Charles Romano plays an acoustic guitar on the sidewalks of the Country Club Plaza. At almost 50, he remembers a time when the district featured dime stores and a bowling alley.
Romano grew up on McGee Street. As a kid, he wandered among the hippies who met at Volker Park (now Theis Park), just east of the Plaza, to listen to music and get high. Cops who entered the area came across more contraband than they could carry away. They put all the marijuana they confiscated in a big burn pile. "Kind of a shame, actually," Romano says, recalling the pillars of smoke that went uninhaled.
Romano has gray hair and the tanned skin of a musician who performs next to a pear tree. On this day, he faces Barnes & Noble as he plays Led Zeppelin and Neil Young. Just to his right, he can see the building that Highwoods Properties, the Plaza's owner, wants to tear down in order to accommodate the office-space needs of a big law firm.
"If it doesn't look like the area," Romano says between songs, "I wouldn't want it."
Nothing Highwoods builds will satisfy Plaza purists because what the developer wants to demolish is a Plaza original, "the balcony building." As for its replacement, the preliminary design showed an eight-story hulk made mostly of glass and empty imagination. Kevin Klinkenberg, president of the Kansas City chapter of the American Institute of Architects, wrote on his Facebook page that the future home of the Polsinelli Shughart law firm "would be mediocre in a suburban office park."
On the Plaza, it would be an embarrassment.
Architects and buskers aren't the only ones with opinions. The building, at 47th Street and Broadway, quickly became the subject of a passionate "Save the Plaza 2010" Facebook campaign. The City Council even squeezed the proposal onto a meeting agenda last week so elected officials could show Plaza lovers that they cared.
The imperiled balcony building rallied Kansas City residents like the trade of a popular Chief or Royal. The Plaza, much like the city's professional sports teams, is a private business that the public considers its own.
But the notion that the Plaza belongs to the community isn't far-fetched. The district, after all, receives plenty of public money.
For starters, Plaza visitors pay an extra half-percent sales tax on purchases, to pay for the area's free parking garages. Established in 2001, the Plaza garage fund is one of several "transportation development districts" set up around Kansas City. Creatures of state law, the districts give property owners the authority to tax sales for transportation-related projects — bridges, roads, parking lots and the like.
The program is popular with shopping-center owners, who like being able to socialize the costs of their parking areas. The tax, meanwhile, is paid by consumers who may not be aware that their meal or handbag carries an extra charge at the register. Susan Montee, Missouri state auditor, has called transportation districts "about as close as you can get to taxation without representation."
I wouldn't go that far. People can do business wherever they want and can avoid shopping in areas where the tax-collecting gremlins lurk. But anyone who chooses to shop on the Plaza pays the tax at what amounts to retail gunpoint.
The second piece of public funding comes in the form of tax-increment financing (TIF), the city's go-to economic-development tool, which allows developers to skim tax revenue generated by their projects.
The Plaza started collecting the tax money in 1997. Officials at the J.C. Nichols Co., which built the Plaza, asked for the incentives when it proposed spending $240 million on new retail space, apartments, garages and a hotel. The company lobbied the TIF Commission, a city agency, to provide $55 million of the total budget, and the city agreed. The money was paid to renovate Seville Square, where the Cinemark movie theater is located, and to build Valencia Place, a 10-story office tower and retail complex.