On a cold January day at 39th Street and Prospect, an elderly black man shuffles between cars at the traffic light. He gets through the intersection and then moves from one vacant lot to another, intent on bumming a smoke from a friend who has just secured a pack from Cigarette Depot. The store is the only building on this corner.
A few minutes away, at the corner of 51st Street and Swope Parkway, a "We Buy Homes" sign flutters against its staples on a telephone pole. Staring back at it is a shuttered gas station.
Gleaming rows of bicycles are for sale 12 blocks to the west. Revolve KC, a nonprofit bike shop, has repurposed a dilapidated garage that had been a rotten tooth nagging the neighborhood around the University of Missouri–Kansas City.
Twelve blocks north, a few men adjust winter hats and rub their hands to keep warm as they line the concrete benches outside MetroCenter and wait for the Troost MAX. None glances toward "Unite," the 20-foot-tall, publicly funded sculpture that towers over the intersection.
These are the four corners bordering the Green Impact Zone, an area united by the promise of transformation for the long-neglected neighborhoods of Troostwood, Manheim Park, Blue Hills, Town Fork Creek and Ivanhoe. Next month marks four years since U.S. Rep. Emanuel Cleaver first put forth his plan to leverage federal funds from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act to attract investment to a 150-block area in KC's urban core. The idea was simple: better housing and better streets, built with green-energy sustainability in mind.
The execution hasn't been quite so simple.
With the remaining federal stimulus dollars slated to be spent by August, the next infusion of capital has yet to be identified for the Green Impact Zone. The initial focus on creating green jobs has shifted toward a focus on large-scale development intended to secure future public and private investment on the East Side.
Construction and infrastructure projects dot the landscape within the zone. The Troost Avenue bridge has been built, the Troost MAX rapid bus transit service is running, and sidewalk and traffic-light improvements are scheduled for this spring. But the Green Impact Zone is at a pivotal moment. Three employees were set to be laid off at the end of January, trimming the staff to four people. And city officials have made it clear that the $550,000 approved earlier this month for personnel and operational costs is the last of the municipal cash.
"It's an infusion, not a lifeline," says Mayor Pro Tem Cindy Circo. "There has to be a game plan to remove yourself from that city support."
It's unclear whether such a plan can come together soon for an area of the city that's all too familiar with broken promises.
The requests don't stop coming into Margaret May's corner office, on the second floor of the Nutter Ivanhoe Neighborhood Center at 3700 Woodland.
On a recent Friday, a young man wants to talk to her about a job. A middle-aged man is hoping to get a neighborhood-association sweatshirt to wear for President Barack Obama's inauguration. But this is May's job. She's the executive director of the Ivanhoe Neighborhood Council, the only neighborhood within the Green Impact Zone that has a paid staff.
She recalls when the Green Impact Zone was taking shape in a conference room at the downtown offices of the Mid-America Regional Council in April 2009.
"I remember everybody was at MARC to see what piece of the pie they could get," May says. "The first meeting, there were maybe 18 to 20 people in the room. But by the third meeting, it was standing room only."
After Cleaver announced the idea of the Green Impact Zone in February 2009, he looked for a partner to help execute the idea. He approached MARC, which in turn approached the neighborhood and social-service organizations within the zone's boundaries to determine priorities for the revitalization effort. The resulting slate listed eight projects, ranging from a sustainable land-use plan to a smart-grid energy project designed to cut costs and improve appliance efficiency for homeowners. In the fall of 2009, the city pledged $1.5 million to help finance a Green Impact Zone Assistance Center.
"We'd been trying a shotgun approach to development for decades, with limited effect," Circo says. "And now there was this opportunity to see if targeting does make a difference."
Anita Maltbia, a former assistant city manager, was hired as the executive director, along with a staff of six people. Office space was leased from a Kansas City, Missouri, School District building at 4600 Paseo Boulevard. The September 1 ribbon-cutting drew representatives from the White House, and Housing and Urban Development Secretary Shaun Donovan.
"It's going to be, I think, a little surprising to people who are accustomed to seeing balloons go off at the start of something and no balloons around at the end," Cleaver said at the event. "But this one, I think, is going to be something that I think the entire community, whether you're in the Green Impact Zone or not, will feel good about."
The Green Impact Zone enjoyed a high profile from its inception. Maltbia attended Obama's State of the Union address in January 2010 as a guest of Michelle Obama's. A month later, U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood held a press conference at the Green Impact Zone Assistance Center to announce that Kansas City had received $50 million in Transportation Investment Generating Economy Recovery funds. Approximately $26 million was slated to be spent directly on transportation infrastructure improvements in the zone.
