You can’t miss the little parking lot in the heart of Westport – about 70 spaces at the corner of Westport Road and Mill Street right in front of Buzzard Beach, the Westport Saloon and Ernie Biggs Dueling Piano Bar.
The lot's long occupied some of Westport's prime real estate. That's why it caused such a stir when owner Doug Weltner announced plans to build two buildings for three restaurants there earlier this month.
People started freaking out on Facebook and Reddit. Within a few days, more than 4,000 had signed an online petition asking the Kansas City, Missouri, Planning Commission to block the development, which is to include a Qdoba Mexican Grill, a Pickleman’s and an Insomnia Cookies.
But the outrage isn't likely to stop the development.
Westport cleans up its act
Jon Engelman is executive director of the Westport Regional Business League, a position he's held for the past eight years. He's pretty blunt about Westport's reputation prior to the incorporation of the Community Improvement District in 2004. There were a lot of bars, not a lot of nice restaurants, and the crowd could get pretty rough if you stayed too late.
“I think one of the challenges for Westport is people often remember it from the last time they were here,” Engelman says. “I can’t tell you how often it is I talk to someone and mention a great French restaurant like Westport Cafe and because the last time they were here was 2003 or a bachelor party in 1998 – I think you’re always kind of fighting that perception from the past.”
But in the last decade, Westport’s cleaned up its act. Crime is down. Revenue is up. People aren’t just coming to Westport to drink now.
“Try to find a table at a lot of places at 12 noon, and you’ll see just how busy it is. I don’t think people are aware of that,” Engelman says.
At noon on a recent weekday, I decided to call Beer Kitchen and ask about the wait.
“At the moment, it’s about 30-35 (minutes),” the guy who picks up the phone tells me.
I thank him and hang up. Then, I call a half dozen other restaurants in Westport. A few had open tables, but most told me the same thing as Beer Kitchen. They were swamped. If I wanted a table, I’d have to wait.
I’d also have to find a parking spot.
“We recognize that Westport is booming,” says Engelman. “We recognize that with that boom comes some challenges. We are addressing the parking challenge, which has come up as a part of this.”
Get rid of 70 or so parking spots in a big, convenient lot, and it's a lot harder to have a quick lunch in Westport.
Neighbors say developer's plans aren't surprising
Last Wednesday, I went to Westport for an after work drink. As I waited to turn left at Westport Road and Broadway, I decided to see how long it took me to find a parking spot.
It took me about eight minutes – mostly because I decided to try the lot at Westport Road and Mill Street, which was already full. There's also a sign up that says the lot's closing the next day. I turned around and parked on Pennsylvania before popping into Kelly's Westport Inn for a drink.
Kyle Kelly is co-owner of the bar his family's owned for 67 years. Today the bar is quiet – after all, it’s a blustery Wednesday in February. But a month from now, St. Patrick’s Day, this place will be packed.
“It’s a long day," Kelly tells me. "It’s a 20-hour day. But it’s really fun. Adrenaline gets you through.”
I ask him if losing the lot, which is often used for festivals and events like St. Pat's, will hurt his business.
“Not at all, no,” he says.
Kelly says there’s still plenty of parking in Westport – like around the corner from his bar in the Mill Street garage. But when I ask what he thinks about the planned development, he shrugs. It’s not what he and lot of the other neighbors wanted, but it’s within code.
“Everybody in Westport’s got a different chief that runs the property, and that flows down to the tenant choices,” Kelly says.
How the debate could shape future Westport development
The developer, Weltner, declined to comment for this story. He’s owned the lot for more than a decade, and it’s zoned for commercial development.
Kelly says the surrounding merchants have always known construction was a possibility, and they’ve talked in the past about banding together and buying the lot from Weltner. But the discussion never went very far.
I wanted to get an outsider’s perspective, so I called Daniel Serda with local consulting firm Insite Planning. He thinks the pushback to Weltner’s proposal is less about parking and more about chain restaurants moving into the neighborhood.
Westport already has a number of chains – there's a Which Wich and a Freebirds right across the street from the planned development – but there's something about this highly visible corner that gets people fired up.
“It seems I’ve heard more about the character of the businesses that are there," says Serda. "That’s an issue – that’s not so much a city planning sort of regulatory question. That’s more of a business recruitment, business development type of issue.”
But as Serda points out, change is inevitable.
“Having a debate over one particular site irrespective of how it turns out can be really important in shaping the overall future of the area,” says Serda.
The parking lot closed last week, the day after I stopped for a drink at Kelly’s. Weltner’s plan to build on the lot is moving forward. But the conversations about the future of Westport continue.