Some of KC’s richest folks live in the streetcar zone. Why aren’t they paying for it?

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As president of the condominium board at The Walnuts — three 1920s brick towers south of the Country Club Plaza where condos can cost $600,000, $700,000, $1 million or more — Bob Graham lives alongside some of Kansas City’s most prominent, philanthropic and wealthy people.

Tom Bloch of H&R Block has two units at The Walnuts, records show. Doty Gates, the granddaughter to the founder of the Gerber baby food company, is listed as having three.

Former Mayor Kay Barnes owns there, as do the Ingrams of Ingram’s Magazine, the Soslands tied to Sosland Publishing along with 38 other affluent owners.

Soon to be a neighbor: the extension of the Kansas City streetcar now being constructed down Main Street.

“When we moved here,” Graham said recently, “we thought, what an enlightened way to do it. You tax the people who are going to benefit on either side of it, and then you make it free. It’s a wonderful thing for the city.”

And even better for the residents of The Walnuts.

Unlike thousands of other property owners who, being located 1/3 of a mile from the streetcar line, were required at the end of 2021 to pay an added assessment on their property tax bills to support the line, the condo owners at The Walnuts are not paying an extra penny.

It’s not because The Walnuts’ residents pushed to be exempt.

“I mean, it wasn’t that somebody said, ‘Oh, you know you’re going to be assessed,’ and we said, ‘No, no, no. You can’t do that,’” Graham said. To the best of his knowledge, he said, The Walnuts simply wasn’t located within the 1/3-mile assessment area.

Except, according the streetcar’s own Transportation Development District map, the property holding the 54 stately condominiums does lie within the assessment area. The dotted line that determines who pays and who doesn’t runs through the eastern edge of the 10-acre, wooded property at 5049 Wornall Road.

The Walnuts are located at 50th Street and Wornall Road where a dotted line shows that part of the property lies within 1/3 of a mile of the streetcar line. The property, in white, not yellow, is not part of the special assessment zone.
The Walnuts are located at 50th Street and Wornall Road where a dotted line shows that part of the property lies within 1/3 of a mile of the streetcar line. The property, in white, not yellow, is not part of the special assessment zone.

Such are the quirks of the map and the criteria used to create its boundaries, said attorney Doug Stone, a partner with the firm Lewis Rice.

The Star first reported on questions about The Walnuts and the map — who’s inside the line and has to pay, who is outside and doesn’t — several years ago when the map was drawn prior to the 2017 public vote on the district. But now, with 700 tons of rails arriving last week and the tax bills arriving recently, some are once again wondering how the boundaries were determined.

In 2016, Stone and streetcar advocate David Johnson drew the assessment map and its boundaries. Johnson now works for the Kansas City Area Transportation Authority and is a member of the seven-person Transportation Development District (TDD) board.

The map was created in advance of a vote to decide whether a district should be formed to fund the 3.5-mile extension of the streetcar line from Union Station, down Main Street to 51st Street and Brookside Boulevard at the University of Missouri-Kansas City.

It was evident from before the map was approved, Stone said, that The Walnuts was not included. Voters approved the district and its boundaries in August of 2017.

“There’s nothing nefarious about it,” said Stone, who also operates as the attorney for the TDD. “Somebody said to me, ‘You took The Walnuts out because that’s where Kay Barnes lives.’ “

Stone laughed. “I don’t know where Kay Barnes lives!”

“People have a sense that this was done under cover of darkness,” he continued. “But, the truth is, it wasn’t. We had maps that were publicly available. We held elections where the maps were part of the material that were given out. This is not like two guys in a room saying ‘Hey, let’s protect Kay Barnes.’ Nonetheless, I know that people are — especially in today’s environment — there’s an inclination to seek conspiracies.

“All I can say is that David and I did the best we could to make a decision. We publicized it. I mean, I’ve never spoken to anyone at the Walnuts ever. I don’t even know who lives there. . . .This had nothing whatsoever to do with anything other than, ‘Where do we put the boundary?’”

Jan Marcason, a former City Council member and chair of the Transportation Development District, concurred.

“The map has never changed from when it was first presented,” she said.

Once the district and its boundaries were approved by the voters, Marcason said, changing those boundaries after-the-fact “would have been a slap to the people who voted for it. I mean, you can’t bait and switch. That would have been really bad.”

In general, the streetcar has two funding streams: the federal government and money raised from the Transportation Development District.

Some $234 million has come from the federal government to construct the 2.2-mile downtown line, which opened in May 2016, and the 3.5-mile Main Street extension. Another $14 million has been put toward a planned Riverfront extension to run north to near Berkley Riverfront Park.

Money for annual operations, maintenance and bond interest payments come from an extra 1% sales tax collected in the TDD, whose boundaries meander in an uneven line from from the Missouri River to about 54th Street, State Line Road to Campbell Street.

Then, tucked inside the zone, is a green and yellow map of some 9,000 residential, commercial and non-profit parcels that are located within 1/3 of a mile of the line. Owners of those properties pay an added “special assessment” that is also used to run the line, maintain it and pay the bond interest. The special assessment is calculated using what Jackson County determines to be the market value of each property. RideKC provides an online special assessment calculator.