"You'll be under a microscope and a spotlight as you spend this money," LaHood said. The spotlight arrived well before the microscope.
The words "national model" were used often when people talked about the zone. During a March 2010 visit to the zone, Deputy Administrator Therese McMillan, of the Federal Transit Administration, noted: "This project has become a national model of how a federal investment will assist a community in an economic decline."
The next month, the city secured a $20 million grant to create EnergyWorks KC, a program dedicated to energy efficiency and green-job creation. As part of that grant, $150,000 would be disbursed over three years to cover the costs of the zone's office, and $2.2 million would go toward rehabilitating a building at 5008 Prospect into a community center and business incubator.
The zone's early efforts centered on community outreach. There were community meetings, and there was funding for projects such as the "community crew," in Ivanhoe, in which trained residents between the ages of 18 and 24 would perform sidewalk-remediation work in front of homes. There were trash pickups and food drives. There was an urban homes tour marketed to realtors and potential homebuyers. Neighborhood residents were taught how to navigate city departments, work with the police and advocate for projects.
"This was a format where people from one neighborhood could hear what was going on in other people's neighborhoods," says Wanda Taylor, president of the Troostwood Neighborhood Association.
But the community-engagement strategy broke down in the face of the zone's first large-scale project.
In October 2010, MARC secured $4.5 million in funds for the proposed weatherization of 659 homes. MARC hired a contractor, Zimmer Real Estate Services, to oversee the scheduling and structure of the program. Zone staff were designated to provide outreach and education on the benefits of weatherization. Then-Mayor Mark Funkhouser declared October 30 "Weatherization Day." But each of the 659 homes would present its own challenges — starting with eligibility for the program — and the warm feelings wouldn't last long.
"It was extremely frustrating," Maltbia says. "The state's program didn't take the human pieces into account. You have an elderly lady with a house leaking like a sieve, but workers couldn't get into her basement. We turned to the neighborhood association to get volunteers to clean out the basement. That's something a flat piece of paper can't deal with, but it's the reality for the people who needed it most."
A few weeks after the Troost MAX launched, on New Year's Day 2011, the State Department sent Maltbia to Japan to talk to urban planners there about the Green Impact Zone. She returned to difficult news. The Missouri Department of Natural Resources announced in February 2011 that it would reduce the zone's weatherization program funding to $2.7 million. The initial grant stipulated that the weatherization needed to be completed by March 2012.
"The state felt the program wasn't advancing fast enough," says Marlene Nagel, MARC's director of community development. "It took us longer to get up and running, but I felt we were making good progress."
Missouri's DNR pulled the program from MARC in September 2011, placing it under the city's auspices. At that time, only 115 homes had been fully weatherized — at a cost of nearly $1.6 million. The Green Impact Zone was suddenly being reframed as a story of unfulfilled potential.
While the weatherization program sputtered, a green-sewer project (using native plants to control storm-water runoff) never got off the ground. A $150,000 feasibility study to build the Climate Sustainability Center (a 217,000-square-foot paean to green space at 47th Street and Troost), which Cleaver had called the "cornerstone" of the zone, didn't advance beyond the report stage. Cleaver says the center "continues to be a priority."
"I continue to look for opportunities for public and private financing for this world-class concept," Cleaver says by e-mail. "And UMKC has begun the process of relocating departments within those buildings to make room for future development."
Still, Kansas City Power & Light installed 2,600 smart meters in homes within the zone as part of its SmartGrid project (a total of 14,000 meters in and around the zone), funded by $24 million in federal funds and its own $24 million investment. (The networked meters help residents track energy usage and are meant to improve efficiency.) KCP&L also dedicated its SmartGrid Innovation Park — a fenced space that houses a lithium-ion battery (it looks like a blue shipping container) capable of storing energy from an adjacent array of solar panels — and an electric-car charging station at 4724 Tracy.
For now, though, black metal bars fence off the SmartGrid Innovation Park. Illustrated signs near the charging station detail the future of smart energy. The lithium-ion battery and the solar panels sit behind the fence visible from an exterior walking path, which winds toward an adjacent substation. But a master lock secures the gate against visitors. This neighborhood might be ready for solar power in the future, but it's not quite ready to leave that technology sitting out in the open.
