Leaders from across the globe descended upon Kansas City this week for The Nichols Forum, a two-day event exploring the opportunities and challenges in middle-tier cities and celebrating the legacy of legendary commercial and residential real estate developer and Kansas Citian J.C. Nichols. Presented by the Urban Land Institute, the event brings together J.C. Nichols Prize laureates, mayors from around the United States, and thought leaders from a range of disciplines.
The conclusion of the event, which took place at the Kemper Museum of Art, included a panel discussion that focused the emerging strength of the middle-tier, 18-hour city. An 18-hour city can be defined as a second-tier city with high urban population growth that offers a lower cost of living than first-tier cities.
The panel included Brown Cow Capital Founder and CEO David Brain, Urban Neighborhoods Founder and CEO Dana Crawford, and Cityscape Residential Founder and Managing Partner Jim Thomas. The discussion was moderated by ULI Global CEO Patrick Phillips.
PHILLIPS: HOW HAS THE LEGACY OF J.C. NICHOLS INFLUENCED YOUR CAREER?
DANA CRAWFORD: I grew up in Salina, Kansas and was a depression kid. I would put on my white gloves and my hat and get on the train to go to the Plaza to shop. I admired the Plaza very much, especially all of the shopping, but all of the attention to detail is what stayed with me through my educational process.
Bankers told Nichols he was trying to do the impossible by putting a shopping center in “the ‘burbs” of Kansas City, and I think it taught me that that's not necessarily so. JC Nichols is one of my heroic figures in my life and he has given so much to the ULI, an organization I admire tremendously.
JIM THOMAS: There is a paradigm of quality and attention to detail that you often take for granted. You can learn from the mastery of design. The Plaza was always described as the first shopping mall and J.C. Nichols insisted on uniform operating opening and closing hours for the, which was a relatively pioneering thought, but that is placemaking, it was such a simple concept but so revolutionary.
DAVID BRAIN: I grew up in a Nichols neighborhood in Armour Hills, but I never really focused on the attention that was given to the “complete package” design for the neighborhood community. Not only was it the residential aspect, but educational and recreational were all things that were considered in the plan and design. The design included multifamily to semi-attached to fully attached to larger homes so that you had a very complete neighborhood and community. The focus on the community aspect was a main takeaway from me and I think that is really the durability that they were looking for.
PATRICK PHILLIPS: There was a sense in the 20s and 30s that cities would inevitably decay, but Nichols and his colleagues rejected that thinking. Nichols knew that you could have a healthy core with surrounding neighborhoods, so he gave a lot of thought into how to reinvest into the community and how to keep it viable for a long time.
HOW DOES THE INJECTION OF ENTERTAINMENT FACILITIES CHANGE THE EVOLUTION OF A DOWNTOWN?
CRAWFORD: I think it is something that is going on across the country. If you’re going to live in the city, you have to be a little more flexible. On weekends, sometimes it almost gets too hectic, but one can’t complain about that when you’re in the hotel business, which I am. Retail has its own challenges in itself in our community, but restaurants are fortunately much better than they used to be. I’m not sure if the entertainment gets credit for that or not.
BRAIN: The Sprint Center is one of the great arenas that is not anchored by an athletic team but does a great job with programming. I think the challenge for Kansas City is probably our sports stadiums. We do have a sports stadium that is connected to an entertainment district, in that Sporting Kansas City is attached to the Legends Outlets, and I think people enjoy that, but sports tend to be something that is occasional. Events are very highly concentrated and the duration of stay is very high.
Kansas City is spreading the coals all over the lawn and that is one of the challenges of the city. As we’ve invested to redevelop the stadiums to a great degree, it brings the question: do you bring the entertainment out to the stadiums to downtown? The integration of sports facilities does create a lot of traffic for the entertainment world, but how the sports facilities connect to the downtown entertainment districts is one of Kansas City’s biggest challenges. And for that, I can’t tell you that I have an answer.
PHILLIPS: In my experience, there are two great benefits that come from sports facilities and neither of them are about what happens in the facility themselves; It’s about the magnitude of the infrastructure investment and if they draw in a regional audience. The combination of those two factors can really turn around a downtown district. But for every victory, there is a lot of frustration.
HOW DO BABY BOOMERS FIT INTO THE CITY REGION?
THOMAS: There is a whole rainbow of markets now that include baby boomers and non-traditional families, and we need to figure out that synergy. My cautionary tale is to not be too precious thinking you can time it properly because then you won’t have the synergy that you need.
BRAIN: There is a mentality in the real estate industry that if two is good, twenty is better, so let’s just keep doing the same thing and building for the same market. But it’s very important that we embrace so many elements in a community and provide varieties of affordable housing, as well as affluent housing, but with regard to age groups as well.
HOW WILL THE POTENTIAL DECOMMISSIONING OF THE NORTH LOOP AFFECT THE SYNERGY OF THE CITY?
BRAIN: The north loop defines and confines the city. There are some challenges in decommissioning a highway of that nature but we’ve concluded that there are also some benefits. Not only does it connect the River Market area, it does a lot to connect the northeast corridor of Kansas City, which often feels very disconnected by the north loop, so here is real opportunity there.