At the Berkley Riverfront, just north of downtown Kansas City, Missouri, roads are lined with wide-open grassland, sparkly new apartment buildings and a bustling dog park and bar made of shipping containers.
Behind all this riverfront development is the Port Authority of Kansas City (Port KC).
Port KC is a public organization, with its board members appointed by the Kansas City mayor, and it was established by Missouri to manage economic development within Kansas City.
Despite leading massive development projects — including an upcoming 420-acre Missouri River Terminal planned near the confluence of the Missouri and Blue rivers, estimated at $500 million — Port KC is relatively unknown to the average Kansas City resident.
So The Beacon reached out to President and CEO Jon Stephens to learn what the department does, as well as how residents can get involved in decisions about the city’s future.
Port KC owns and oversees the Berkley Riverfront development
Port KC’s primary role for several years has been to oversee the development of the 45-acre Berkley Riverfront, which it owns. Its mission is to turn the former dumping ground for coal sediment and building materials into a vibrant neighborhood.
This means that any riverfront development must be approved by Port KC’s Board of Commissioners. This is a complicated process that requires three separate approvals.
The first approval is called an “inducement resolution,” followed by a “bond authorization” and finally a “bond issuance.” After the third step, construction is ready to begin. Port KC oversees the project through yearly review and audits.
One of its upcoming projects is a 7.1-acre women’s professional soccer stadium, planned to open in 2024. This $70 million development will be privately funded. Port KC projects often involve tax breaks for developers. This process has been criticized for its effect on the Kansas City Public Schools budget.
On occasion, Port KC also oversees housing developments outside of the Berkley Riverfront at the request of the city or community. For the majority of such requests — Stephens estimates 95% of them — Port KC will offer expertise but does not take it on as an official project.
“We always want to be at the table and supportive, but our focus is on the riverfront,” Stephens said.
Governed by a seven-member Board of Commissioners, appointed by the mayor
Port KC’s Board of Commissioners consists of seven people appointed by the mayor of Kansas City. Once appointed, each member serves a six-year term and can only be removed before the term ends by a vote of at least six out of seven board members. Stephens is not aware of any instance when a board member has been removed.
Because no members of the board or the Port KC staff are elected by voters, some local housing advocacy groups, such as KC Tenants, are concerned that Port KC is not accountable to the public.
The primary way for people to participate in major decisions is to attend the three public meetings held every month. These include the Development Committee meeting, the Finance and Administration Committee meeting and the Board of Commissioners general meeting. They are typically held on Monday mornings and Friday afternoons.
Stephens said the Development Committee meeting is best for people to give feedback on upcoming projects. It’s where applicants for developments present their proposals, and both committee members and members of the public can ask the developers questions. These could include the anticipated rent prices, developer history and any other details.
“The Development Committee is where it’s sort of a deep public dive,” Stephens said. “It is the data points; it’s the who, what, when, where, why and how. And then there is fully open engagement, public questions and public commentary.”
Board of Commissioners meeting’s new public comment policy concerns some
Though the Development Committee offers extensive opportunities for public comment, as does the Finance and Administration Committee, the Board of Commissioners general meetings have a much more limited time for public comment.
Last month, the Board of Commissioners meeting rules were changed, and now public comment is only taken at the beginning of the meeting, before any agenda items are discussed. Previously, opportunities for comment were at the discretion of the chairperson and were taken throughout the meeting.
Some of the board members were surprised to learn about the rule change at the June meeting and said there was no discussion about it beforehand.
“I would think a (fundamental) change like this would be discussed,” City Council and board member Kevin O’Neill said. “I find it a little disheartening to find out about this new change based on the comments I’m hearing rather than a formal discussion or at least a letter or an email explaining that to us.”
This change came after public testimony at its May meeting that flagged concerns about the background of Lux Living, a housing developer that had applied for a project in the Berkley Riverfront development.
Public testimony pointed out that Lux Living had not disclosed to Port KC that its CEO had been fined by the Securities and Exchange Commission in 2017 and banned from directing a publicly traded company for five years. After learning this information, the Port KC Board of Commissioners chose not to pursue this project further.
KC Tenants believes Port KC is limiting public testimony in retaliation and said it was disturbing to see opportunities for public engagement being limited, rather than expanded. In a statement, KC Tenants said the change will make “an already inaccessible process even harder to engage with” and will affect marginalized voices the most.
Stephens said this change had been in the works prior to the May meeting, and it is primarily to keep the board meetings within time constraints. He said that anyone wanting to engage fully with Port KC should come to its Development Committee meetings, which he hopes can be the best opportunity for the public to directly ask developers questions.
Port KC hopes to create new events, including question-and-answer and “Lunch and Learn” sessions to engage the community in other ways. Stephens also said that he is happy to answer any questions on his Twitter, and he said that all emails with public comments are passed on to the Board of Commissioners.
Port KC projects and city’s standards for affordable housing
A municipal ordinance passed in 2021 set new standards for all Kansas City housing developments to address the affordable housing issue. The law limits rent on at least 20% of units within a development.
Among the regulations: At least 10% must be affordable for those who make 30% of the Kansas City metropolitan area’s median family income, and at least 10% must be affordable for those who make 70% of this income level.
By affordable, the city means that the total cost of rent and utilities must be no more than 30% of the household’s income.
For example, if a two-person household in Kansas City makes $23,250 annually, they are eligible for “extremely affordable” housing, and their budget for rent and utilities is $581.25 every month. The threshold changes based on the number of people in a household.
None of the current Port KC housing projects complies with this ordinance because they were approved before the ordinance was passed, Stephens said
The Union Berkley Riverfront apartments do not have any income-based considerations for affordable housing, and 15% of the units at the CORE apartments are affordable for families making under 50% of the median family income. For a four-person household in 2021, this was an annual income of $48,400.
Moving forward, Stephens said, Port KC’s intention is to make any future riverfront development comply with the housing ordinance. If the Development Committee decides that this is not financially possible, they will look into other ways that they could make their housing accessible to lower-income families, even if they can’t lower the rent.
Examples Stephens provided include ensuring that the apartments are close to bus lines to ease a commute, or bringing construction projects to the neighborhood that can provide employment opportunities within walking distance.
Some groups, including KC Tenants, have criticized whether these apartments are affordable, even if they manage to abide by the ordinance. They believe that the city’s calculation for affordable rent is skewed by higher income in some suburbs of Kansas City, as well as homeowners, who they believe should not be included in the calculations for affordable rental prices.
Port KC said most of its upcoming projects will be manufacturing or industrial, but one project that will likely be discussed at upcoming Development Committee meetings is the Origin KC Hotel, which would be developed by the Mississippi-based Thrash Group. This project is awaiting its “bond issuance,” which is the third and final step of the Development Committee process.
The agenda items and Zoom link for each meeting are published on the Port KC website no fewer than 24 hours prior to the meeting.
July 11 — Development Committee meeting via Zoom, 3-5 p.m.
July 15 — Finance and Administration Committee meeting via Zoom, 8:30-10 a.m.
July 25 — Board of Commissioners meeting via Zoom, 3-5 p.m.
Aug. 8 — Development Committee meeting via Zoom, 3-5 p.m.
Aug. 12 — Finance and Administration Committee meeting via Zoom, 8:30-10 a.m.
Aug. 22 — Board of Commissioners meeting via Zoom, 3-5 p.m.
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