4 ways the Crossroads is maintaining its flair

Shau Jolles, Suzie Aron and Jeff Owens are proving what a community can become when its constituents band together with a shared vision. All three have played key roles in the organic development of the Crossroads Arts District. But as they explained to a group of BOMA Kansas City members last week, it didn’t happen overnight. Here’s a few of the tactics that molded the Crossroads of today and the future.

Ask for forgiveness, not permission

Back when Suzie Aron left Cohen-Esrey Real Estate Company to begin her own real estate venture in the Crossroads, 80 percent of neighborhood buildings were vacant. By banding together with the few individuals that saw something greater in the area, stakeholders began to solve problems the neighborhood faced that were often overlooked by the city.

Aron spearheaded an effort to spread out the concentration of day labor facilities in the area, and shifted certain roads to diagonal parking to accommodate First Fridays traffic. Jolles took out senseless “no parking” signs where he needed stalls. Day by day, many of the small but meaningful changes implemented in the Crossroads are first done without permission.

“That wasn’t done by the city of with city permission, but we’d go back to the city and say, ‘Look, it’s working,’” Aron said.

Thoughtful, intentional development

As a haven for Kansas City’s most creative minds, one might look at the Crossroads and believe its development was carefully calculated. Not so, says Jolles, founder of StagePort and OfficePort, one of the first coworking offices in Kansas City.

“It was completely organic and messy,” he said.

And while area residents and business owners have a well-rounded idea of what works and what doesn’t in their neighborhood, Jolles says there’s one basic development guideline.

“The best guidelines are the neighbors and making sure they’re happy,” he said. “If they’re not, they’ll let you know.”

Lately, with the influx of distilleries and microbreweries, neighborhood leaders have striven to preserve the area’s distinctive character by paying careful attention to new liquor licenses.

“If the city isn’t going to deal with certain liquor license rules, we’ll create our own,” Jolles said. “We don’t want to be another Westport.”

So far, the area has managed to keep out chains and drive-through fast food operations while preserving historical buildings. Stakeholders ask that most new construction isn’t incentivized. However, there are exceptions.

“We talked at one point about putting a [master] plan together, and then they wanted to build a performing arts center, and it absolutely destroyed every one of our criteria. Who wouldn’t want a performing arts center in our neighborhood?” Aron said. “We really do want to support certain building materials and setbacks, but we just take it project by project.”

Retaining artists

When eclectic communities like the Crossroads become burgeoning neighborhoods where creative tech and architectural firms like to flock, rents inevitably go up, which leads to one overarching problem: How does the neighborhood strive to retain the artists that built it? A decade ago, Crossroads leaders sought to address the problem, so they went to the city to develop an ordinance that states that if 51 percent of a building’s tenants are within the arts realm, property taxes would be frozen.

“We were able to establish a pattern that said that these property owners are willing to forego higher rents if we could control property taxes,” Aron said. “Thirty-eight properties came forward to stabilize rents for artists, and that’s exactly the reason and the only reason we still have galleries and artists.”

Keeping an eye on the future

The trio is always looking toward creative cities like Portland and Denver for ideas on how to innovate. With the streetcar soon becoming operational and 400 to 500 new apartment units coming online, the area is thriving. But maintaining that momentum will be critical going forward, especially considering that there are few buildings still up for grabs, and that “cities are broke,” Aron said.

Jolles asserts that coworking office and business incubators will be on the rise. Aron foresees parking to be less of an issue moving forward as younger generations opt for walkable environments and use services like Uber and the streetcar.

“The big challenge that I see is getting buildings that have artists in them now to survive in the future,” Owens said. “They don’t have a giant profit margin when they’re renting to artists, and artists can only afford the same now that they did 15 years ago. In my mind, to keep that incredible energy and maintain that engine that creates this amazing atmosphere down there will be a big challenge for us.”