Jun 1, 2017
Westport is Kansas City’s original business and entertainment district. From its founding as a frontier outpost over 150 years ago, Westport has thrived as a destination for visitors and travelers. Despite a growing number of entertainment destinations in Kansas City, Westport has maintained its appeal to visitors and continues to grow. Last year, visitor traffic to Westport increased 14%. In 2015, business was up 11% over 2014.
Westport is also Kansas City’s most authentic business district. Westport Road still follows the path laid out by overland traders journeying from Independence to Santa Fe in the 19th century. Some of Kansas City’s most distinguished historic structures, like Kelly’s Westport Inn, help define the unique, walkable character that new shopping and entertainment areas can only hope to emulate. Unlike those newer districts, however, only a handful of national franchise chains operate in Westport. Westport is the city’s most truly LOCAL business district: 96% of all businesses in Westport are locally owned AND locally operated.
These local businesses have worked diligently for decades to keep Westport a safe, welcoming, and pedestrian-friendly environment. In 2003, two Community Improvement Districts (CIDs) were created in Westport, one funded by special assessments on real property, and the other funded by additional sales taxes levied within the district. The sales taxes underwrite the costs of streetscape and pedestrian amenities provided by the CID, while the property tax assessments fund security by off-duty Kansas City Police Department (KCPD) officers and private contractors. The two CIDs share one goal: maintaining Westport’s welcoming environment and pedestrian-friendly character while ensuring public safety.
Working in close collaboration with the City of Kansas City and KCPD, several years ago, the Westport Regional Business League obtained a festival permit that allows the closure to vehicular traffic of Westport Road between Broadway and Mill Street, as well as Pennsylvania Avenue between Archibald and 40th Terrace, on busy Friday and Saturday nights. From 11:00 p.m. to 4:00 a.m., staffed checkpoints are established to verify that patrons are over 21 years of age, and to help monitor crowds to ensure public safety.
Over the past year, the Westport Regional Business League has worked closely with City staff to address concerns about the potential for violent crime in Westport. In 2016, there were three incidents in which innocent bystanders were wounded by gunfire within Westport. In every case, the perpetrators were not patrons or customers of Westport businesses. However, Missouri statutes now allow any individual in the state to carry a concealed weapon in public without a permit. These same laws preclude local governments from regulating concealed weapons.
The potentially volatile mix of firearms and alcohol on Westport streets raises serious concerns for public safety. It also underscores the need for a careful, balanced approach that safeguards the public without diminishing Westport’s vibrant nightlife or pedestrian character.
Westport business and property owners have asked the City to formalize these longstanding security arrangements by vacating the portions of Westport Road and Pennsylvania Avenue normally subject to the street closures. A Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) between the Westport Regional Business League, the Westport CIDs and the City requires property owners to quit-claim the vacated right-of-way to a single parcel controlled by one of the CIDs. The CIDs will then grant a perpetual easement over the right-of-way to the City to ensure public access and preserve the urban character of the affected streets.
The MOU also requires the CID to fully reimburse the city for future maintenance of the vacated streets, sidewalks and other public infrastructure.
A recent blog post alleges that the CID and Westport Regional Business League have been disingenuous in making this proposal. The author claims the CID has an ulterior motive of routinely levying a cover charge for access to the district, and that valuable real estate will be turned over to private ownership with no public benefit. The blog also claims that streets will be permanently closed and deeded to private owners, and the right-of-way will be forever lost as part of the public realm.
Nothing could be further from the truth. Westport businesses have no interest in hindering the visitor experience in Kansas City’s most historic, authentic business and entertainment district. Indeed, the proposed vacation is intended primarily to preserve Westport’s unique pedestrian-friendly character in the face of changing and challenging circumstances.
No aspect of the proposed right-of-way vacation will remove the affected streets from the area’s street grid, or change the physical design of the storefronts, sidewalks and other features that give Westport its unique sense of place. The vacated right-of-way must be maintained as a public thoroughfare and cannot be developed or altered for any other purpose. Except for limited nighttime hours on weekends, pedestrians will be allowed to come and go about their daily business. The MOU guarantees freedom of speech and lawful assembly as part of the public easement.