Last February, construction began on another development in the southeast corner of the zone, the Blue Hills Community Services Center at 5008 Prospect. That same month, the Greater Kansas City Chamber of Commerce announced that its Urban Neighborhood Initiative would begin with the Troost Corridor.
"We wanted to work with neighborhoods that had clearly identified pressing needs," says Diane Cleaver, UNI's executive director (and wife of the congressman), by e-mail. "The fact that there was significant overlap with the Green Impact Zone along with recognition of all the Zone had done including building of some social infrastructure was seen as a definite asset for the neighborhoods."
Another asset was the announcement of a $14 million renovation project for the vacant Bancroft School site, at 4300 Tracy. When it's done, the former school will contain 29 affordable housing units (with an additional 21 units built on the adjacent grounds). The first two floors of the original building are slated to include a community center, free to the neighborhood association for 15 years, with an auditorium, a computer lab and a gymnasium.
"This new development, no longer stagnant, stands as a testament to the hard work that is going on within the Green Impact Zone to create jobs, boost the economy, and revitalize areas of Kansas City that have seen disinvestment and deterioration for decades," Rep. Cleaver says by e-mail.
It made national headlines because of its lead developer: the Make It Right Foundation, the nonprofit founded by actor Brad Pitt to help rebuild post-Katrina New Orleans with sustainable housing practices.
Almost a year later, work is under way, and voices can be heard in the hallways of the Bancroft School for the first time in 15 years. Kansas City is a test city for Make It Right as the organization determines whether it can extend its model outside New Orleans.
"We are only in Kansas City because of the big idea around the Green Impact Zone," says Make It Right's Tim Duggan, who lives in Beacon Hill. "The idea of a sustainable urban-revitalization effort in the city — it's the first time in my lifetime I can remember that happening."
BNIM Architects helped secure LEED Platinum status for the building, which will be powered in part by a solar array on its roof. The financing is a mix of federal and state housing and historic-preservation-tax credits and private donations. It's close to the green-development panacea that Rep. Cleaver envisioned — though success carries its own hazards.
David Park, deputy director of the city's Neighborhood and Housing Services Department, says neighborhood associations asked the Land Trust of Jackson County to put a hold on properties in the area around Bancroft, to prevent speculators from swooping in and purchasing lots.
"Speculators can stymie redevelopment efforts, because any dollar you add to the price of a property makes it less likely to happen," Park says.
In October 2012, the city transferred 477 zone properties from the Land Trust to the city's Homesteading Authority. The transfer makes these properties a test case for how to handle more than 3,000 other properties that are headed for the newly established Land Bank. As with the weatherization houses, these properties require assessment and, in some cases, cleanup — or demolition. The city plans to spend $1 million, raised as part of a sales tax approved by voters last August, to tear down 140 homes over the next three months.
The next challenge for the Green Impact Zone: Prove that the processes that have jump-started the Bancroft School's redevelopment can be repeated. With zone transportation projects nearing the final phase of construction, the Green Impact Zone must evolve from a federally funded super-network of neighborhoods to something that's tightly run and strategy-driven.
"We're going to need to be more focused in our work as we're starting to see tangible evidence of renewal," Nagel says. "We're really pleased with the groundbreaking at the Bancroft School. We think that will help to move the whole neighborhood forward."
To that end, MARC and the Green Impact Zone staff have identified eight project areas and three large-scale developments (the Bancroft site and adjoining properties among them) that they believe can stimulate investment. One of those projects is set to break ground next month. The Ivanhoe Neighborhood Council is preparing to launch its model block between Euclid and Prospect on 39th Street, developed in coordination with APD Urban Planning and Management LLC, a Jacksonville, Florida, consultant hired by the zone.
"The seeds have been planted, and things have been set in place," May says. "But I don't think we as a city can be satisfied if the zone goes away."
"We're pretty strong," Taylor says. "We won't lose the progress if the Green Impact Zone goes away. It will just slow things down. If something is out of our league, it will just take some more research to get it done."
If redevelopment does stall, certain advancements will remain. The Troost Avenue bridge has been built, and a pedestrian walkway is slated to be completed by September. The Troost MAX bus line is running. The neighborhoods will have stretches of new sidewalks, traffic signals and resurfaced streets. But Rep. Cleaver's vision was a big idea — the kind of big idea capable of attracting Make It Right — and it was meant to transform 150 blocks, not 15. Are some of the neighborhoods in the zone doomed to be forgotten all over again?
"The biggest thing for me is that we have raised the possibility of hope," Maltbia says. "Now we want to light a fire that will burn on its own."