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The upside of "entertainment districts"

A Google street view in Westport. Note the parking lot on the right side.

A Google street view in Westport. Note the parking lot on the right side.

I've never liked the term "entertainment districts." The term itself presumes that certain parts of the city are meant for "entertainment" uses (dining, drinking, theater, etc) and those should be off-limits to other neighborhoods or even residential areas. It's a suburban mentality imposed on older urban areas, and all-too common across America. Like most any use concentrated into a "district," it takes something necessary and creates an artificial zone that exacerbates all its positive and negative features.

A quick note: this post is an example of something I'll be starting soon called Sunday Solutions, which will be looking at specify places and offering up, you guessed it, solutions on how they can improve. The best way to keep up with all of the content here is to subscribe to the daily email feed. It's one email per day when there are posts, which is generally Monday-Friday. Just click the option to get the blog delivered by email or select an RSS reader. 

In Kansas City, for years the premier "entertainment district" was actually one of the oldest settlements - the historic neighborhood of Westport. By the 1970's & 80's, Westport had essentially become a late-night party zone, with clubs and bars that catered to a young, heavy-drinking crowd. That all changed with the introduction of the Power and Light District in downtown Kansas City in 2008. 

Power and Light was everything Westport wasn't - new, tightly managed and controlled and filled with theme and chain venues. It's been a great success in two primary ways: it's brought more suburbanites into downtown, which has enhanced downtown real estate, and it's taken the pressure off of Westport to be a party area. The latter is something many of us discussed back six or seven years ago. We all wondered if the presence of Power and Light would allow Westport to mature.

David Hudnall writes about the predicted transformation:

"We really like the way the neighborhood has been going lately," Flanagan says. "We like the locally owned businesses and all the local chefs and other talented proprietors that are increasingly setting up shop there, in addition to the successful businesses that have been there for years. We really didn't look anywhere else."

As Flanagan notes, Bridger's is joining a wave of new establishments that are reshaping Westport's identity. What was once primarily a drinking destination for the post-college crowd is gradually morphing into a district that boasts some of the most progressive restaurants and bars in Kansas City. Westport is growing up.

There's much to be said about all of this, from the nature of entertainment areas in modern America to the needs of young people and allowing a presence for everyone; from the appeal of formula businesses vs locally-grown establishments. For my part, I'm glad that the transformation is happening as it's now possible for Westport to become what it rightfully should be - a premier urban neighborhood built on the fabric of some excellent historic bones. It was never going to be that as long as it was a late-night party area, for a laundry list of reasons.

And don't get me wrong - I'm certainly not anti-party nor do I think there isn't a place for concentrations of bars in cities. People like to get out and have fun, especially young people, and there's really no point in trying to zone that out of existence. It does make me sad that it has to be so tightly controlled and managed in our cities, but that's a subject for another day concerning our ability to behave in public. 

But I am fascinated by the planning and design implications of all of these issues. In the case of Kansas City, the new era in Midtown and Westport can mean some truly great things, if taken advantage of. Here are three critical tasks to undertake now, so that Westport's fortunes are improved even more:

Public space, not parking should be at the heart of the neighborhood

  1. Build a true public space in the center. It's patently absurd that the most valuable land in the middle of the neighborhood is parking lot that's even FREE much of the time. This should be a landmark public square - a great place for outdoor dining, music and much more. The sloping topography even lends itself well to performances. Nothing else could be done to more dramatically improve Westport as a place for people to enjoy and to enhance the value of the surrounding land.
  2. Build better bicycle infrastructure. Located where it is, Westport is ideal as a hub for urban cyclists. It should be a first stop on expansion of the city's bike share system, have much more bike parking and most importantly: improvements to all of the approaching streets to make it easy and enjoyable to ride a bike there. Currently the surrounding streets of Broadway Boulevard, Main Street, 39th Street and 43rd Street are all atrocious for cycling as they are designed to encourage fast driving. Some simple, inexpensive changes could have a dramatic impact on the whole area.
  3. Finally - Westport desperately needs its own form-based code to encourage the right kind of development and prevent the worst. Too many sites have been allowed to be built with suburban-style site plans and buildings instead of creating and enhancing pleasant pedestrian-friendly streets. The city's own inadequate regulations and oversight are a key culprit.

There's much more that can be done, and I hope will be done. The improvement in the business makeup is a great beginning - now there's much to be done on the design and policy side. For even more, checkout my 11 step recipe for successful walkable places.

Protected bike lanes expand

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