The biggest priority on Kansas City's $27.6 million proposal for tuning up the historic 18th and Vine Jazz District has nothing to do with bricks and mortar.
It’s about assuming ownership of most of the properties in the six-block district and forging a common approach to marketing and managing the area, according to City Manager Troy Schulte.
“We believe the one thing that’s hurt 18th and Vine has been the fractured nature of development and the number of different stakeholders,” he said. “Common ownership allows a common marketing approach that allows us to move the district forward.”
And that can be accomplished for $475,000.
That’s how much the current entity controlling the targeted properties, the Jazz District Redevelopment Corp. (JDRC), owes in back taxes, according to Schulte. With the back taxes paid, the organization and its board are freed of any financial liability and can transfer title to the city.
Right now, the city owns the buildings housing the American Jazz and Negro League Baseball Museums, Gem Theater, historic Attucks School, historic Boone Theater and the Black Chamber of Commerce.
Schulte said if the city’s proposal to acquire the remaining properties moves forward, it will own all but two -- the Lincoln Building at the southeast corner of 18th and Vine, and the building housing The Kansas City Call newspaper at the southwest corner of 18th and Woodland.
The JDRC is a willing partner, according to Chairwoman Gayle Holliday. She said the organization wrapped up its last project, an apartment development on Highland Avenue, several years ago.
“We think it’s a move forward for the Jazz District for the city to be involved with future development because our job is done,” Holliday said.
The $27.6 million plan
The funding to pay the JDRC’s back taxes is part of the $27.6 million improvement proposal now before the Kansas City Council. It remains stuck in committee after members failed to move it forward to the full City Council at a June 8 hearing.
The 18th and Vine plan includes millions to renovate and upgrade buildings and organizations in the district including the Buck O’Neil Education Center, American Jazz Museum, Friends of Alvin Ailey headquarters and landscaping along 18th Street to better link the district with the nearby Crossroads Arts District.
Backers hope the major investment will help the Jazz District achieve its original goal of becoming a premier tourism and cultural center. The district encompasses the former heart of the city’s African-American community before desegregation.
Schulte said the key to the proposal now before the City Council is the ownership piece.
“The big issue is I have to get control of that property to stabilize the buildings and get more going on,” he said. “When we get possession to the city, we can do a request for proposals and get developers interested.”
The city manager also said the proposed $27.6 million list of projects could be incrementally implemented once ownership is achieved.
“We can piecemeal it,” he said. “That’s the conversation we’re having about what the City Council wants to do.”
City Market as a model
Schulte said the city is looking at the City Market as a model for how the 18th and Vine District could function. The city owns the City Market properties and has hired a private manager with city oversight to run it.
“It’s a common marketing and management structure with public involvement and oversight, and we put in capital improvement dollars when needed,” he said. “It’s a holistic approach and assures everything is done in a coordinated fashion.”
Schulte pointed to an example of how unified ownership and management could help the Jazz District. Danny’s Big Easy, a restaurant and music venue, wanted to erect a tent for a special event on a parking lot controlled by the JDRC.
“A dispute between the Big Easy and JDRC elevated all the way to my office,” he said. “That made me think the city needed to take a much more active role for common management and marketing.”
Some of the events Schulte believed could occur at 18th and Vine under common management could include movie nights, outdoor jazz concerts, festivals and greater tie-ins to the popular First Friday event in the Crossroads.
“We have to be much more aggressive in terms of marketing,” he said.
The key difference between the City Market and 18th and Vine, is the Jazz District is relatively cutoff from greater downtown compared to the market. Schulte described the Jazz District as an “island.”
That’s why a priority would be improving the atmosphere on the roughly half-mile stretch of 18th Street between the East Crossroads and the Jazz District.
“We need to tie it in with the Crossroads to eliminate the island nature of the area and the perception it’s unsafe,” he said. “The market has never had that problem; it always was integrated into the city.”
Holliday hopes City Council members will resolve their differences over the scope of the 18th and Vine proposal and move ahead with the ambitious plan to boost investment in the area.
“I know there are other needs in the rest of the city, but I believe this is a special project that will help draw dollars for tourism,” she said. “We have to enhance that by taking the Jazz District to a higher and better level.”
Kevin Collison is a freelance contributor to KCUR 89.3. You can reach him on Twitter @kckansascity.