Urban planners pushing downtown ballparks may like density, but Kansas City fans would opt for safety and convenience – like at the ‘K’

Architecture critic Paul Goldberger is a walker.

“There’s something very natural about walking through a dense downtown and going to a baseball game,” Goldberger told KCUR radio, National Public Radio’s Kansas City affiliate.

Like most ambitious cities, Kansas City caters to the genus “walker.” You know the type: young, fit, newly urban, and self-involved. We’ve given them light rail, bicycle lanes, entertainment zones, soccer stadiums and, soon enough, unless common sense prevails, their own ballpark.

The walkers prosper at the expense of the suburban genus “driver.”

Goldberger doesn’t understand the latter type. Walking through bustling streets, he tells us, “is very different from the sort of more suburban experience of coming in a car and parking and walking across acres of asphalt to go into something.”

Watching the urban genus “walker” over the years, I am reminded more than a little of the “walkers” in the hit TV show The Walking Dead. Our zombies, like theirs, lack minds of their own, follow where led, make a lot of noise and are much too eager to infect others.

Among those bitten by the downtown ballpark bug in these parts is Kansas City Mayor Quinton Lucas. 

The mayor, it seems, has a more expansive view of downtown than Goldberger, a resident of New York City’s Upper West Side. Lucas envisions the downtown park being “probably north of the train tracks that are about at 22nd Street. And then probably somewhere between the state line and, of course, I would say Woodland (Avenue).”

Goldberger, the author of Ballpark: Baseball in the American City, knows his downtown ballparks. I’m just not sure he knows anything about KC.

Living in Kansas City and having gone to high school in New York City, I can assure Mr. Goldberger there is a qualitative difference between strolling down, say, Central Park West and scurrying along Woodland after dark. 

As to the mayor, I am sure he knows his local geography. He seems less well acquainted with the local sociology. The truth is, the average “driver” from suburban Jackson County – the guy paying for the park – would rather go to the opera than to attend a ball game on either end of 22nd Street or thereabouts.

Experience makes the case. The moribund Kemper Arena is located on 18th street a few blocks east of State Line, and we know how that worked out. It didn’t. The Negro Leagues Baseball Museum is located on 18th Street a block west of Woodlawn, and we know how that worked out. It didn’t. 

Fans must psych themselves to visit either. A late night walk from Woodlawn to the light rail station on Main has the potential to make a driver out of a walker. Headlines such as  “2022 beats 2021 for Kansas City’s 2nd deadliest year” do not inspire confidence. 

For the record, the city’s deadliest year was 2020. That was the year Lucas took a knee with the rioters on the city’s famed Country Club Plaza and chanted, “no justice, no peace.” Whatever his intention, the mayor’s gesture encouraged street thugs to think of themselves as Robin Hoods. They responded with the bloodiest years in the city’s history, the city averaging 170 murders per annum during that three-year stretch of Lucas’s tenure. 

I am not sure I believed the mayor’s promise to get the annual homicide count down to under 100, but I endorsed Lucas in 2019, thinking him at least sincere. As they say, fool me once …

The result of this mayhem is that a ballpark will need a significant police presence to protect those walking to or from a night game. The reality is that even a single shooting, lethal or not, will cut into attendance as surely as a 12-game losing streak. (Shhh! We’re not supposed to talk about this).

In truth, no place downtown, however safe, makes any sense. I was reminded of the same thanks to a chance phone call I received from a longtime booster and member of the Royals Lancers group of baseball ambassadors. 

“By the way,” I asked, “what do you think of a downtown ballpark?”

“I think it stinks,” said my octogenarian friend, Gary Lint, a suburban driver type. 

“Can I quote you?” I asked. 

“Absolutely,” said Gary. Having talked to some of his fellow Royals boosters, he assured me, “I have not had one person say the downtown ballpark is a great idea.”

Gary told of his experience attending a game in downtown St. Louis. It took him an hour-and-a-half to get out of the multi-level parking garage at game’s end. That was enough for him. 

And then there’s the question of money. Royals Chairman and CEO John Sherman has said the Royals would be willing to pony up a few hundred million, but the estimated price tag of a new downtown ballpark is $2 billion.

Unless Sherman gets himself elected president of Ukraine, I suspect Jackson County taxpayers will have to pick up the tab.

And for what? As someone whose earliest ballpark experience was Yankee Stadium, I marveled at the simplicity of attending a Royals game when I first moved here. From my midtown home, it was a stress-free 15-minute drive, an easy entrance into an endless parking lot, and a five-minute walk through amiable “acres of asphalt” amidst happy families free of the least anxiety other than the game’s outcome.

Urban planners like complexity and density. They and their allies have imagined a climate apocalypse to scare others into liking complexity and density too.

To test their success, I would recommend a referendum on the ballpark for Jackson County voters – one not rigged like the outrageous vote for light rail that made the old Georgia poll taxes look like equity in action. 

Let’s see if the urban walkers can convince the suburban drivers to abandon the “K” – a perfectly situated, safe and easily accessed ballpark – for the “Q,” a downtown ballpark that is none of those things.

Once the voters weigh in, the Royals can take that promised few hundred million and fix up the K – if, that is, the K really needs the kind of fixing the Royals say it does. 


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