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Downtown and beyond

Things are looking up and down for downtown

For twenty-plus years, I’ve been walking my dogs through downtown Kansas City. For a long time, we had the place to ourselves after about 6 p.m. at night. Nothing and no one stirred. My shouts and whoops—and the occasional bark—echoed down the urban canyons. About the only activity, except for an occasional event at Municipal Auditorium, centered on the downtown Marriot and a couple of bars.

Otherwise, my dogs and I wandered the graveyard of a once-great urban center. Certainly, there were businesses throughout downtown, mostly mom-and-pop shops, bars, and company headquarters. But come 5 p.m., the towers of City Center Square, the Town Pavilion, and the Power and Light building discharged workers who headed home to other parts of town.

Fridays brought activity to the Crossroads, then in its infancy. Artist Jim Leedy encouraged young art students to set up their studios around his studio and gallery at 2012 Baltimore. Down the street, a vibrant Hispanic area keep the midnight oil burning. But other than these isolated areas, downtown was, as the Germans say, “tote Hose,” or dead pants.

Slowly, the Crossroads began to grow. Artists established themselves throughout the area from 18th Street to the railyards across from Union Station and from Broadway to Main. The activity along Southwest Boulevard spread slowly to the east. Developers built condos in the derelict buildings on Grand north of Crown Center. Butch Rigby reclaimed an old warehouse and turned into a viable office building and movie theater on 17th Street and Washington. In 2006, the city sold $300 million in public bonds for the establishment of the Power and Light District.

At the time, I was critical of the Power and Light District. To build the 12-square-block entertainment district and Sprint Auditorium, the city had to use eminent domain to kick out a number of tens of small businesses and landowners. The public investment was outrageous. The Cordish Company and its tenants have never paid for themselves. The city used and continues to spend tens of millions of taxpayer dollars on the bonds it sold to build the district and the adjoining Sprint Center.

The city also did nothing to mitigate the poverty it displaced with the entertainment district. I’m no fan of landowners, particularly in a downtown that needed businesses and people to make it work. Landowners bought buildings and let them rot. Slumlords failed to invest in their properties. The place was a shambles, and in some ways, the adjoining areas of downtown are still in dire straits.

But, as much as I am still a critic of public subsidies for private business—welfare we don’t use to support people and communities but instead enrich the bottom lines of corporations and businesses—I have to say that the last fifteen years has seen life injected into once-dark streets and alleys.

When I walk now, I have to avoid the Power and Light District. There are too many people and cars for pleasant dog walking. But this is a good thing. Developers have renovated buildings and built condos, bringing more people downtown—unfortunately mostly white and upper middle class. On any given night, walkers, just regular people, stroll Southwest Boulevard and the areas around the entertainment district. The Town Topic restaurants on 19th and Baltimore and 20th and Broadway are no longer the only lights on in downtown.

Would these things have happened minus the public money the taxpayers made available to developers and business owners? If you believe in unfettered capitalism, you would say yes. Business would have turned downtown around at some point in the future. Capitalism is supposed to work like that. Properties that had great value fall into disrepair. Investors then snap up buildings and land that’s become cheaper over time. They turn their investments into profitable businesses. Old land gains new value. It flourishes a while then falls again into disrepair, etc. The cycle may take years or decades, maybe even centuries, but, if we have faith in capitalism, it all comes around in the end.

But American capitalism has a way of abandoning things and not renewing them. Think East St. Louis, for instance. For centuries now, federal, state, and local governments have provided business with incentives to make profitable things that had no value. Railroads are where they are today because national, local, and state governments provided profit incentives to railroad corporations.

Public incentives to city cores sped up in the last half of the twentieth century. In the final decades of the 1900s, the business of shifting taxpayer money to private pockets picked up such speed that developers in Kansas City come to the table with their hands out. As a developer I once interviewed said, “Public subsidies are the first thing you look for when you want to redevelop a building or buy a piece of ground. Business has some to rely on public money. We walk around with our hands out.”

The truth is that my developer friend has no faith in capitalism, and I would say that the Cordish Company, Shirley Helzberg—who recently demanded a controversial $5 million-dollar subsidy to redevelop a building to house BNIM architects in a thriving piece of the Crossroads District—and a number of other downtown developers have little faith in capitalism. They love profit, and to many business owners, it doesn’t matter where their profit comes from. If it occurs from taxpayer help for private business, then so be it.

As a Marxist, I believe in unrestrained capitalism. It’s part of the great turning of history that will one day lead to a time when all men and women will express their skills and talents without exploitation by others. Community will thrive because each person has their own personal worth and contribution to make. In the meantime, as a socialist, I also believe that businesses should pay for the privilege of profit—it’s not a right but an opportunity bestowed on the business owner by the community that supports him or her. We should not have to pay people to own profitable businesses. We should not have to reduce the risk for people who already have money.

In other words, businesses should not use public money. They shouldn’t get tax abatements. They should pay taxes.

These are the things I think about when I walk around downtown. Public subsidies—tax-increment financing, public bonds for private projects, tax abatements, Enterprise Zones, and tens of other ways taxpayer money gets transferred to business profit—only seem to work where they are targeted. I still walk long stretches of downtown streets between Broadway and Troost north of Eleventh and Twelfth to the River Market free from pedestrians and cars. The stretch of Grand from Truman to 21st Street is crumbled sidewalks and empty storefronts. Downtown east of Oak Street, except for the area the artist Stretch and his compatriots have made viable without public subsidies, is still a ghost town.

And then there’s the entire area east of downtown from Admiral Boulevard to 63rd Street, which city leaders might have as well written off the public subsidy map altogether. It exists as a wasteland but for a few stalwart business owners, slumlords, beleaguered homeowners, and residents of low-cost, even tawdry and uninhabitable apartments.

So, yes. Things are better for parts of downtown. The entertainment district and redevelopment have attracted a lot of white people downtown to live and play. The problem is that I have renegotiated my dog walking routines to target those areas of downtown and east of downtown that the feeders at the public trough, as well as elected officials who control public subsidies have forgotten.

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