The tragic story of how Kansas City leaders, blinded by the Wizards’ pro-sports glamour project, turned their backs on an idea that might actually have saved Bannister Mall 

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The 3-Trails Village board also invited professional and student landscape architects to reimagine Bannister Mall and its surrounding acreage. Austin liked the plans that showed houses and apartments where empty stores and parking lots stood. "You gotta have people living on the dirt," he says.

Rethinking Bannister Mall was not simply an academic exercise. In cities such as Lakewood, Colorado, and Boca Raton, Florida, dead malls have been converted into graceful districts with a mix of uses. Robert Gibbs, a Michigan-based retail urban planner in the New Urbanism school, told Austin that Bannister Mall had the right bones — primarily land and access — for that sort of redevelopment.

Through Gibbs, Austin met a possible investor for such a turnaround here.

In the fall of 2007, Gibbs helped arrange a visit by two senior executives at J.P. Morgan and the managing partner of GreenHawk Partners, a North Carolina real-estate development company.

The J.P. Morgan executives managed the bank's Urban Renaissance Property Fund. The fund managers sought investments in developments that adhered to "green" certification standards, pedestrian-friendly design and proximity to commuter rail lines, according to a letter that one of the executives, Lewis Jones, sent to Austin.

On his visit, Jones wanted to meet officials from Kansas City Southern. The railroad's main line forms the eastern border of the 3-Trails Village CID.

A Kansas City Southern spokeswoman confirms that the company's vice president for corporate affairs, Warren Erdman, met with Austin and others to discuss the possibility of commuter rail service, which transit advocates in Kansas City have promoted for years.

The spokeswoman, Doniele Kane, says Erdman expressed the railroad's "willingness to consider such an idea," while also explaining that the track required substantial improvements in order to handle commuters as well as freight, and that the money would have to have come from a public source.

That year, gas prices surpassed $3 a gallon. Austin says the J.P. Morgan executives were looking to invest in developments that could survive in a world of reduced automobile travel.

The bankers held four meetings in Kansas City that were attended by various stakeholders, including the public.

A private meeting was arranged between representatives from J.P. Morgan and LANE4 Property Group, OnGoal's development partner.

The Wizards and LANE4 had already outlined their vision for the site several months before J.P. Morgan took an interest. It was green only in the sense that it contained sports fields.

Aspects of LANE4's plans for Bannister Mall look pretty similar to what was at the site 20 years ago. Where the shopping center once stood — demolition began earlier this year — the drawings call for big-box and specialty stores, surrounded by acres of ample parking. The streets are engineered to facilitate speedy access to and from the soccer stadium.

Of course, the youth soccer fields and the office buildings would have added dimensions that Bannister Mall lacked even in its glory years.

At the same time, LANE4 was not assembling a development to rival the Country Club Plaza — or even Zona Rosa. The retail and office components in LANE4's plan existed largely to create a tax increment to pay for the construction of the soccer stadium.

"The driver," Austin says, "has always been, 'We want a stadium.'"

It became evident to Austin that the Wizards/LANE4 team and J.P. Morgan would not be able to align forces.

J.P. Morgan's ideas about redevelopment fit with all the planning that 3-Trails Village had done. J.P. Morgan's pledge to invest in sustainable design squared with public officials' stated intentions to make Kansas City a greener place.

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