Prospect Avenue, the spine of Kansas City, in 1947. Today, the area is the target of citizen-led renewal efforts. Kansas City Public Library

Voters from around the city just approved a citizen-led tax initiative that will funnel funds only to the long-neglected east side. But Kansas City’s racial fractures may be hard to heal.  

Vernon Howard recalls when the east side of Kansas City hummed with life. Shops dotted the intersections along Prospect Avenue, the multi-lane spine of the Missouri city’s core, from the Linwood Shopping Center in midtown on south to Gregory Boulevard and beyond.

The bustle of mid-century Prospect is gone now, replaced by the familiar trappings of urban decay: vacant lots, boarded-up turn-of-the-century homes, and shuttered businesses encased in chain-link fence. “It’s a community that has been starved of economic development for over half a century,” says Howard, who leads the Southern Christian Leadership Conference of Greater Kansas City. “To us, it’s reprehensible. There are no words to describe it.”

Howard has looked on as other parts of the city have transformed in recent years. The Sprint Center arena opened downtown in 2007, helping spur the development of a nightlife district that became a draw for weekend revelers. Just to the south, the Crossroads Arts District quickly priced out its namesake artists as it evolved into the most desirable part of the city. Meanwhile, the predominantly African-American neighborhoods east of Troost Avenue have remained stagnant. This is particularly true for Prospect, for decades the beating heart of black Kansas City.

But East Kansas City leaders like Howard who’ve been working to revive the area recently scored a big win: Earlier this month, Kansas City voters approved a citizen-led tax initiative specifically intended to help reverse decades of disinvestment in the city’s majority-black east side. The proposal would impose an ⅛ cent sales tax on city residents for 10 years, collecting more than $8 million a year to be spent within the district boundaries on projects and initiatives large and small.

Most neighborhoods in the city voted in favor of the tax, regardless of geography, demographics, or whether the improvements would directly affect them. Leaders here hope the broad approval of the east side improvements is a sign—a critical acknowledgement that the urban core has been ignored for too long, and a rudimentary step towards healing one of the most racially fractured cities in America.

Since the 1950s, when black residents from the city’s northeast began to move south and integrate the city’s east side, Troost Avenue has served as Kansas City’s unofficial racial redline. Much like the Delmar Divide in St. Louis, real estate agents in mid-century Kansas City began to steer white homebuyers to the west of Troost, black families to the east. The school board redrew district lines, sometimes annually, to keep black and white students in separate schools. Riots in the wake of Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination in 1968 exacerbated the decampment of wealth to other parts of the city. During that generation of neglect, the foundation of economic and social life on the east side crumbled.

A decade ago, civic and religious leaders founded the Urban Summit, a regular meeting of black Kansas City power brokers tasked with brainstorming ways to turn the area around. It was there that discussion of and planning for the tax initiative first began. The group looked for ways to raise money to spur development without help from the city, says Gwendolyn Grant, the head of the Urban League of Kansas City and a longtime member of the Urban Summit group.

A planning team led by Howard marked the tax district’s boundaries, a swath of land representing both the past and current center of KC’s African-American community. The city estimates that around 15,000 houses sit abandoned in this urban core, and even more suffer from structural failures with families still living inside. According to Census data collected by students at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, median home prices along the Prospect corridor have decreased, dollar-for-dollar, between 1950 and 2010—a staggering depreciation that does not account for inflation. Homes in the Blue Hills neighborhood along Prospect are typically worth $100,000 less than the average home in the greater Kansas City metro area.

Using their experience successfully pushing for a minimum wage hike two years ago, the group took clipboards to polling places last November and gathered the 1,800 signatures needed to get the east side tax proposal on the ballot. “Many of us committed to going forward and getting the signatures to get this thing on the ballot and see if we can’t make something happen, because we’re not getting the investments otherwise,” Grant says.

One challenge: On the same ballot, the city planned to put a generational general bond measure to the voters, hoping to raise $800 million for badly needed infrastructure improvements in the sprawling, lightly-populated city. Leaders of the east side sales tax—by then dubbed the “One City” initiative—were concerned that competing pleas for public money would sway some into ticking “no” all the way down the ballot. And, if approved, that bond money would only matriculate to the east side after projects in west-side neighborhoods had been completed.

The proposal also had some powerful foes: Mayor Sly James and the city manager’s office publicly opposed the tax initiative, fearing it would turn off voters unwilling to pay to improve a part of town they didn’t live in—and perhaps poison the bond initiative. “They should have talked to me before they went out and got the damn initiative petition, and we could have had a conversation,” James told the Kansas City Star in March. “I can’t support a tax I have zero idea what it’s going to be used for.”

