When we cheer our new, much-improved downtown — as we have every right to do — we cannot do so unreservedly.
We already knew that because taxpayer dollars are underwriting the Power & Light District to the tune of about $10 million a year, and that number apparently is headed higher before it will come back down and finally go away.
But The Star’s Kevin Collison reinforced the reservations about downtown redevelopment on Sunday with a close look at the dramatic loss of jobs and the sharp upswing in vacant office space downtown.
Collison’s A1 story said that while attractions like the P&L District and the Sprint and Kauffman centers have prompted “more people to live and play downtown,” it’s a different story on the business front. “U.S. Census data shows that from 2001 to 2011…greater downtown lost 19.6 perrcent of its private employees,” Collison reported. “That’s 16,237 fewer private jobs.”
Reflecting the decline in jobs, Collison continued, the vacancy rate for Class A and B office space stood at 27 percent in the first quarter of 2013, compared to 19 percent for the same quarter 10 years ago.
Those are striking statistics, I’m sure you’ll agree. Collison said part of the problem is that downtown has lost employees and businesses to the Kansas suburbs and to the Country Club Plaza. To see the impending impact of the Plaza, all you have to do is look at the Plaza Vista project that is coming together on the Plaza’s west side. That will be the new Kansas City area home of the Polsinelli law firm, which currently has big presences on the Plaza and downtown.
Collison quoted one developer, Tim Schaffer of RED Brokerage, as saying that despite the high vacancy rate, downtown needs more modern office space.
Some of the highest vacancy rates are in some of the oldest buildings, including One Kansas City Place, Town Pavilion and City Center Square, all of which were built in the 1970s and 1980s. In other words, it’s kind of like our airport situation: We’ve got an airport that is convenient and manageable, but it is not appealing to many users, to the airlines and to the government, which has to provide an overabundance of security employees because of the dated three-terminal set-up.
Just as with the airport, we need to kick into high gear on new or rehabbed downtown office buildings. It’s going to require some developers to stick their necks out and bet on the future of downtown.
I’m betting on it…but, then, that’s easy for me to say because I’m not putting any money on the table.
Nevertheless, here’s the main reason I’m betting on it. Collison quoted Bill Dietrich, president of the Downtown Council, as saying…
“We are trying to change attitudes that have developed over 30-plus years…But the enhancements in downtown have saved downtown. It would have been a lost cause and we’re poised to recover.”
He’s absolutely right. Think of what downtown would be like if we still had the nasty bars on 12th and Main streets, the windowless massage parlors on 14th and the crumbling sidewalks on Baltimore at 12th. Think of what downtown would be like without the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts, Sprint Center, the Power & Light District and the new H&R Bloch building.
Without those changes, there is no way we could lay claim to being “a great city.” We would be bathed in shame and ignominy. We would be an apple rotting from the inside out…I, for one, would have been tempted to bail to another midwestern city that was on the move, like Denver or Indianapolis. (I don’t know if I could have talked Patty into it, but I believe I would have given it a major effort.)
But with the Sprint Center packing people in for concerts and basketball tournaments; the Kauffman Center filling up for symphony and opera performances; and the P&L bars, restaurants and stores serving up energy and excitement, we are in pretty good shape; we can take a lot of pride in our transformed downtown.
We just need a young version of Larry Bridges, or a few people like him. Remember? Bridges’ goal was simple: All he wanted to do was build tall buildings. It helped, of course, that he had the late Frank Morgan’s money behind him.
So, it’s not like snapping your fingers. We need people with money…people with money and vision. Then, we would really take off.
Oh, and give me that new airport terminal, too.