In his new bestseller, The Bomber Mafia, Malcolm Gladwell summarizes the theory of famed social psychologist Leon Festinger thusly: “The more you invest in a set of beliefs—the greater the sacrifice you make in the service of that conviction—the more resistant you are to evidence that suggests you are mistaken. You double down.”
In Kansas City this past year, doubling down seems to have been the order of the day. To the chagrin of area entrepreneurs, much of that doubling down has been on ideas that might charitably be called less than brilliant.
From my office window on Westport Road, I have seen several of these ideas play out in the neighborhood, particularly in the progress of the Opus Group’s new six-story, mixed-use “luxury” apartment project, the Westley on Broadway. The complex serves as my guide to the area’s economic health. I root for its success.
I first wrote about the Westley in September 2019. “The ground level retail is reportedly attracting tenants,” I wrote, “but it is the 256 rental units that I worry about.” My fear was there were not “enough Millennials to go around.” As it turned out, the supply of Millennials proved to be the least of the Westley’s worries.
Although the young guys building the Westley never stopped working, their Millennial peers took to cowering. Three-fourths of the “question authority” crowd wore their beloved masks when walking or biking out-side, right up through the spring of 2021. I saw one guy on a motorcycle wearing a mask—helmetless.
Predictably, having invested a year of their lives in service of their fears, these folks were not eager to embrace contrary evidence. Their timidity has not been good for area business.
Empty storefronts are the norm around here. On the major intersection of Broadway and Westport Road, for instance, three of the four retail spaces sit vacant, and that, alas, includes the Westley’s.
COVID-19 was not the only Black Swan event to surprise me last year. I wrote in September 2019, “Unlike my ‘Boomer’ peers who thought their generational name destined them to make bombs, Millennials do most of their terrorizing on Twitter and Instagram.”
The George Floyd protesters proved me wrong. From my office window, I watched the hard core among them muster in the street below, their backpacks stuffed with objects meant to be thrown at police and/or through plate-glass windows.
Although spared the widespread arson of many cities, Kansas City—Westport and the Country Club Plaza in particular—suffered several nights of broken glass with the threat of more “largely peaceful” mayhem if future events offended the protesters’ sensibilities.
Fear of COVID and fear of chaos were just two of the variables suppressing Midtown redevelopment. The third may be the most difficult of all to overcome, the fear of crime. “Used to go to Westport. Gotta be nuts to return. Guess why,” wrote one of the more printable comments on Tony’s Kansas City after a recent Midtown “incident.”
Crime is a solvable problem, but to solve it, you have to identify the cause. Sorry, Mayor Lucas, it ain’t the police. The myth of police brutality and systemic racism took hold after Ferguson in 2014 and exploded after Minneapolis in 2020.
Its effect has been to paralyze police nationwide, Kansas City included. As a result of this paralysis, a city that experienced 76 homicides in 2014 suffered 182 in 2020, a rate roughly 30 times higher than that of neighboring Johnson County.
Predictably, Lucas and his council pals have doubled down. So deeply in-vested are they in their belief system that they voted to shift millions away from the KCPD and towards some Orwellian confection called the “Community Ser-vices and Prevention Fund.”
“This is actually just responsible funding of a police department,” said Lucas in a futile effort to convince Harris Faulkner of Fox News. A KC alumna made good, Faulkner wasn’t buying Lucas’ mystifying logic. Suggesting his move was a “power grab,” she reminded him that other cities had “dismal” results with their defunding schemes. A true believer, Lucas seemed beyond argument. The state will likely intervene.
The management at the Westley, indeed the managers of every urban enterprise, must have gone nuts this past year. How does one plan for so many unprecedented variables and such unpredictable civic reaction? In the short term, the Westley responded by offering to cut rent by half for six months to lure renters.
Unlike the management at the Westley, which has to factor consumer demand into its sales strategy, urban planners do not. In March 2020, seeing that New York City elevators and subways were serving as petri dishes for the nurturing of bugs, I asked whether urban planners would question their shared urge to “concentrate the population in densely packed areas and move people around on public transportation.”
Predictably, the planning crowd resisted the evidence. There are suicide bombers who hold their faith in Allah
less dearly than planners hold their faith in light rail. Their plans for the Main Street extension of the Kansas City streetcar system continued apace throughout pandemic season.
Although bad news for taxpayers, light rail is probably good news for the Westley. So is the COVID-spiked demand for single-family homes. The unprecedented surge in home buying has priced many a house beyond the reach of many young adults. Good news too, at least for the rental market, is that fear has dissuaded an unhealthy chunk of Millennials from reproducing.
As a result, the Westley no longer offers deep discounts to new renters. Its balconies are filling with porch furniture, always a good sign. There may be enough Millennials to go around after all. Hooray! They are beginning to emerge from hibernation. I see them queuing up outside the area’s remaining commercial
establishing, many of them without masks.
Barring any new Black Swans, other storefronts will fill up as well, including the Westley’s. Here’s hoping they don’t need any plywood. After a year of broken windows, it’s gotten pricier than the
glass it replaced.
*Published in the June 2021 issue of Ingram’s Magazine