It shows that a residence valued at $200,000 would be assessed about $266. The bill for a $500,000 residence would be $665. Owners of a $1 million home would pay about $1,330 a year in addition to their normal property tax. The assessment is to be collected annually for 25 years. In 2021/2022, it was expected to bring in about $11.5 million.

Jackson County records show that the 54 properties at The Walnuts are, collectively, valued at around $30 million. More than a quarter of the properties are valued at $800,000 or more, with three at over $1 million.

If The Walnuts properties had been part of the special assessment this year, they would have added just short of $40,000 in funding for the streetcar.

Stone said there were several reasons for why The Walnuts were not included in the assessment, even though the map’s dotted line, the outer edge, cuts through the property.

“Our view of that,” Stone said, “is that the only part of the Walnuts property that is in is the east part of the lawn. None of the buildings were in. And the buildings, as far as we understand, are kind of Wornall-centric and not Plaza-centric.”

In other words the entrances to The Walnuts face southwest toward Wornall Road and away from the Plaza, Main Street and the streetcar line.

Counter to Stone’s contention that the map’s boundary only cuts through the lawn, the city’s parcel viewer, in fact, shows that the breadth of The Walnuts’ three buildings extends across much of the width of the property. As drawn, the map’s boundary would likely cut through part of one building.

The layout of The Walnuts, at 5049 Wornall Road, as shown on Kansas City’s parcel viewer.
The layout of The Walnuts, at 5049 Wornall Road, as shown on Kansas City’s parcel viewer.

David Johnson’s recollection, meantime, is that boundary actually cuts behind the property.

“We talked a lot about The Walnuts over the years,” he said. Johnson is now the transportation authority’s vice president of planning and strategies. “The people who live there haven’t ever asked any questions for obvious reasons: They’re not in the district. But the people who are nearby have.”

Being within 1/3 of a mile was one criteria, Johnson said, but there were others.

“The theory behind this is that walkability, your usability, your distance to the streetcar alignment was the deciding factor on the assessment,” he explained. “That’s why some areas bulb out farther than the third of a mile and others are less than that.

“If you were to walk in and out of the lobby (of The Walnuts), it’s not oriented toward Main Street or Brookside at all. The entrance faces south. It’s a huge setback. That was the main consideration.. . . .If you’re standing in the lobby of the Walnuts, would you walk to Cleaver (Boulevard) and Main or to 51st and Brookside, because that’s where the streetcar stops will be? The answer is probably no.”

Thus the Walnuts was not included. It is not the map’s only exception.

While much of the eastern portions of Plaza and Westport shopping districts are inside the 1/3-mile zone, much of the western portions bulge outside the zone. The entirety of the Plaza and Westport are nonetheless being assessed, Stone said, because the areas are flat, easily walkable to the streetcar and it also wouldn’t be equitable to assess just one part of a shopping district and not the rest.

The mapmakers also took topography and the natural breaks within neighborhoods into consideration.

Five blocks of homes and businesses on the east side of the map — from about 34th Street to 39th Street east of Gillham Road — are not being assessed although they, too are within the 1/3-mile zone. The homes and business lie to the east of Hyde Park.

“Even though they’re in the walking shed from a distance perspective,” Johnson said, “the question was would they walk through a sunken park at any time of day and then walk up the hill to get to Main Street and board the streetcar? And the assessment of that was no.”

So those properties were also not included in the assessment.

Todd Acuff’s home at 53rd and Locust Street is located just beyond the 1/3-mile boundary. His front door faces south, as does the Walnuts. He nonetheless is being assessed, and doesn’t mind being so.

“I’m in the area. I support it,” Acuff said of the streetcar. “I was within the region to get that added to my tax levy. And I just went ahead and paid it.”

His bill would have been close to $900.

He paused, however, when he heard that the residents of The Walnuts, although within the 1/3-mile zone, were not being assessed.

“Well, on the surface,” he said, “that does not sound fair to me. I paid it. As someone within the region, I’m glad to pay it. I believe in fairness. So hopefully everybody else will do their part.”

Neighbor Jane Allen, 36, grew up one house over. Her mother’s assessment bill would have been more than $500. She sees The Walnuts not being included as part of a larger narrative of the wealthier people getting breaks.

“Just the same story that has been playing out for so long,” she said. “Am I surprised that the Blochs and the Soslands and all the rich people in The Walnuts are not paying? No. I’m sure that was by design.”

But emphatically Stone and Johnson say that is not so. Plenty of other wealthy and influential people are being assessed, including the neighbors just north and east of The Walnuts who live in the Kirkwood Circle subdivision and the Kirkwood condominiums. Dozens of properties there are frequently listed at $800,000 to more than $2 million.

At some point, Stone said, boundaries had to be set, with some properties in and others out.

“It has nothing to do with the value of the property or who lives there,” Johnson said. “I’m personally paying the assessment. If I was really worried about things like that, I would have drawn out my own property.”