By eight o'clock, their customers needed more than spoons.
"We gave them tea and water pitchers to bail out their cars," says Terry Teel, one of Jack Stack's managers. "Some of our workers' cars still aren't working because they took on so much water."
At about 8:15, Teel and his coworkers closed the restaurant, tossing out $500 worth of food and kissing $5,000 in business good-bye.
The only thing unusual about the flood, though, was that it happened in February. In spring and summer, when thunderclappers routinely roll in, Freight House business owners expect sudden changes in their urban ecosystem. That's because the district's sewer system hasn't been upgraded since 1880. Back then -- when the surrounding hills sported a few stately houses and an abundance of spongy lawns -- one main pipe was enough to carry away rainwater and sewage. Now the area is covered with asphalt and buildings; water has nowhere to go but down the pipe -- which isn't big enough to handle it all.
But size is just one matter. Over the last century, while Kansas City leaders repeatedly sandbagged dire infrastructure needs in favor of sexier projects, sewer technology forced the Freight House District's pipes out of fashion. Back when Bennie Moten's orchestra was laying it down at the Panama Club, sewage visionaries began to realize that the one-pipe solution just plain stank. Gutters are good at draining water off the streets, but they're lousy at containing the stench of turds swimming toward the treatment plant.
This affects Freight House businesses, too. Less than a week after the Valentine's Day flood, a man and woman strode toward Jack Stack for an early lunch. "What's that smell?" the woman asked.
"Sewer," her companion answered. "That's always a good sign, when you can smell sewer outside a restaurant."
Last November, the folks in the Freight House District got a whiff of hope that their sewer would finally be brought up to twentieth-century standards.
On Election Day, voters approved a bond issue that would pour more than $15 million into downtown. The money would go toward projects selected by the Greater Downtown Development Authority, a body of attorneys, real estate developers, philanthropists and others assembled by Mayor Kay Barnes to direct downtown revitalization. The GDDA invited anyone with an improvement project to submit a request for a share of the bond money.
Tom Levitt, an independent developer whose family has owned property in the Freight House District for generations, asked the GDDA for $1.5 million to replace the old pipe and cover it with streetscaping.
But on February 10, the members of the GDDA, having sifted through 65 funding requests, instead chose to spend just $500,000 on that project, putting a whale's share of the bond money into cosmetic improvements. (They approved a total of twenty projects; also among them were three parking garages -- one in the Freight House District, another in the River Market and the third near the new library at Ninth and Baltimore.)
GDDA members decided to use $7 million to beautify key downtown thoroughfares with trees, shrubs, new trash cans, sidewalks and "a unified street furniture scheme." They agreed to spend another $170,000 for a sculpture, some poster cases and portable murals painted by kids. They devoted another $2 million to outdoor canopies, signs, new shop fronts in the City Market and new signs to guide tourists to downtown attractions.
Meanwhile, Levitt and his neighbors were left to figure out where to find the rest of the money to fix their sewer.
Fortunately for Levitt, Kansas City voters had anticipated just such a scenario. When they approved the downtown bond money in November, it was only after securing a promise that GDDA-recommended projects would have to pass the scrutiny of the Public Improvements Advisory Committee, a group of citizens chosen by City Council members to prioritize the city's capital improvement projects.
At their meeting on February 14 -- hours before the rains washed out Jack Stack's parking lot -- some PIAC members were alarmed that the sewer fix would receive only partial funding from the bond money. Matthew Davis (Councilman Evert Asjes' appointee), asked if there were funds elsewhere to finish the job. City Planning Director Vicki Noteis answered that there were not.
Davis questioned why the GDDA had earmarked such a high amount for streetscaping. Many of his colleagues worried that the funding for parking garages was a stealth means of using public money to line the pockets of a few lucky developers. Specifically, they wanted to make sure that the garages would be available to the general public, not just the tenants of new offices and lofts.
Clinton Adams Jr. (Councilman Troy Nash's appointee) was particularly steamed about the proposal to hang kid-painted murals on vacant storefronts.
"Are they going to be Johnson County kids?" he asked. "I've got a problem with that if they're coming from outside Kansas City."
After two hours of debate, PIAC members agreed to meet a week later. When they gathered on February 21, they faced a larger audience, many of whom were affiliated with the GDDA and the Economic Development Corporation (a quasi-governmental agency that staffs the GDDA). EDC Director Andi Udris addressed PIAC members' questions, allaying concerns about possible parking garage graft.
Still, the meeting occasionally grew contentious. At one point, Adams, who is black, suggested that Udris was racist because he gave more forthright answers to questions asked by a white committee member. "I resent this guy being part of our deliberations," Adams said.
At other times the meeting was merely odd. Lou Austin (Councilman Al Brooks' appointee) referred repeatedly -- and with no apparent malice -- to Udris as "Mr. Uterus," until the committee's chair, Mike Burke, said, "Uh, the correct pronunciation is Ooo-dris."
With the lunch hour drawing near, Damian Thorman (Councilman Jim Rowland's appointee) moved to amend the GDDA's list to pay for the sewer fix by scrapping the art projects and taking a percentage away from the $7 million in streetscape improvements.
A few felt uncomfortable slashing the arts money. But most agreed with Nelsie Sweeney (Councilman Paul Danaher's appointee). "I support public art," she said. "But I can't support spending $80,000 for a bunch of kids to paint posters when there's flooding."
Finally, PIAC voted to pass the amended list on to the City Council.
Levitt, who had maintained a poker face during the proceedings, tempered his exuberance. "I don't know what to say," he said. "I feel sorry for the people who lost funding."
Perhaps he should have thanked God.
"It was probably the best plan," Udris said of the idea to fund the sewer. "And the GDDA probably would have done it if that storm had come before they made their list."