commentary
September 16, 2005

 

A pocket full of dynamite works both ways

by Patrick Dobson

I reveal this bias: I am a Westsider. I am active in neighborhood affairs. This is my spot on the planet. It is not only the place I belong but where neighbors are people I like, love and don’t like. I am intensely loyal to them. This is my home. I am its partisan.

I was one of about eighty people present the night Screenland owner Butch Rigby seemed to think his redevelopment plan was a shoe-in.

He had all the credentials. He built the city's greatest art and indy movie house in an old fish distribution company's building, turning a broken Westside detriment into a jewel. Before this, his rehab of a building on 18th Street between Wyandotte and Central spurred revival of the blocks along 18th Street from Broadway to Baltimore. On the Westside and in downtown circles, he's admired as bootstrap entrepreneur who has invested his time and money here without the public assistance to which larger developers feel entitled.

So, when he appeared before a Westside neighborhood meeting — which was, as most are, raucous, chaotic, democratic affairs — at Posada Del Sol last month to sell his Old Film Row Area Plan, he expected least that the crowd would be skeptical, if not, in parts, downright cynical. In fact, until he finished his presentation, he didn’t know his plan was like a pocket full of fused and lit dynamite.

Rather than being welcomed, he found himself on the grill — not personally but professionally. Though he has been a good businessperson in the neighborhood so far, he had mistakenly thought his redevelopment plan would be accepted with little comment. Neighbors questioned the lack of notification before getting the plan into its second and third stages, which includes a slot on the City Plan Commission docket Sept. 20. His plan included eminent domain, which is anathema here. The plan straddled Broadway, extending into the Westside to I-35; and if there is anything Westsiders don’t like, it’s being told their neighborhood is not Westside but confused with someplace else.

Butch started at a disadvantage that was not his own. He presented his plan after a suburban woman revealed her plan to condo the Old World Antiques building near 17th and Summit. Like most outsiders that see the Westside as a hip-family alternative to the edgy Crossroads, she was one of number investors the Westside is crawling with these days. It’s not a bad thing, in itself, to want a solid place to put your money. But this is an area where people’s homes are the center of their entire world, not just an investment. Being a “neighbor” on the Westside means proving oneself by giving other neighbors loyalty and trust regardless of economic means, race or ethnicity.

The poor woman, however, started her presentation by using the term "discovered." She and her husband had spied the For Sale sign while eating at the Bluebird, a restaurant at the corner of 17th and Summit. The neighborhood was just perfect for the kind of condo life they wanted to lead. She also said her investment would "help" improve the Westside.

What she discovered, really (though she didn’t know it), was a romanticized version of an urban neighborhood that inhabits a completely different realm than her present Blue Springs ranch home. It’s one rife with complicated and difficult to navigate native sensibilities. And since none of us like being discovered, its questionable the Westside needs the kind of help she wanted to offer.

So, Butch stood before a tough audience, one wary of being run over by “whitey” (the imperialistic cultural and economic notion, independent of race). He seemed not to realize his plan, like any redevelopment plan launched that includes the Westside, smelled of the very city development and redevelopment processes had historically sacrificed the Westside to whatever outside interests wanted of it.

Over the course of the last 50 years, the federal government, in collusion with the local highway commission, cut three interstates through the neighborhood. I-35 demolished a great swath of the eastern edge of the neighborhood and chopped through its historic center with its curve into Kansas. I-670 hatcheted a deep gorge through Silk Stocking Ridge into the West Bottoms and left the Westside, physically, much like a loaf of bread with a several slices removed from the middle. Residents fought to save their homes, but, at that time, no one paid much attention to people they believed didn’t have anything to lose.

