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Thanks. Now Scram

An $8 million "public" parking garage in the River Market looks awfully private.


There's a public parking garage in the River Market. Except that you and I don't park there.

A few years ago, a Kansas City, Missouri, agency issued almost $8 million in bonds to build the garage. The City Council said the garage was supposed to be open to the public. Yet today, it's about as welcoming as a country club surrounded by wrought iron. Until recently, a sign at one entrance read "Reserved Parking Only."

The garage is attached to the spiffy new headquarters of HOK Sport, the renowned architecture firm whose building opened to fanfare last year. Made of aluminum and glass, the HOK building strikes a sleek pose on a plot where a house of porn, the Old Chelsea Theatre, used to stand.

Like a lot of significant projects in Kansas City, the HOK building and garage relied on public subsidies. Every such project involves a little lying to justify its assistance. The thriving, upscale Briarcliff development north of the river, for instance, is using an ancient "blight" designation to justify supersized tax breaks for a new boutique hotel.

There are little lies, and there are big lies. The HOK project told a pretty big one.

Rewind to 2003: HOK Sport, designer of stadiums and arenas around the world, was looking to escape its cramped space in the Garment District. The city was eager to keep a glamour company within its borders. So the council told the city manager to come up with a plan to build a parking garage for the River Market project, which was developed by the Minneapolis-based real-estate giant Opus Northwest. (HOK leases 70 percent of the building.)

The council resolved that the River Market needed parking and that the garage "will be open to the public." An old drawing of the proposed HOK building shows round, blue "P" parking signs adorning the façade.

But the actual garage looks awfully private. There are no tollbooths. I've never seen an attendant or any other marker indicating that you, the public, can park in the garage that you, the public, built.

Opus VP David Harrison insists that the garage is public. "The public can call and lease space in there," he tells me. "I mean, there is space available on a monthly basis."

Now the sign on the garage advertises "contract parking" and provides a phone number. It has replaced the "Reserved Parking Only" sign, which disappeared after I started asking questions.

Councilman John Fairfield, who cosponsored the resolution authorizing the garage, says parking should be available in the garage during off hours. Yeah, but there's no way in without a key card.

"I don't know whether somebody has not followed through," says Fairfield, a candidate for mayor. "Something just hasn't been done, obviously. I don't go around checking parking garages."

At least the city didn't build HOK a free garage. The company leases 200 spaces at $65 a month each. Opus pays the city a special assessment of $125,000 a year for 10 years. The leases and assessments aren't enough to cover the cost of the garage, but at least they're something.

But the garage is only part of the deal. The subsidies flew at this thing fast and furious.

The HOK building also got a whale of a tax break from an obscure city agency called the Planned Industrial Expansion Authority. Created in 1974 to eradicate blight in industrial areas, the PIEA is massively popular with developers. The agency wields the power of eminent domain and can issue bonds (as it did for the HOK garage). But mostly, it issues tax breaks.

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