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As Bond and McCaskill point out, the Bannister complex is an aging, hastily constructed hodgepodge of buildings. Harry Truman broke ground at the site in 1942, and workers there built aircraft engines for the war effort. ("It's a site that's probably outlived its usefulness," John Sharp, a Kansas City councilman who represents that part of town, tells me.)
Ostensibly on a fact-finding mission, Bond and McCaskill submitted a list of "questions and concerns" that reads like a cross-examination.
They ask, for instance, whether it's true that the GSA's current Bannister Road location "is considered within a flood plain and therefore wouldn't be considered a possible location."
And what about asbestos-containing materials at the Bannister complex? Better check out those, too.
The senators aren't doing anything unusual. Members of Congress who are quick to damn government programs go into spasms if military bases in their districts are threatened. It's just the way things work.
But the proposed new federal building raises questions that go beyond pork-barrel spending. The groundbreaking that Bond and McCaskill so desperately want to attend might not be all that great for their constituents, either.
When the federal government owns real estate, it doesn't pay property taxes. The city, at least, is able to tax the people who report to work there. But TIF, in all its splendor, freezes property taxes and gives developers a shot at the earnings taxes, as well.
It's like trading a hangover for the flu.
I suppose there's an intangible benefit to these projects. The IRS project preserved the stately, old main post office, around which the new tax compound was built. But the Timothy McVeigh/Osama bin Laden threat keeps the public from enjoying the old building or its new, planet-friendly neighbor.
I found out as much when I tried to ride that moving sidewalk.
I had read that the people mover runs underground between the IRS facility and a parking garage adjacent to Union Station, traveling an impressive 340 feet. Alas, you need a job at the IRS to ride the thing. My aspiration to live like a Jetson ended at a security desk on the garage side of the walkway.
After I was turned back by the guards, I decided to try to salvage the day by exploring the National Archives, which moved from the Bannister complex into an old freight building next to Union Station. A gallery exhibit there explains the Kansas-Nebraska Act in maps and political cartoons. I left feeling edified.
The National Archives is a nice addition to the urban core's inventory of public buildings. But a new office building for the GSA and FEMA would be more like the IRS center — impressive in concept but fortresslike in practice because FEMA plays a prominent role in most nut-case government-conspiracy theories.
Yet political leaders such as Bond and McCaskill and the city's business interests act as though a new federal office building is downtown's missing piece. The Kansas City Star has referred to the building as a "plum." Bill Dietrich, the president of the Downtown Council, has called it a "catalyst."
Convinced of this, the City Council committed TIF to the project in 2007. Hangover, meet flu.
We can all agree that more people living and working downtown is a good thing. But if we're at "X" now and a new federal office building takes us to "Y," how magic is downtown going to become? And at what price to the city budget?
The GSA is expected to complete its review in the coming days. The agency might make a recommendation to cancel the prospectus or issue a new one. Or it might decide to continue with the plan to relocate the Bannister workers somewhere between the river and the freeway loop just south of downtown.