The Kansas City Star

Steve Paul

September 18, 2015

Kansas City’s Crossroads district aims to retain its artistic vision

The Crossroads Arts District became a “uniquely Kansas City” attraction through the pioneering vision and investments of a handful of artists. Almost three decades ago, Jim Leedy, Sherry Leedy and a few others began building a community where art could be made in raw, inexpensive spaces and shown to the public in modest but lively and thought-provoking galleries.

It was a typical urban story, played out so often in cities with vibrant creative subcultures: Artists gravitate to forgotten corners of town, attracted by high ceilings and affordable real estate. Artists gain a following and transform the neighborhood. Fellow travelers, curiosity seekers, art appreciators and social scenesters gravitate. Developers, bankers and commercial interests notice and dive in to benefit from (exploit?) the increasing foot traffic and rising real estate values. Artists begin looking for forgotten corners elsewhere.

That’s the general outline of the evolution of the Crossroads Arts District. Throw in the rise and sustained monthly energy of the First Fridays street festival, which is still somewhat oriented around art, and you have a big piece of Kansas City’s self-appointed identity as the nation’s “creative crossroads.”

Some artists and galleries have indeed left the premises in recent years, but many have hung on, helped in part by an innovative program that supported tax abatements for properties occupied by artists and arts activities.

But that program of the Planned Industrial Expansion Authority, or PIEA, is scheduled to expire at the end of 2016, and Crossroads artists, neighborhood interests and city officials are discussing whether it can or should be renewed.

Of course it should. Or something like it — a program that will retain, attract and encourage the kind of artistic activities that have helped the Crossroads thrive.

Some warn that if abatement goes away, so will First Fridays.

And as redevelopment continues apace in the Crossroads, sparked at least in part by the coming of the streetcar line down Main Street, some artists and gallery owners already are feeling like the thrill of pioneering might be gone.

There’s a fragile balance between commerce and the Crossroads’ artist endeavors, and that symbiosis should be fed and maintained, says Joshua Best, of the city’s Economic Development Corp., who is working with Crossroads representatives to develop a strong application for renewing the plan.

“The first thing is to protect what we have,” Best told me. And beyond that, he said, the Crossroads still has plenty of opportunity to build on the successes of the last three decades while retaining and expanding its community of artists.

The PIEA plan froze property taxes at 2006 levels for developers of nearly four dozen properties. Would gallery tenants or studio artists take a huge hit if their landlords were forced to pay market-rate taxes? Undoubtedly. Options include retaining the full abatement for perhaps 15 years or, as is typical, reducing it to 50 percent.

A consultant is currently evaluating how the plan has worked for individual artists. Best thinks it worked well, and he’s hopeful that the Crossroads can continue to provide a model for reviving other districts as the city’s creative, economic ecosystems expand.

Crossroads stakeholders meet regularly and have begun to brainstorm on how best to renew the plan and which properties in the district were most vital for preserving First Fridays and the essential creative character of the district. As usual there are quiet background tensions between, say, artful expressionists and those who are aiming for a more profitable future.

The best strategy for the Crossroads and the city is to ensure that the district maintains its foundational creative DNA. Those who want to live, work and play there should find a way to support one another. This is how the city is selling itself these days to the outside world — as a place built on art. Let’s not undermine that message by driving away those who agitate and create.

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