Strong prospects in Kansas City

Kansas City transit officials hope to build on the success of the city’s MAX BRT service by adding a line through the Prospect Avenue corridor. (Photo courtesy of KCATA)

An underserved Kansas City neighborhood is receiving assistance from the Federal Transit Administration to attract new development around a proposed transit line and raise the neighborhood’s economic fortunes. 

In the last five to ten years, Kansas City’s downtown has experienced an economic rebound due in part to millions invested in transit projects like the KC Streetcar, opened in May 2016, and the MAX bus rapid transit system (BRT) system. But that revitalization has largely benefited more affluent neighborhoods, while neighborhoods like the Prospect Avenue corridor have been left out of the city’s recent renaissance.  

While downtowners enjoy a thriving new streetcar line, free public wifi via hundreds of city-owned routers, and smart streetlights, residents of the Prospect corridor, a main north-south arterial in sight of resurgent downtown Kansas City, have continued to suffer from disinvestment and depopulation.

Still, Prospect residents have not given into decline and now, the corridor is primed for success.

Community leaders and planners with the Kansas City Area Transportation Authority (KCATA) and the City of Kansas City believe that linking the Prospect corridor to Kansas City’s MAX BRT system will result in prosperity similar to what is currently present in Kansas City’s downtown  — attracting local and sustainable commerce and re-energizing the corridor.

To assist in that endeavor, the city is one of nine across the nation that is receiving technical assistance from Smart Growth America (SGA) through the Federal Transit Administration’s (FTA) National Public Transportation/Transit-Oriented Development Technical Assistance (TOD TA) Initiative.

The Prospect corridor neighborhood, home to roughly 20,000 residents, needs new, safe, convenient options for getting around — 20 percent of Prospect residents do not own cars, twice the city average — and more amenities and affordable housing for its current residents. The median household income along Prospect Avenue is $25,000, close to just half the city average. Almost 30 percent of the residents live below the poverty line.

Through a technical assistance workshop, representatives from FTA and SGA engaged Prospect corridor stakeholders—including residents, civic leaders, and city planning officials—to strategize ways to attract well-planned, equitable transit-oriented development to reverse Prospect Avenue’s decades-long decline. Local officials are aware that cultivating development around a new Prospect MAX BRT line that’s accessible to the residents who live there will be crucial to ensuring that the Prospect corridor thrives well into the future.

Facilitated group discussions and walking tours revealed a neighborhood that boasts a rich cultural and residential history, along with a resilient vision for its future despite having lost some two-thirds of its population since 1960. Prospect residents have bootstrapped some of their own housing and development solutions. The technical assistance team learned that local church leaders have purchased acres of blighted property along Prospect Avenue, which they have turned into low-income and senior-oriented housing. Local business owners are seeking ways to expand and support the corridor’s revitalization.

“The people who are here have extremely deep roots in the neighborhood,” says SGA senior transportation advisor Beth Osborne, who facilitated the recent TOD workshop for the area as part of the technical assistance provided through FTA’s TOD TA Initiative. “They want to be part of its resurgence.”

Prospect Avenue residents already make great use of the area’s existing bus line with a current daily ridership of more than 6,100, the second highest in the city. Kansas City’s MAX BRT system has also been welcomed by the community at large, doubling ridership system-wide since rolling out in 2005. The development sprouting around current MAX lines along the Main Street and Troost corridors, just parallel and west of the Prospect corridor, illustrate the potential for the Prospect line’s success.

Given Prospect Avenue’s favorable conditions for redevelopment—with a 35 mph speed limit and significant right-of-way that provides ample opportunity to install wide sidewalks and bike lanes—government officials and community leaders must take a thoughtful and concerted approach to facilitate equitable and inclusive development.

Just two miles west of Prospect Avenue is Country Club Plaza, a stately outdoor shopping center built in 1922— one of the first designed specifically to accommodate the automobile — that’s a beehive of high-end retail activity. For visitors to its 15 blocks of high-end retail shops and lit- evening promenades, Country Club Plaza represents the kind of development that’s often out-of-reach for residents of lower-income neighborhoods, such as those living along Prospect Avenue.

Upscale redevelopment akin to what’s in Country Club Plaza would likely change the neighborhood’s character and drive property values out of reach for the local population.

Kansas City is already moving in the right direction, having recently established a city-wide TOD policy to take advantage of its wide array of transit options like the streetcar line, upcoming rapid rail, and the MAX BRT service. This policy creates zoning overlays to help produce development around transit that is truly transit-oriented and not simply transit-adjacent.

Civic outreach and technical assistance, like FTA’s TOD TA Initiative, is crucial to quieting well-justified fears that residents of neighborhoods like Prospect have about incoming development, as well as to creating a foundation for building equitable prosperity.

Done right, it’s an opportunity for a city to bring needed investment, by way of TOD, to an area that’s ready for it.