the throats of the public with impunity. There will be no way for city residents to hold them accountable at the polls in the foreseeable future.
Council members who are considered almost certain to vote “yes” are Skaggs, who is sponsoring the ordinance; Hermann; Ford; Johnson; Marcason; Circo; and Jolly.
That’s seven, which is what it takes to approve the rezoning.
The proponents say they want to insure that Polsinelli Shughart and its 500 employees stay in KCMO. Ironically, however, it might not be Polsinelli Shughart that takes advantage of the rezoning. The firm needs to be out of its present building, on 47th Street west of Broadway, by the end of 2013, and a referendum easily could push the completion of construction well past that time.
So what we could see, Noteis pointed out, is The Cowardly and Lame Duck Council approving a rezoning for no particular tenant, just a neatly wrapped present for Highwoods to use whenever it wanted down the road.
“The city’s responsibility,” Noteis said, “is to find a site for Polsinelli Shughart, not to rezone property for Highwoods…The city fell headlong into the (Highwoods) trap. There’s no reason to push this through on behalf of Highwoods.”
It’s very odd that the rezoning charge is being led by Skaggs, who lives in the Northland, as far as you can get from the Plaza and still be in the city. The two council members who should have the greatest interest in the issue — Marcason and Gottstein, who live in the 4th District — have largely been AWOL.
Last week, when the council’s Planning and Zoning Committee took up the issue — and recommended passage on a 3-1 vote — Gottstein abstained, saying she had a conflict because her fiance, a physician, has an office on 46th Terrace, near Wornall. To that, I say LAME!
Marcason is not on the Planning and Zoning Committee, but she, too, has been “nowhere to be found,” as the narrator on “The First 48” frequently intones when referring to missing suspects.
In a check of The Kansas City Star’s electronic library, I found only two stories in which Marcason, who was re-elected without opposition last month, was quoted on the rezoning issue.
Early this month, after Polsinelli Shughart said it was pulling out of the plan to build on the site of the Neptune, Marcason was quoted as saying, “I think we were going to have a pretty thoughtful discussion. We just didn’t have the chance to work them through to a conclusion.”
Last summer, after Highwoods and Polsinelli Shughart came forward with a redesigned plan — one that spared the Balcony Building, which faces 47th Street — Marcason was quoted as saying that the revised plan “looks very good.”
Yesterday afternoon, I put in a call to Marcason, and I spoke with her this afternoon. (She called this morning, but I didn’t pick up her message until late this afternoon. My apologies for the belated addition of her comments.)
She said she intended to vote for the rezoning for several reasons, including her desire to stop the loss of Missouri businesses to Kansas. “For us to say no, no, no (to the prospect of business expansion and development in Kansas city), I just don’t think that’s the message the council can afford to send at this time,” she said.
To the contrary, she said, Kansas City should be holding up a sign — figuratively speaking — that says, “Kansas City is not closed for business.”
Marcason also said that if the Polsinelli Shughart plan did not go forward because of the law firm’s time frame, Highwoods would have to bring any new proposal for the 47th and Broadway site back to the council for new approval.
Marcason said that the issue has become a tinder keg because of the badly flawed, initial plan that Highwoods and Polsinell Shughart came out with last year. That plan, which called for leveling the Balcony Building, turned many of the Save the Plaza people irrevocably against any subsequent plan that came forward. (The original plan has been amended twice.) Highwoods’ initial mistake, bad as it was, should not be held against the firm, Marcason said.
I appreciate Marcason’s comments, and I think her intentions are good and that she will vote on her conviction that the rezoning is in Kansas City’s best interests.
Still, to me, the greater concern is the “march of the office buildings” across Broadway. I think it’s a bad deal. I don’t like Highwoods; I don’t trust Highwoods; and I want Polsinelli Shughart to do the right thing and go to the West Edge.
I’m convinced that the new West Edge ownership team and the Polsinelli firm could come to terms that are financially acceptable to both sides.