How the Downtown Council is fostering sustainable downtown development

MetroWire Media  |  Real Estate News  |  December 15, 2015

The Downtown Council is working on a number of initiatives to encourage the economic development and sustainable development of downtown Kansas City - and it's been an integral piece of growing downtown by leaps and bounds over the past decade.

"What we do as economic development and sustainable development is really guerrilla warfare we do it block by block, storefront by storefront," President and CEO Bill Dietrich said. "The advancements you've seen are the result of private individuals taking risk. But it wasn't always that way."

Dietrich illustrated that case when he kicked off a discussion with the KC Downtowners last week by starkly contrasting the bustling urban core of today versus the downtown Kansas City of 1999. That year, U2 descended on Kansas City to shoot a music video.

"Who wouldn't like to have the world's largest rock star in downtown Kansas City shooting a scene? Until you realize the video is called The Last Night on Earth and set in a post-apocalyptic scene," Dietrich said, and showed the music ideo, which showcased 16 to 18 blocks of "the worst kind of blight you could imagine." In fact, Kansas City was on the edge of losing its downtown altogether and becoming what Dietrich calls a "donut city."

But by focusing first on infrastructure, the organization has helped build downtown into a national success story. Today, downtown Kansas City has a residential population of 21,000. But it still has a long way to go to reach its goal of 40,000 downtown residents, which is roughly 2 percent of Kansas City's MSA - the national standard for a sustainable downtown residential population.

"What 40,000 people gives you is the ability to have all of the service retail that works in the suburbs work downtown," Dietrich said. "It needs that kind of client base to be sustainable."

New multifamily residential projects like One Light and the Power & Light Building historic conversion are helping achieve this goal, not just by adding product but by growing the rent base and allowing for less incentives to be used.

Driving residential growth is just one of a handful of goals the group is tackling in the coming year. First and foremost, Dietrich said, the streetcar marks the end of one phase and the beginning of another, and while it will be operational by spring of 2016, the more quickly an extension line is built, the better.

"Transit-oriented development is a reality," he said. "People will not invest along a bus line; It could be moved tomorrow. People invest along the rail line. Since the announcement of the streetcar, there's been more than $1.5 billion of investment within 4 blocks on either side of the line. We believe that if we can get this to UMKC's Volker campus, the Plaza, Westport, and Main Street, you'll see the same kind of investment follow that corridor. It's teed up for it."

The Downtown Council is also working on a major initiative to attract and retain companies who want to locate downtown. But first, new Class A office space must be created.

"There are lots of reasons why people choose where they locate their business, but if you look at new businesses - young entrepreneurial companies like Sungevity, DSI or Google - what they're looking for is big wide open footprints, lots of HVAC, power, and fiber optic capabilities. In downtown we have three options for you at more than 50,000 square feet. When we talk about recruiting new major businesses, we really don't have the inventory for it."

Dietrich pointed to projects like the Corrigan building, a $40 million project by Copaken Brooks to turn the building into 144,000 square feet of Class A office space and add an additional new 30,000 square foot building. "There's still a lot to be done," he said. "You only have to look at an aerial photo of the Crossroads or central business district to see that there are still a lot of surface parking lots that need infill development." However, Dietrich knows that incentive policy issues can be barriers to development, and wants to iron out policy issues between taxing jurisdictions and developers.

"The development community needs three things in any kind of project: transparency, consistency, and time to market dependability," he said. "That's what they're looking for. Rules can't be changing all the time."

To hear more about how the Downtown Council is effecting change, register to attend the organization's annual luncheon on January 8 at the Grand Ballroom, where Cushman & Wakefield Vice President Jason Tolliver will deliver a speech on why companies are rediscovering and moving back into downtowns. For more information, click here

Photo: Bill Dietrich, president and CEO of the Downtown Council. Courtesy of MetroWire Media

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