Preliminary construction is underway at the location of the new Three Light luxury apartment building in downtown Kansas City, Missouri.
File Photo — Preliminary construction is underway at the location of the new Three Light luxury apartment building in downtown Kansas City, Missouri. (Zachary Linhares/The Beacon)

Signs of a changing Kansas City are everywhere. 

The Three Light luxury apartment tower under construction downtown is stretching toward its planned height of 26 stories. New apartment buildings have sprung up along Broadway Boulevard in midtown. The new terminal at Kansas City International Airport is taking shape, and owners of the Kansas City Current have announced plans for a soccer stadium at Berkley Riverfront.

Those are the big projects. Elsewhere across the city, new homes and shopping centers are breaking ground and transforming neighborhoods.

All these projects, large and small, are the visible results of Kansas City’s development process. It’s a multi-step undertaking that, depending on the size and scope of a project, involves city staffers and a chain of public and quasi-public agencies. In most cases, the last stop is the Kansas City Council, which has final approval power. 

Each development project is unique, and not all projects involve tax incentives. That’s why Kansas City’s economic development process looks less like a straight line from point A to point B and more like a flow chart. 

File Photo — Construction is underway for the Three Light luxury apartment building in downtown Kansas City. It’s one of many development projects that went through the city’s multi-step process. (Zachary Linhares/The Beacon)

The City Planning and Development Department is the primary entity that helps shape new projects. Its staffers coordinate with review boards and with the City Council.

“It’s a very intricate network of reviewers and considerations,” said Jeffrey Williams, the department’s director. “That’s appropriate because we’re trying to make sure that we are creating a city that is safe, that is healthy. We’re also trying to create a city that is something that meets broader community goals that have been identified through our area plans.”

Williams said more than a hundred city staffers are involved in the development process. 

“We as a city have a team of very dedicated, talented people that collectively approve over a billion and a half dollars worth of development every year,” he said. “Everything from someone’s addition onto their house to a new airport for the city. It is thousands of inspections. It’s thousands of plan reviews that all happen across a network of people to really make sure we satisfy each and every person that is investing in the city of Kansas City, Missouri.”

The short development process 

To start, a developer has to answer this question: Does the project follow zoning laws? 

The zoning laws in Kansas City’s municipal code dictate what kinds of construction can take place on a given area of land. Different zoning districts — residential, commercial and manufacturing — come with requirements ranging from the types of buildings that can be constructed to how large they can be. 

If the answer to that initial question is yes, the proposed project is considered “as of right” development. As an example, Williams cited construction of a single-family home on land zoned for residential use.

“That is something that is ‘as of right development,’ ” Williams said. “They have the ability to go and ask for a permit for that.”

Permits are the keys that allow developers to break ground. They are needed for everything from installing plumbing and electricity to selling food and alcohol.

Graphic by Celisa Calacal/The Beacon

The permitting review process alone involves multiple city departments, Williams said, like the departments of water and health, or the division of regulated industries.

Once construction begins, the city conducts regular inspections to ensure the project complies with codes and will be safe to occupy. 

Projects that pass all inspections receive a certificate of occupancy. 

“Which means building is completed,” Williams said. “We’ve inspected it, we’re fine, it can be occupied.”

The long development process

More complex projects follow a different process. It’s called development plan review and approval, and it applies to projects such as residential dwellings with more than 50 units, large commercial projects and developments not in zoning compliance. 

This lengthier process requires a pre-application meeting with city planning and development staff 48 hours before submitting an official application to the department. 

The next step: the City Plan Commission — a citizens board whose eight members are appointed by the mayor. The commission meets twice a month to review and recommend development plans to the City Council. 

“We’re reviewing projects that come through the city from a land use standpoint, and trying to build a consensus between the developer, city staff as well as the public that would be affected by a project,” said Coby Crowl, the commission’s chairperson.

Graphic by Celisa Calacal/The Beacon

The commission follows Chapter 88 in Kansas City’s municipal code, which outlines the development process and requirements. 

Crowl said the commission reviews proposed development plans 45 to 60 days after the developer applies to the City Planning and Development Department. 

Commissioners consider whether the project meets zoning requirements and how it fits with a neighborhood’s area plan. They also hear public comment from developers, city staffers and residents. 

After that, the commission recommends either “yes” or “no” and sends the recommendation to one of two places. Projects that comply with zoning requirements go to the City Council for a final vote. Proposals that request a zoning exception (called a variance) or a special-use permit head to the Board of Zoning Adjustment, an eight-member body of Kansas City residents appointed by the mayor. Once the board makes its ruling, that project does not have to go to City Council. 

When a project reaches the City Council, it moves to the five-member Neighborhood Planning and Development Committee for further review. Council members hold hearings to receive input from planning and development staffers, the proposed developers, and members of the public. If a project is approved by the committee, the full City Council then votes to approve or reject it. 

If the vote is to approve, the developer needs to get the right permits before construction begins. 

What about incentives for development? 

So where do tax incentives — popular, yet controversial — fall in the process? 

Those are under the purview of the Kansas City Economic Development Corp., an entity that contracts with Kansas City to oversee developer incentives. 

These programs include Tax Increment Financing (TIF), Land Clearance for Redevelopment Authority (LCRA), Chapter 353 and Enhanced Enterprise Zones (EEZ).

Overall, these programs help developers by redirecting property tax revenues back into designated projects, or approving tax-exempt bonds. 

But critics say tax incentives have been overused in Kansas City and have been given to developers who could afford to fully finance their projects themselves, siphoning off essential revenue from public schools and other city services. 

Once a developer applies to the EDC for an incentive, specialists there conduct a financial analysis that looks at costs, potential revenue and other factors.

We as a city have a team of very dedicated, talented people that collectively approve over a billion and a half dollars worth of development every year.

Jeffrey Williams, director of planning and development department

After that analysis, the EDC reaches out to the taxing jurisdictions that could be affected by the use of tax incentives. These include the city, school districts and the local library.

“That’s our ability to share it. Here’s what the financial analysis says, here’s the incentive we plan on pursuing with them. We listen to their concerns,” said Dan Moye, who oversees two of the EDC’s programs. 

Each EDC incentive program has a board that votes on projects before they reach the City Council.

Port KC is another local governmental body focusing on economic development. Its specific focuses include development along the Berkley Riverfront — the location of a new soccer stadium. Port KC can issue bonds and enter into contracts to develop the land in that area, located near Kansas City’s River Market commercial area. 

How residents can participate in the development process

Public engagement is an essential part of the development process. Williams, with the City Planning and Development Department, said developers in many cases are required to seek input from neighbors and other interested citizens.

If a development is proposed in an area where a neighborhood association is registered with the city, the developer must notify the association within a week of filing a development application. 

Developers who are asking for rezoning or special permits must also schedule a public hearing, which must take place outside of the 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. working day and within three miles of the proposed project. It must also follow requirements for accessibility under the Americans with Disabilities Act. Notice of the meeting is sent to every property owner within 300 feet of the proposed development and to the relevant neighborhood association. 

All of this happens before a project is presented to the City Plan Commission. Residents who want to provide feedback on a project can do so during the public comment session of a commission meeting and again at City Council committee meetings. Citizens can also stay up to date on development projects through the city’s Parcel Viewer website. Under the Projects tab, click on Pending Cases to see the development projects in the approval process.

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Celisa Calacal is a former reporter for The Beacon covering economics and civic engagement issues.