Most importantly, no part of the right-of-way vacation will change the diverse ownership of Westport’s businesses and real estate. The vacation affects 35 parcels with 22 separate owners, all of whom support the proposal. The three dozen businesses fronting on the vacated right-of-way vary in size, type, hours of operation, and the size, scale and architectural character of the buildings that house them.
It’s precisely this mix of land uses, activities and users that makes Westport such a compelling, walkable and dynamic environment. Nothing about the right-of-way vacation will change these qualities that make Westport such a unique and inviting place.
Since the early 1990s, street closures and additional security measures have been undertaken only when required to deal with excessive crowds and resulting public safety concerns. Closing streets and implementing supplemental security are costly ventures. The new proposal, as outlined in the proposed MOU, only authorizes nominal cover charges to be used on 6-8 days per year. All proceeds must be used exclusively to underwrite the costs of additional security, beyond what the CID otherwise provides during the closures. The MOU also requires that the City be notified no less than one week in advance of any additional closures.
Recently, the Westport Regional Business League hosted a community meeting at the Westport Public Library to explain the proposed right-of-way vacation. Over 50 people showed up with a range of questions and concerns. Nearly half of those in attendance were residents of Westport or adjacent neighborhoods.
One critical concern raised at the meeting is whether the proposed access restrictions will make it difficult for Westport residents or employees, especially those under the age of 21, to access the area after-hours. The MOU specifically exempts residents and employees from the age restriction, and the CID is exploring means to simplify the security screening process for both groups.
Another question raised by both the blog and individuals at the public meeting concerns the reasons for the excessive late-night crowds. Many years ago, Missouri law was changed to permit bars and taverns to remain open until 3:00 a.m. One unintended consequence is that many Westport patrons simply don’t arrive on weekend nights until after 11:00 p.m. The rapid increase in pedestrian volumes around that time is what led to the original street closures.
Other concerns raised at the community meeting relate to the screening process itself. Currently, four checkpoints have been established on weekend nights as part of the prevailing street closures. Under this proposal, the CID will purchase metal detectors or wands to facilitate screenings of Westport patrons. The goal will be to ensure public safety while minimizing the inconvenience to visitors, employees and residents. Under the MOU, firearms will not be permitted in the affected area during closures. The screening process will be very similar in purpose and operation as is used at the stadiums.
Finally, the right-of-way vacation will not hinder the City’s ability to provide public services. Under the MOU, the City of Kansas City retains control of all drainage and sewer systems, waterlines, and fire hydrants, and is guaranteed access at all time to provide fire safety, EMT and other public safety services.
If, at some point, circumstances change, and the CID ceases to exist or cannot meet its obligations under the agreement, both the MOU and the recorded documents effecting the vacation will revert the right-of-way to the City’s full control. City staff will monitor the CID’s compliance with this and all other terms of the MOU.
As the City Council recognized last year, Westport is and must remain one of the City’s most valued entertainment areas. In 2016, businesses within the Westport CID contributed $8.4 million to the City’s General Fund from sales and use taxes alone, beyond the sales tax proceeds used to fund the CID itself.
Local businesses in Westport also keep their profits in this community. They hire our neighbors: nearly two-thirds of the 3,948 people who work in Westport are Kansas City residents. Westport businesses support our community initiatives, projects, and non-profit organizations. In almost all cases, “the owner is home” at a Westport business every day.
Westport business owners have not proposed this strategy haphazardly. A great deal of thought and effort has been devoted to maintaining public safety while respecting civil liberties and the concerns of those most directly affected. We do not believe the proposed vacation will have any perceivable impact on the visitor experience in Westport. To the contrary, it will help us meet our goal of maintaining those qualities that make Westport such a unique and attractive destination.
Westport Regional Business League
 “The Great Westport Giveaway: Turning Public Streets into Private Property.” http://urbanangle.net/great-westport-giveaway-turning-public-streets-private-property/ . Accessed May 27, 2017.