A developer dies, but his irresponsible tax breaks live on 

Tom Levitt was in a hurry.

It was the summer of 2009. Levitt owned several old buildings in the Crossroads' Freight House District, and he knew he needed to act quickly if he wanted to qualify for some tax incentives that Kansas City, Missouri, makes available to developers.

Levitt's buildings sit in a redevelopment area that the city created in 1999. As a property owner, Levitt had 10 years under the redevelopment law to craft a project that deserved public assistance. The window was closing.

Levitt felt a deep commitment to the Crossroads. One of his properties — a former Pabst bottling plant — had been in his family since 1951. He loved old buildings with good bones.

But he might have cared too much. People who knew him say Levitt was always finding reasons not to do a deal. He tended to get lost in details and potential complications.

As a result, he completed few projects. The Freight House District, meanwhile, swelled with galleries, restaurants, condominiums and hip office spaces.

Deadline looming, Levitt could not come up with a specific plan. Instead, he proposed fixing up the Pabst plant and an adjoining building — which boss Tom Pendergast had once used for his wholesale liquor business — to house office and retail tenants that would be determined later.

The City Council approved Levitt's plan on August 13, 2009. Six weeks later, after being diagnosed with Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, Levitt was dead. He was 58.

Now, Levitt's estate is going on sale. His Freight House properties, as well as parcels that he owned on the 3700 block of Main, will be sold at an auction on May 6.

The real-estate broker handling the sale is advertising the fact that Levitt obtained "myriad" economic-development incentives, including the ones he lined up before the 10-year window shut.

Because of those subsidies, successful bidders will pay a premium for Levitt's properties. But what Levitt's heirs stand to gain, the public loses. Tax-increment financing captures money that would otherwise pay for basic services in the city, the schools, the county and the library.

This column isn't about an estate sale. What I want to explore is the city's decision to approve this particular last-minute request.

Because, man, it's hard to defend.

City staffers greeted Levitt's proposal with skepticism.

Tom Coyle, the city's planning director, and Jeffrey Yates, then the city's finance director, wrote a memo to the Tax-Increment Financing Commission, the agency that administers the incentives. The memo pointed out two problems with Levitt's request.

The memo said the proposal did not appear to fit with the city's new economic development and incentive policy, adopted by the council in 2007 in recognition of the fact that city officials had let developers run over them.

The policy puts a priority on economically distressed areas. That's what TIF was supposed to do all along, but in the lawless years, developers had been successful in establishing TIF areas near the Plaza and at places such as Briarcliff north of the river.

The Freight House District probably was distressed at one time. Say 1998, when Dan Clothier and his partners chased vagrants out of the old railyard structure on West 22nd Street and created attractive spaces for restaurants (first Lidia's, then Fiorella's Jack Stack Barbecue and City Tavern).

By 2009, pretty much every building in the area had found a new purpose. Except the ones owned by Levitt.

In their memo, Coyle and Yates noted that Levitt's project was also speculative. This made it impossible to determine whether the tax incentives would assist the creation of a new business (good) or the relocation of an existing one (bad).

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