One of the things that draws people to cities is the ability to do things — shop, eat brunch, have a drink, find a sex partner — without driving much. Or at all.
Recently, I was chatting with an urban planner. He lamented how Kansas City leaders, from the mayor on down, lack the awareness or the ability to sell these attributes. When was the last time, he wondered, any local leader said anything like, "Hey, living in the city is a great thing! We want you to live here! Look at how cool it is! You can live here without a car!"
Instead, we're stuck with pantloads like Chuck Eddy, a former councilman who operated under the notion that Kansas City needed to look and feel more like Overland Park. During his time on the City Council, Eddy led crusades against street vendors and newspaper boxes. I sometimes wondered whether he watched Law & Order reruns in order to be appalled by its images of city life. Bleech. Detective Briscoe just ordered coffee from a guy with a cart. And what is that, a falafel?
Eddy wanted to be mayor. Voters, in 2007, told him to resume his career as a chiropractor.
Alas, mediocrities don't stay down for long in Kansas City. Eddy returned to City Hall earlier this year as City Manager Wayne Cauthen's chief of staff.
I got to thinking about Eddy and my conversation with the urban planner during a recent meeting of the Board of Parks and Recreation. It was an event at which, I admit, I exclaimed duh! during a moment of lost self-control.
The source of my angst? The parks board's interminable discussion about dog parks.
Kansas City's one and only off-leash dog park opened in Penn Valley Park in 2004. One dog park is not a lot. Cities of comparable size have made much greater efforts to provide this relatively simple amenity to their residents. Portland, Oregon's park system offers five fenced areas for dogs to run and play off-leash. Indianapolis has three "canine companion zones."
Kansas City has moved tentatively, in part because one parks board commissioner, Aggie Stackhaus, hates the idea.
In 2007, the parks board abruptly approved a policy that all future dog parks belonged in parks of 100 acres or more. This policy was intended to thwart a citizen-led effort to install a dog park at Sunnyside Park in Waldo. Stackhaus and the Sunnyside group engaged in a battle of wills that has been documented in these pages and elsewhere. I'm not going to reconstruct the fight. But it produced something interesting.
On August 25 of this year, staffers at the Parks and Recreation Department presented commissioners with a set of new policies and guidelines for off-leash areas. The employees identified 13 potential sites for dog parks. The 100-acre rule was gone. Instead, parks department staffers recommended that off-leash areas themselves must cover at least 5 acres of ground.
"That decision was made based on our experience with Penn Valley Park," Heidi Downer, a parks department spokeswoman, explained to me later, when I asked about the 5-acre minimum.
The Penn Valley dog park is 3.5 acres. Parks officials believe that it's too small for the volume of dogs it handles.
"Based on the amount of use we anticipate in the proposed dog parks, a larger size is preferred to minimize the wear and tear and keep the parks looking good," Downer said.
Sounds reasonable enough — until you see what other cities are doing.
The city of Minneapolis has five dog parks in its well-regarded system. None exceed 4.5 acres.
I looked at other cities that Kansas City might consider peers.
San Antonio's two dog parks are each 1.5 acres.
Four of Charlotte's five off-leash areas cover 4 acres or less.
Columbus, Ohio? One dog park of 3 acres and another that's 1.5 acres.
See, officials in Minneapolis and other cities that are considered desirable places to live actually try to make themselves appealing and useful. They don't draw arbitrary lines. They put amenities where people want them.
Kansas City, by contrast, plans to put its dog parks in places where they create the least amount of work for the parks department.
So, instead of locating an off-leash area in a park with lots of parking places and a constituency that has raised $5,000 to support the effort (Sunnyside), the parks department has determined that a place like Blue Valley Park, for example, is a more suitable location.
At the meeting August 25, parks department staffer Jimmi Lossing noted Blue Valley Park's proximity to Interstate 435. I sat in the back of the room and thought, Seriously? This is an attribute worth considering? There were moments when Lossing sounded as if she were pitching a potential site for a new Hardee's in Lenexa.
Freeway access is not what's holding back so many of our city's 219 parks. Blue Valley and other parks in the system are too often empty for precisely the opposite reason: They're set apart from neighborhoods and lack decent pedestrian access. From several vantage points, Blue Valley Park looks more conducive to dumping a body than exploring nature.
Yet which potential dog-park site received the highest score from parks department staffers? A somewhat remote section of Swope Park, one that's cut off from people by the Blue River and I-435.
Of course, it may be that the bureaucrats at the parks department are familiar with importance of density and walkability in urban design. (Why do people like to visit the Plaza? It's not for the bargains.) Thus, the 5-acre rule might simply be a way to ensure Commissioner Stackhaus of the outcome she desires.
Stackhaus opposes dog parks on principle — apparently they're not kid-centric enough for her. She's also friends with a Waldo neighborhood leader who fought the Sunnyside proposal.
And parks department officials aren't completely clueless. They've judged that dog parks can be smaller than 5 acres in what's known as "greater downtown," an area bordered by the state line, the Missouri River, the Paseo and 31st Street.
But this exception only confuses matters.
A young woman addressed the parks commissioners at the August 25 meeting. She said she had bought a home six months earlier. She was disappointed that there wasn't a dog park closer to where she had chosen to live. She could not understand why a 1-acre dog park was acceptable for downtown but not for midtown.
The parks commissioners had no answers. Tyrone Aiken referred weakly to a "matrix" that had culled Sunnyside Park from the finalists.
The parks commissioners had no answers because there was no answer.
That was when I muttered duh!
It was in frustration over the fact that the parks department had failed to see the city through the trees. Instead, it had taken a one-size-fits-nearly-all approach: What's best for the Northland is best for the East Side is best for Waldo.
I remembered what Kevin Klinkenberg, the urban planner I mentioned at the top of this column, had told me: "The leadership situation is just so god-awful in the city. We have just no leadership at all — almost no understanding about what it takes to make a good urban place that people want to live in, that lots of people would want to live in."
No, but it's sure easy getting around on our nice freeways and sidewalks free of falafel vendors.
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