Getting somewhere: The Streetcar as a byproduct and cause of change

BY JON COPAKEN, guest contributor

Jon Copaken

Jon Copaken

The Streetcar hasn't been open a full week, and already I'm thinking about what is coming next. The Grand Opening on Friday, and the buzz of energy along the Streetcar line all weekend long was inspiring. Main Street felt alive from end-to-end - and that only makes me anxious for more.

In full disclosure, I am treasurer for the Board of Directors for The Kansas City Streetcar Authority. I was onboard with the Streetcar long ago. Admittedly not everyone was. What surprises me is that right up until the opening last week, people would still ask, "Is this thing really going to happen?" Well, if the 32,000 people who rode the Streetcar this weekend are any indication, it is a resounding "YES!"

The landscape is -- and has been -- changing in downtown with construction cranes moving from corner to corner since the early 2000s. Many notable projects have been completed in the last decade: the Bartle Hall expansion, Power & Light District, Sprint Center, H&R Block headquarters, Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts, as well as the revitalization of the Crossroads and River Market, and the ever-expanding residential market.

For many years after the exodus of residents and businesses to the suburbs, we lamented the deterioration of downtown. Downtown has made significant progress since, but in many ways we are playing catch up for not building infrastructure in downtown for at least a generation. A lot of good has come from us playing catch up, and in many ways the Streetcar is helping Kansas City to "right the ship" of downtown infrastructure by circulating people in a new way.

The Streetcar will change how people move in and around downtown. It has already become the first step to a more cohesive transportation system in the city, and arguably a more cohesive city as a whole. It will create a denser and more desirable urban environment. Vibrancy and activity at the street level is important for residents as well as businesses that consider location an amenity that helps attract and retain top talent.

I think we will see people out and about more, and venturing farther than they would normally. Over the weekend, I heard countless examples of how people plan to use the Streetcar. Employees in our office plan to ride to the River Market and get produce from the City Market or try new restaurants at lunch because they won't be burdened with their car. Something as simple as going out for lunch may seem like a small drop in the economic bucket, but the ease of access can incentivize thousands of people to explore the city and visit new places.

While vibrancy is important to the health of a downtown, economic investment is what drives the future and the Streetcar is a symbol for growth. More than $1.6 billion in development projects have been completed, announced or planned along the Streetcar line.

The Streetcar has made Main Street the center of the action. It has been shown time and again in other markets like Denver and Portland, that a fixed rail system gives people a sense of comfort. They know they can plan and build in that area because the transportation route isn't going away. It is a commitment and an investment, and in turn spurs more commitment and investment.

This is the case in Kansas City. Many developers have said the Streetcar was a driving force in their decision to locate on Main Street. In my own experience as co-developer of Corrigan Station, we were able to reduce the amount of structured parking because of access to the Streetcar line at 19th and Main. Developers chose 1914 Main and Commerce Tower both because of their access to the Streetcar.

But none of these developments, none of the amenities or infrastructure systems are "one and done." There should be a never-ending process to build on the growth of the city. It takes all of these projects, and more, to continue to build Kansas City into the future.

In its first two days in operation, the streetcar traveled 650 miles transporting more than 27,000 passengers.

In its first two days in operation, the streetcar traveled 650 miles transporting more than 27,000 passengers.

Many people have asked me, "What will it take to make the Streetcar successful?" And in many ways I think it is already a success. The 32,000 people who rode the Streetcar opening weekend is impressive. But ultimately, success shouldn't be measured in the number of riders, but what people do in and around downtown because of the Streetcar. The ultimate success of the Streetcar will be measured in the success of other projects and overall economic development and investment in areas around the Streetcar - the number of projects started or advanced, the number of jobs added to the area, and the increase in revenue for retailers.

Obviously the Streetcar isn't, and can't be, responsible for all of the improvements and advancements in downtown. In some aspects it is a byproduct of the change, and in others aspects it is the cause of the change. But regardless, we need to build upon the transportation system to help drive economic development in the city.

Now that the anxiety of the will they/won't they for opening weekend rider attendance is over, we can begin looking toward the next step. It hasn't been open a full week, but I know there are people already thinking about expanding the line. The next logical route is to connect to the next area of high population density. Doing so would continue the track on Main Street to the Plaza and then connect to UMKC.

The Streetcar won't be a failure if it doesn't expand, but it needs the expansion to circulate a larger population of people throughout a larger area. To create greater density and a more vibrant city center, we cannot rely on the starter line alone. It will take expanding the Streetcar to bring the full vision to fruition.

But, before that happens, we should revel a little longer in what has been accomplished. It should be a celebration of what is just now beginning, not a celebration of what has been completed. Kansas City is a city that has been looking to the future for many years. Now, the Streetcar can help take us there.