Below is a letter sent on behalf of Downtown Neighborhood Association with respect to the recent Request For Proposal (RFP) issued by the city for city owned property at 5th St. and Main St. in the River Market neighborhood.  The letter was sent to various stakeholders within the Kansas City city government.

Dear Stakeholders:

I am writing on behalf of the Downtown Neighborhood Association regarding the recent Request for Proposals (“RFP”) issued by the City for the city-owned lots at 5th and Main.  

This is an exciting time in Downtown Kansas City, with the construction of the streetcar starter line, rehabilitation of multiple historic buildings underway, and a number of new developments moving forward.  We are pleased the City recognizes the potential of the 5th and Main parcels to fully contribute to River Market’s vitality seven days a week.  They can be so much more than seasonal, one-day-a-week surface parking for our historic City Market.

This is a new, precedent-setting process and it is therefore crucial the City achieve the highest and best use for these parcels.  As such, we are concerned both with the RFP requirement to maintain the status quo on parking, and the overall inattentiveness to urban design.  As presented, the RFP and winning proposal risk undermining the future success of the streetcar and the City’s proposed transit-oriented development (TOD) policy.  The RFP also fails to mention the Greater Downtown Area Plan (GDAP) or the City’s comprehensive plan (FOCUS) and consequently omits critical information about civic expectations, City policies, and the social and physical conditions of the site and its context.  

1.    The RFP parking requirements conflict with the City’s investment in streetcar and planning goals for walkability.

We are in the midst of a transformation from a ‘drive-first’ city to one where walking, biking, and transit in the urban core are utilized before driving.  These parcels should be a poster-child for this shift, emphasizing transit-oriented, mixed-use, high-quality, dense urban infill development that utilizes the adjacent streetcar line and walkable character of the River Market.  Such a transformation will have a profoundly positive impact on property values, retail sales, and residents’ quality of life.  While this shift has been a strategic planning goal of the City since FOCUS was adopted in the late 1990s, most new development occurring downtown remains auto-oriented.   The City must support a quality pedestrian environment by focusing active uses and amenities at street level, orienting buildings toward the street, and encouraging the transparency, variety, visibility, and interactivity of ground level uses fronting the sidewalk.  

The RFP and proposed development fail in this respect.  Instead, the RFP requires existing parking capacity be maintained, resulting in new parking capacity to serve residents of the development.  There appears to be a disconnect between the desire for development spurred by the streetcar and the embrace of the streetcar as a catalyst to shift transport modes.  Once the streetcar is operational hundreds of parking spaces will become available a short, free streetcar ride away from City Market.  Leveraging both the streetcar and existing parking assets should be a critical component of the effort to achieve the highest and best use for these parcels.

2.    GDAP discourages suburban-style design and parking.

The lack of emphasis on urban design during the RFP process is also disconcerting.  The design quality of a project has a significant effect on its long-term financial success and that of the neighborhood.  By failing to mention the GDAP or FOCUS plans, the RFP omits crucial design guidance to assist developers in crafting a proposal that harmonizes civic expectations, City policy, and the social and physical conditions of the neighborhood and parcels.

Consequently, the winning proposal touts suburban strip mall and big box development in its project portfolio.  This may signify that the developer lacks an understanding of urban design, and how to build a project appropriate to this specific context.  The most alarming feature of the winning proposal is the transformation of the north parcel into an unscreened, single-use parking garage – something explicitly discouraged by the GDAP.  Best practices suggest designing new parking structures so that they are not visible at street level, but rather underground or wrapped with other uses, including an active ground floor.  ”Parking podiums” - where new development is placed above structured parking, limiting ground-level activity and “eyes on the street” - are discouraged.

The appearance of the buildings in the proposed renderings is also problematic.  Historicist architectural design is explicitly discouraged in both GDAP and FOCUS.  Some buildings may be traditional and others contemporary in style, but each must complement the whole through appropriate attention to scale and detail. Traditional-style buildings should not be a caricature of historical styles, or a faux-nostalgic reproduction; rather, they should include the depth of articulation, fenestration, and thorough execution of detail befitting their style while using materials in a meaningful way. True to our City’s strong arts focus, the participation of local artisans/craftsmen in detailing and materials should be encouraged.  

3.     The City’s RFP scoring and decision-making process is not sufficiently transparent.    

Analyzing the individual proposals, it is difficult to discern how each was scored and the weight given to each metric.  One reasonable expectation of the City should be to achieve a market rate return on these properties.  The parking requirement may inhibit the City’s ability to achieve this.  This requirement reduces the flexibility available to developers by forcing them to devote significant project square footage and expense to parking for market patrons, space that will remain largely unused outside of seasonal Saturday mornings.

We sympathize with the desire for local firms to be employed on these projects; however the winning proposal indicates that its developer may lack sufficient experience with this type of project. To ensure that the pool of participants is not artificially restricted, future RFPs should be submitted to Smart Growth America’s LOCUS development network and the Urban Land Institute (ULI) Marketplace.

In closing, we ask that the proposed development be held to the highest standards of contemporary urban development while embracing the neighborhood’s character and the streetcar.  The developer need look no further than the GDAP for direction on these core issues, and we hope that the City Planning Department uses the same plan to guide decision making throughout this process.  River Market is one of Kansas City’s most exciting and beloved urban neighborhoods. Well-executed development of the 5th and Main parcels will draw people to the neighborhood not just on seasonal Saturdays, but every day of the year.  

Sincerely,

James W. Rice
Vice President of Planning & Development,
Development Committee Chairman
Downtown Neighborhood Association

Download the copy of the letter

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