Parks holds public hearings on naming MLK street

Abby Hoover
Managing Editor

The City of Kansas City, Mo., Board of Parks and Recreation Commissioners held two public hearings on a proposal to rename a street in Kansas City for Martin Luther King Jr., which was submitted on August 25.

Under the City of Kansas City Charter’s Article X, after the board agrees upon a name, public notice of the recommended name will occur twice during a 30-day period. The first public hearing was held during the board’s regular meeting on September 15. Only a handful of people spoke.

“This issue was voted on to rename Paseo, and it failed, I think considerably,” said Ted Derks, a commercial real estate broker. “Knowing that, I am surprised that it is being brought up again under a different uniform, or dress. I am against changing names. If we do change names, I think the public should have a say in it.”

He suggested the street instead be named after President Dwight D. Eisenhower, Winston Churchill or Mother Teresa.

“The [Country Club] Plaza is really struggling,” Derks said. “Somebody told me this morning there’s like 27 vacancies. It’s a major economic thing for the city, for this region, and [we] better protect it. It could become like Westport… There’s just gangs of young people running around and it’s a problem for the lessees and the owners of the Plaza.

Kansas City resident Pat Clarke agreed with Derks about the name change, but has been saying since Prospect was considered that the city should invest in changing the look, rather than the name. Clarke supports naming the airport after King once renovations are complete.

“Martin Luther King Jr. was more than a street, and to me, I don’t think that we’re honoring him by putting a street in Kansas City,” Clarke said. “We don’t need a Martin Luther King Drive. If you look statistically at everywhere there’s a Martin Luther King Drive, there’s death, drugs and destruction.”

Samantha Johnson, who works at Samuel U. Rodgers, took a poll around her community and found lots of people wondering about renaming the airport for King, and suggesting Troost Avenue, which she thinks should be renamed based on Dr. Benoist Troost’s racist actions.

A second public hearing was held on Thurs., September 17, at the Bruce R. Watkins Cultural Center.

“The Board of Parks and Recreation was given this task by the mayor and council who, after having been involved in several years of discussion regarding this effort, determined that it would probably be best if the Parks and Recreation Board and Department handle this since many of the ideas that have been submitted in the past were on boulevards, parkways and streets that are under the jurisdiction of the Parks and Recreation Department,” Board President Jack Holland said to preface the meeting.

Bryon Johnmeyer asked about the transparency of the decision. He said when the City Council renamed The Paseo, he and other residents were not involved in the process.

Holland clarified that the board has the authority to name and rename boulevards, streets and parkways without collecting signatures, but instead through a public hearing process, when a request is presented, unlike the council, which was an initiative petition.

“Two-thirds of this, roughly from Elmwood to Brookside, are under the jurisdiction of the Parks Board,” Director of Parks and Recreation Teresa Rynard said. “The section that is under the jurisdiction of the Public Works Department is Blue Parkway from Elmwood east to 55th Street.”

The process to rename that segment is not as clear, she said. That request is being taken through the Street Naming Committee, then it will go to the City Council. This section will require participation from adjacent property owners in the future, which a minimum of 50 would have to approve, with a 75% in favor vote.

Many residents who spoke requested funds that would be used during the street renaming process to go toward Martin Luther King Jr. Park at Woodland Avenue and Swope Parkway.

Citizen comments and recommendations can also be made in writing to Director of Parks and Recreation Teresa Rynard, and must be postmarked within the 30-day public notice period. After the 30-day public notice period, the director may request the board consider a resolution supporting the renaming of the Parks asset.

The board will next meet on Sept. 29, and may vote on the proposal then.

After numerous failed attempts in recent years from various parties to name a street for King, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference of Greater Kansas City (SCLC-GKC) made the formal recommendation to the board to rename the “major compilation of thoroughfares” now known as Blue Parkway starting at 55th Street, Swope Parkway and Volker Boulevard in honor of King.

The group’s support for this location is grounded in the principles they have embraced since they inaugurated this effort at the community’s request several years ago, a letter from Rev. Vernon Percy Howard Jr., president of the SCLC-GKC, to Commissioner Chris Goode said.

The location spans a “major quantity” of east-west miles through the City, which has always been an important factor to the group. 

“This artery assures direct exposure of the iconic Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd. to Black Lives, more particularly Black children, who suffer the most in our City from a lack of African American cultural and historical landmarks and education that bolster their sense of value, esteem and worth,” the letter said.

This location is within the “One City” Central City Economic Development Sales Tax boundary, which SCLC-GKC assisted the Urban Summit of Kansas City in successfully passing into law. The 2017 initiative provides more opportunity for leveraging investment and strengthening Black-owned businesses, which inherently fosters job creation, economic uplift and sustainability on the East side of Kansas City.

The thoroughfare’s compilation contains boulevards, which Howard said lends to the sustainability of infrastructure, beatification and upkeep, assuring the beauty and aesthetics of such a historically significant major artery of the city.

Parks commissioners and staff continued to meet with community groups to continue to seek ways to honor King.

In January 2019, the City Council voted 8-4 to rename The Paseo to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, but when put to a city-wide vote nine months later, nearly 70% of voters were in favor of the original name returning.

The city previously estimated that it would cost $60,000 to change the signs to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, including labor and materials. The city then estimated that it would cost around $40,000 to put back The Paseo signs. At the time of their removal, Mayor Quinton Lucas said the city would save the signs for later use. 

Both the new terminal at Kansas City International Airport and 63rd Street were previously recommended as options for honoring King by a committee tasked with studying the issue.

After J.C. Nichols’ name was removed from Mill Creek Parkway and a fountain at Mill Creek Park, the location was suggested to honor King, but the department ultimately restored the parkway to its former name. 

Kansas City remains one of the only major metropolitan areas in the country without a street named for the civil rights leader.

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