To build West High School, West Middle School and Switzer Elementary in the middle of the 20th century, The Kansas City, MO School District had also used eminent domain. Homes and land in an irregular rectangle from 20th Street to 18th along Summit and Madison streets were sacrificed for school expansion. During the district's $2 billion renewal in the 1980s and 1990s, the school district also took a swath of neighborhood between 14th and 16th streets, from Belleview to Holly for Primativo Garcia Elementary. In these instances, the schools actually became neighborhood assets. But instead of renovating West, West Middle and Switzer, the district built Primativo Garcia, taking not only vital residential dwellings but leaving behemoth decaying buildings in the heart of our neighborhood.

Then, there’s Avenida Cesar Chaves (23rd Street)…but that’s a whole set of stories of displacement, pain and ill feeling.

So, with eminent domain, Butch had a non-starter. Plus, though Butch seems to have a firm idea of what he wants to do with his properties, his partners on the plan seem to feel entitled. They have businesses. They want a piece of the pie. They just don’t know what they want to do yet. It’s the difference between building and speculation.

The unfortunate part for Butch is that he has good intent. He and other small and medium businesses have to deal with rising taxes that come with development — because those who developed or redeveloped with the help of public funds have their taxes frozen and abated for up to 25 years. In a weird logic that comes from the city's own effort to attract developers to the inner city, those that have never sought public funds now have to pay full tax burdens of their assets’ value increase — and subsequently need protection from increasing taxes by further tax abatements.

Butch put together his plan, he said, to allow four building owners to remodel and expand their properties without having to haul the tax burden subsidized developers aren’t paying. But the commission he went to, the Planned Industrial Expansion Board, does not allow individual building owners to apply for tax abatements. Rather, the building owners must be part of a redevelopment plan larger than three acres. Another issue is that the Westside west of Broadway to I-35 includes residential areas.

The ability of a developer (not just Butch, but any developer, large or small) to bring a plan to a neighborhood with which the neighborhood must compromise is the major ill at the heart of publicly funded development. Developers pay the Economic Development Commission (EDC) to review their plans for worthiness and then to parcel the plans out to such boards and commissions as the Planned Industrial Expansion Board, the Land Clearance for Redevelopment Authority or the Tax-Increment Financing Commission. While all plans must be approved by the City Council, the work of selling the plans to public, the plans’ details and how much money plans will receive from the public is done through the EDC, which becomes, basically, an advocate for the developer. The neighborhood is represented or not by their city council representative and have to swallow what the council votes for.

So, all the neighborhood is left with are their own voices. And fortunately, the Westside has one of the most democratic and strongly backed neighborhood organizations in the city. The EDC is wary of having their great plans bogged down in an extracted media battle between neighbors and developers, a fight which developers lose. The city council doesn’t want a chamber full of angry natives. The Westside is willing to get into that fight if threatened, cajoled or ignored.

Fortunately for Butch, he has agreed to eliminate eminent domain from the plan — his intent is to preserve old buildings, he says, and allow people with investment in the neighborhood to stay there. Plus, he’s seems willing to narrow his plan to include the few building owners like him. Neighborhood backing is likely to depend on whether the PIEA allows that to happen and Butch does what he says he’s going to do.

What makes this all so difficult for Butch is that he has come to represent the way city processes work against, rather than with, neighborhoods. While mouths at city hall say they want strong neighborhoods, they really want neighborhoods that behave well and don’t get in the way. What the Westside has gone through and continues to go through is emblematic of the issues that all neighborhoods have to deal with in the face of development.

The city’s behind any developer that waves money under its nose; it just doesn’t want a black eye. Butch’s misfortune is that he doesn’t have the money to wave around that, say, the Muriel Kauffman Foundation or DST do, and those same processes that can help him increase his investment are the ones make him look like the rest of the bad guys.

He’ll have to work hard because the neighborhood has used the willingness of developers to destroy neighborhoods to rally, become a stronger neighborhood. No one wants to see Butch fail. But most Westsiders are unwilling to sacrifice their neighbors, either.

Patrick Dobson can be contacted at patrickdobson@earthlink.net.


              
              
                 

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