“It was clear, they felt that our One City initiative was a threat to their success,” Howard says of James and other city officials. “Here was our argument: If you were in favor of economic development and fairness, why haven’t you initiated or engaged a comprehensive plan to fix disparity in the urban core?”

The city has made efforts to trigger development east of Troost, but the results have been somewhat mixed. Notably, a 2006 attempt to create the Citadel Plaza commercial district at 63rd and Prospect ended with land contaminated by dumped asbestos, two developers facing federal charges, and the city paying $15 million to settle a lawsuit over the deal. But other projects have been more successful. The city spent $74 million developing a new police station and crime lab at 27th and Prospect, and a tax increment financing plan was used to lure developers into building a supermarket at 39th Street. The city itself is the lead developer on another full-service supermarket at the intersection of Linwood. “In a broader view, the city has had quite a bit of investment on the east side,” says Chris Hernandez, a spokesperson for the city.

Boosters of the “One City” sales tax argued that Kansas City’s east side has been missing out on the development that has helped transform other parts of town. (AP)

On April 4, Kansas City voters went to the polls and said yes to everything. The city’s three infrastructure bond initiatives all passed by healthy margins, as did the One City sales tax. Residents from all over the central city supported the tax, including those in majority-white and affluent Brookside and Waldo on the west side of town. Even the city’s Northland, separated physically and often psychologically from the urban core by the width of the Missouri River, cast about 35 percent of its vote in favor of improvements on the east side.

“Certainly it is a bright light, and certainly it is very positive movement in the right direction,” says Grant from the Urban League. While it’s too soon to call the vote a turning point in addressing the city’s deep racial divide, she says she is “extremely encouraged” by the voting results from west-side neighborhoods.

Whether other cities grappling with racial and geographic inequality could deploy a similar model depends on a spectrum of issues governing how and when taxes can be approved, says Kim Rueben, a senior fellow at the Tax Policy Center of the Urban Institute. About half of U.S. states allow for citizen-led petitions to put sales tax increases to voters; some states require local or state approval before an initiative reaches the ballot, something that could have hampered the One City group had it been required in Kansas City. “I think it’s going to depend on what the other fiscal structures in place are,” Rueben says. But it could certainly be of interest in places that share Missouri’s structure—St. Louis, for example, which has its own struggles with racial equity.

But there are other lessons local and city leaders can draw from the process in Kansas City, Rueben says. Cities can and do use whatever local taxing power they have to target specific needs or regions for improvements; property taxes are often used for such initiatives. Voter-approved sales taxes to help spur development are also common in places that allow such local control—particularly West Coast states where voter approval is required for taxation.

The question, she says, is how the money for such initiatives will be spent. When different pools of tax money are being used to develop the same area, unnecessary or duplicative spending could be a concern. “There is some validity to saying that it’s hard to understand how these things will play out,” Rueben says.

Kirk McClure, a professor of urban planning at the nearby University of Kansas, cautions that $8 million a year will be no match for the deep systemic problems on the city’s east side; development there “confronts too much poverty, too much unemployment, and too much need to have any measurable impact.” Kansas City has many neighborhoods that offer affordable housing, development opportunities, and far less crime and entrenched poverty than the Prospect corridor.

The question of where to spend the revenue will be addressed in the coming weeks, as the city convenes a five-person commission made up of city, county, and school board appointees. Although there is no specific system built into the charter, those involved see the money primarily going towards clearing some of those 15,000 vacant properties and to offset pre-development costs to make potential commercial properties attractive to developers.  

But the needs of the east side run deeper than just preparing potential retail and commercial space, says Nia Richardson, who works for construction and engineering firm DuBois Consulting and has been involved with the initiative since its inception. She’d like to see the revenue fund the establishment of a community improvement district that would remain in place after the 10-year tax sunsets. She also envisions the money going toward workforce development—helping to fund training, pay for equipment, and provide seed money for entrepreneurs who have trouble securing bank loans to open new businesses on Prospect. Richardson emphasizes that there needs to be a structure in place to ensure the east side can keep making progress.

Perhaps ironically, the general bond ballot measures One City leaders opposed should help provide some lasting improvements east of Troost. Road repairs and streetscaping along east-west artery streets will bisect the Prospect Corridor, and a rapid bus line, called Prospect MAX, could launch as soon as 2019.

All that is great, Richardson says. But the end result has to be jobs—good jobs, supported by small businesses for and by the local community, like back in the east side’s heyday. Only then can the real healing begin. “I get really tired of people thinking all we need is community centers and daycare,” she says. “If I can’t get a job to afford daycare, then what’s the point?”

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