Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Prime location, near streetcar line

Though never built, Armour Center was designed to profit from proximity to the existing streetcar line.

Another brief side trip into current events, sort of ...

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If somehow you haven't noticed, running the downtown streetcar line into other neighborhoods is an idea that gets under some folks' skin. To them, streetcar supporters are naive dreamers demanding a "toy train" accessory for a hipster lifestyle. Some anti-expansionists are bursting with anger at public meetings, putting a coat of ugly on legitimate questions about cost and aesthetics and whether Kansas City needs a streetcar.

It was interesting this week to read The New York Times architecture critic's case for bringing streetcars to sections of that city the subways don't reach. Sure, buses would work, he says ...

But where's the romance? A streetcar is a tangible, lasting commitment to urban change. It invites investment and becomes its own attraction. ... Today, a city that attracts young entrepreneurs who favor old, mixed neighborhoods and industrial buildings, and whose employees like to ride bikes, take public transit and live near work is thinking ahead. So is a city that doesn't leave behind its poor citizens in neighborhoods that have long had meager access to public transit.

Yes, it's New York City. But those dynamics would seem to apply here, too.

No surprise: I tend to look at lots of things through the prism of the past. To me, building out the starter streetcar line is a restoration project.

The standard historical narrative about streetcars is that they fell victim to "our love affair with the automobile," especially after World War II. But that's only part of the story.

In 1940, downtown business leaders were actively lobbying the Kansas City Public Service Company to remove streetcars from city streets. Never mind that their own survey showed that 60 percent of downtown shoppers rode streetcars or buses and only 24 percent drove cars. The people in cars spent more money.

There was a growing attitude nationally, fueled by General Motors' vision of "The World of Tomorrow" at the 1939-40 New York World's Fair, that the future was not about public transportation, but about the automobile and lots of speedy, multiple-lane freeways. Well, that's what we got.

But I wonder: Why throw the baby out with the bath water? Why did seemingly no one consider the possibility of a peaceful co-existence between autos and streetcars? In 1940, the three most popular of the many streetcar lines crisscrossing town were Troost Avenue, 31st Street and Country Club. It's not hard to imagine a different city if just those three lines had been preserved for the future. Meaning us.

So this effort to expand beyond the starter line really is a kind of restoration project. And with that in mind, let's revisit a time before hipsters. When no one thought of a streetcar as a "toy train," but as how you got to work, to the store, and back home. And when home's value was enhanced by its proximity to a streetcar line:

There are hundreds more where these came from. But you get the idea ...

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Watch the General Motors promotional film from the 1939-40 World's Fair:

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