Six months after Kansas City's new streetcar began rolling, businesses along the route say they are seeing new customers and increased sales. Donald Bradley dbradley@kcstar.com
Six months after Kansas City's new streetcar began rolling, businesses along the route say they are seeing new customers and increased sales. Donald Bradley dbradley@kcstar.com

Development

Kansas City’s streetcar line lures developers — and gives them headaches

By Diane Stafford

stafford@kcstar.com

May 15, 2017 7:00 AM

The very thing that is luring developers to downtown Kansas City — the new streetcar line on Main Street — also is presenting construction and architectural challenges.

Unlike many building projects around the metro area, builders can’t close off street curb lanes during construction. That can’t happen when the streetcar glides past, mere feet from the front door.

And about that front door: It may not face Main Street for the same reason.

Developers of a planned hotel on the northeast corner of 16th and Main streets are grappling with some unusual building and design changes, including shifting the hotel’s main entrance to what might otherwise have been the back alley off 16th Street.

The site of what’s to be a seven-story Hampton Inn & Suites, now a parking lot, has a streetcar stop directly in front, the very asset that enticed the South Carolina-based developer to become part of the downtown renaissance.

The steps-away streetcar stop “will be a great amenity for our guests,” said developer Leif Busby, with Windsor Aughtry in Greenville, S.C. “But for every great advancement, there’s a sacrifice,” he added, mostly in jest.

“All things equal, I’d rather deal with the problems and still have the streetcar right outside our door instead of two blocks away,” Busby said. “Yes, it has cost impacts and requires a more creative approach, but at the end of the day, I’d rather be on the line than off it.”

Busby’s hotel can’t have any temporary parking on Main for guest arrivals or departures. There can’t even be a valet drop-off point, lest a streetcar come through at that moment. And in the event of a fire or ambulance emergency, first-responders need a staging area off Main.

So the Hampton Inn’s primary vehicular access is shifted. Vehicle access will be from 16th Street and what’s now the alley between Main and Walnut. That change means widening the alley and relocating overhead electrical lines. And architects have realigned the hotel’s footprint and main lobby entrance.

Construction is expected to begin in August, with occupancy planned about 18 months later. Even with added expenses, it’s a pearl of a site, Busby thinks, and the company is pursuing its $25 million project without any request for public subsidy.

That’s music to the ears of streetcar advocate David Johnson, who monitors development along the line.

“The private sector is saying, ‘We can do this without incentives,’ ” Johnson said. “If the site was a turnoff, you would see people not developing, not believing.”

The Hampton Inn isn’t alone in making accommodations to fit along the streetcar line.

The Home2Suites, a Hilton extended-stay lodging facility at 20th and Main, also had to keep valet and other temporary parking off Main.

And when the nearly block-long City Club apartment project takes shape on the 1900 block of Main, it too will face challenges during demolition, renovation and construction.

Proximity to the streetcar line alters more than vehicle access. Developers don’t have to comply with usual streetscape tree-planting requirements because many trees could grow and impede the streetcar. But that means they have to be creative about landscaping; they don’t get a pass on greenery.

“We even bring in the Kansas City forester to help select appropriate trees or plantings,” said Jason Waldron, the city’s streetcar program manager, who works with developers to ensure safety and code compliance.

“It’s a case-by-case thing,” Waldron said of construction along the line. “There’s a process with the city and the Streetcar Authority to manage the TAP, the track access program, to communicate construction schedules and permit applications.”

Basically, Waldron said, anything within 10 feet of the streetcar’s overhead lines requires special permitting, as does anything within 4 feet of the rails.

Another difference with streetcar-adjacent development is that all construction workers have to be trained and certified — they even get a card to carry in their pockets — that says they’re “track access safety trained.”

The Greater Downtown Area Plan, setting guidelines for the downtown core, says buildings should be built to the property line and “define the street edge.” That doesn’t leave much wiggle room between the building and the street.

Also, with the increasingly higher-priced real estate downtown, developers want to maximize development floor space to get the highest possible return on investment. So pushing a building back off Main to put more distance from the streetcar line doesn’t make sense.

Meanwhile, unlike most big construction projects, the curb traffic lane cannot be blocked off while construction is underway. That means channeling all construction staging to side streets or alleys.

Like the Hampton Inn, the proposed City Club apartments will grapple with alley access. The $76 million project for between 19th and 20th streets will demolish some structures on Main, remodel another and build new on the vacant corner lot at 20th and Main that previously housed the Hereford House restaurant.

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City Club received property tax abatement for its 400-unit development, which includes renovation of the Midwest Hotel. It also targets a summer groundbreaking.

A different alley eased the construction process when Denver-based Linden Street Partners — inspired by the streetcar’s prospects — came to Kansas City to scout development possibilities. They chose a parking lot at 1914 Main to build a five-story apartment building, the first ground-up apartments to rise along the line.

“We did the early work before the tracks went in,” said Linden Street’s Scott Richardson. “We did have to block off the sidewalk for a while, but we also were able to use the back alley for construction materials staging, access and parking.”

Those apartments held a grand opening celebration in March 2016, when the streetcar still was making trial runs before its public debut on May 6, 2016.

“It’s an interesting dynamic,” said Tom Gerund, executive director of the Streetcar Authority, of the new projects. “Obviously, our goal is to generate economic development along the line. We don’t want uses that don’t leverage its value.”

Sometimes, that means construction and design tradeoffs for developers. But those who have projects in the works say they’re fine with that.

And there’s a plus for motorists weary of orange cones and other construction blockages: Curb lanes on Main will not be blocked.

Diane Stafford: 816-234-4359, @kcstarstafford

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