By Paul Thompson
A proposed retail development at 2600 Independence Avenue will have to wait at least another month for a chance at approval from the City Council’s Planning, Zoning and Economic Development committee.
The short-handed PZED committee – members Katheryn Shields and Quinton Lucas weren’t present – opted against making a decision on Ordinances No. 180189 and 180199 on Wednesday, June 20, instead opting to hold the items until July 25 to allow time for further conversation. Both ordinances are related to the same retail development – a speculative venture located at the site of a deadly October 2015 fire that tragically claimed the lives of KCFD firefighters John Mesh and Larry Leggio.
The project has made its way through several layers of City government, earning approval from the City Plan Commission and the Landmark Commission. Robert Andrew, President and Senior Project Engineer of developer Mid-west Associated Contractors, Corporation (M.A.C. Corp.), spoke at the June 20 meeting on behalf of property owner BA Properties, LLC; a group that also owns the Bao Anh Jewelry store at 1835 Independence Avenue.
To the developers, even a one-month delay is a significant setback for a project that initially earned City Plan Commission approval in May of 2017.
“If they keep delaying it, we’re going to miss another construction season,” said Eric Solomon, Assistant Project Manager and Engineering Technician for M.A.C. Corp. “It’s probably going to delay it until next year, which makes it less economically feasible.”
While beating back this development would be a near-term victory for neighborhood leaders opposed to the project, it could portend development struggles moving forward. If the M.A.C. Corp development is struck down, the northeast corner of Prospect and Independence could be without development for a long while. At least at present, BA Properties, LLC isn’t looking to offload the parcel to another developer.
“For the foreseeable future, she’s not looking to sell the property,” Solomon said. “It’s basically a giant pit in the neighborhood that isn’t doing anybody any good. The longer this plays out, the worse it is for everyone.”
Andrew informed the committee that the project was granted a 10-year, 50% tax abatement from the Chapter 353 Program in early June – a revelation that drew an audible gasp from the community contingent that traveled to City Hall to voice opposition to the project.
“We were shocked about the tax abatement approval,” said Whitney Barnardo, Pendleton Heights Neighborhood Association President.
To neighborhood leaders, any development at the site needs to be mixed-use – a combination of retail stores and residential units. Barnardo testified at the meeting that she’s been surprised that the City hasn’t placed a higher priority on mixed-use projects in the urban core.
“I’m not sure why Kansas City is not learning from other cities that you have to have mixed-income and mixed-use for a successful urban neighborhood,” Barnardo said.
Mary Cyr, Director of Northeast Alliance Together (NEAT), told the committee that the Historic Northeast’s six neighborhoods have banded together in opposition to the speculative project based on the lack of signed retail tenants and the need for housing at the proposed development.
“All six neighborhoods of the Northeast disagree with this proposal and do not support it,” Cyr said.
PZED committee chair Scott Taylor followed up on the concerns of the community, asking Andrew about the potential retail tenant mix and inquiring about how M.A.C. Corp concluded that residential units at the site were not economically feasible.
Andrew conceded that the project is purely speculative, and relayed that the property owners do not have interest in persevering through the learning curve associated with owning and operating residential units. Andrew further argued that there isn’t enough space in the parking lot to accommodate the residential units requested by neighborhood leaders even if residential units had been considered economically viable.
He added that M.A.C. Corp has been speaking with potential retail tenants from clothing boutiques to restaurants, but admitted that M.A.C. Corp have thus far been unable to consummate deals with tenants.
“We’ve been plagued with uncertainty,” Andrew said.
On the issue of economics, Andrew offered contradictory opinions on the value of developing projects in the Northeast.
“It’s a risky development because its in an area that is surrounded by economic obsolescence,” Andrew said, before looking toward the future. “I think the neighborhood is in the beginning stages of a resurgence.”
Another point of discussion at the meeting was a potential memorial for the fallen KCFD firefighters who perished during the October 2015 fire, which also destroyed the previous mixed-used development that stood at the site. Andrew said that he’s committed to building a memorial, but noted that the developers aren’t interested in speculatively commissioning the design of the memorial. While Andrew noted that a renowned architect has been tapped to help design a memorial, he added that the project has been put on hold while the property owner waits for a green light on the development.
“We are committed to having that memorial,” Andrew said. “We think it’s good for the neighborhood, and we think it’s the right thing to do.”
While some neighborhood leaders raised concerns that the project doesn’t comply with Kansas City’s transit-oriented development (TOD) policies, KCMO City Planning and Development Jeffrey Williams conceded that the City’s TOD policy is merely a guideline, not a rule.
“There is nothing specific within that policy that mandates things such as mixed-used or size of building,” Williams said.
Williams added that the proposed structure adheres to the rest of the City’s zoning regulations, such as parks and boulevards standards and historic district requirements. That said, the committee wasn’t prepared to move forward on a project with so much community opposition and so many questions left to answer.
“Maybe your client isn’t quite prepared yet to even be before us on this project,” said 1st District Councilwoman Heather Hall. “What I hear is a lot of questions.”
Hall added that in her experience, the developers will need community support in order to make the development a success once it’s completed.
“If the community does not embrace a project, then the project doesn’t happen,” Hall said. “If it does happen, then it’s not successful, because the community will not shop there.”
Though 3rd District Councilman Quinton Lucas was out of town for the June 20 meeting, he took to social media to request that the ordinances be held to allow for more community discussion on the project.
“Stakeholders have worked hard to create strong design standards in the Historic Northeast and on Independence Ave.,” Lucas tweeted. “No reason we need to move with haste now and get the wrong project. Let’s work w/ the community.”
Committee chair Scott Taylor ultimately opted to delay the items until July 25, but he indicated that he was close to pulling the ordinances off of the docket completely.
“Personally, I think we should hold this off docket,” Taylor said. “I don’t think this project is ready.”
Andrew said after the meeting that he’s willing to meet again with neighborhood leaders, and that he’s planning on reaching out to 3rd District Council members Lucas and Jermaine Reed for additional guidance. That said, Andrew indicated that if the July 25 meeting doesn’t go better than the one on June 20, the project may not go forward at all. With no immediate inclination from the ownership group to sell the property, it could remain without any development for the foreseeable future. Is that a price that neighborhood leaders are willing to pay?
For her part, Barnardo relayed optimism that the standoff won’t go that far.
“I don’t think it will ever get to that point,” Barnardo said. “I think the neighborhood is extremely creative and resourceful.”
In the interim, Barnardo says that she is thankful for the support from the rest of the Northeast Neighborhoods as Pendleton Heights works to ensure the best possible development for the corner of Independence and Prospect.
“I’m just pleased so much support we’ve gotten from all the other neighborhoods,” Barnardo said. “That has just been overwhelmingly wonderful. We all use all the same resources. I actually feel like it makes a lot of sense.”