Kansas City is ready for its close-up

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Times Staff Writer

Inside the gleaming Drum Room jazz bar of the downtown Hilton President hotel -- where Dean Martin and Frank Sinatra once sipped martinis after late-night jam sessions -- a pair of directors and their documentary film crew milled among the leather bar stools. They are doing reconnaissance on this city’s $4.5-billion urban-renewal project, starting with a 1920s hotel that reopened last year after standing empty for nearly three decades.

The last time directors John Altman and Aimee Larrabee filmed here, in 2005, the once-majestic hotel was littered with molding plaster, crumbling Roman pillars and graffiti-covered walls. This time, the visuals were much different.

“That floor! Do you remember how horrible the floor was when we were here last? All that mud and muck?” said Altman, nudging his cameraman to film the now-gleaming pink-and-white marble. “We’ve got to get a shot of this.”


Larrabee stepped outside, squinting in the bright sunshine. Everywhere she turned there were signs of construction and renovation -- and scenes of a city making a big gamble.

Like many American cities, this state’s largest is spending billions to bring new life to its 2.5-square-mile downtown. But it may be the only one to pay a team of filmmakers to document the whole process, warts and all.

Altman and Larrabee, both natives who have won awards for their work on PBS documentaries about the environment, approached the city about three years ago with the idea of making a documentary about the city’s plans, successes and controversies. The film also would compare Kansas City’s story to similar projects nationwide, including footage shot and interviews with developers and city officials in San Diego; Portland, Ore.; and Baltimore, among other places.

“We realized that this was the ideal case study for the urban- renewal process,” said Altman, whose cousin was the late film director Robert Altman, also a Kansas City native. “It was a short period of time, a lot of money and a lot of potential change, instead of the decades it’s taken in cities like Baltimore or Philadelphia.”

Initially, they simply wanted access to construction sites and city officials. But the film idea so intrigued the city’s economic development council, area civic groups and two dozen of the town’s largest employers that they offered to raise the funds to cover the half-million-dollar budget for “The Next American Dream: Mending the Heart of an American City.”

The filmmakers demanded only one thing in exchange: Neither the city nor the companies would have any control over the final 90-minute movie. The backers agreed.


“We see this as a once-in-a-lifetime chance to preserve this moment in history,” said Bob Marcusse, chief executive of the Kansas City Area Development Council, whose nonprofit arm is helping fund the film. “We’re willing to take the risk that the story they tell isn’t one we’ll necessarily like.”

A true downtown turnaround has long been an elusive dream for this Midwestern city. After the turn of the century, thanks in part to “Boss Tom” Pendergast, who controlled Kansas City and Jackson County, and a general lack of liquor-law enforcement, the city’s downtown skyline blossomed and jazz clubs boomed. By 1940, this city at the confluence of the Missouri and Kansas rivers had about 400,000 residents and was a key national transportation hub.

But as suburbs evolved and the Interstate Highway System rolled out post-World War II, the city’s population steadily migrated out of the city limits and across nearby prairie lands, leaving behind family businesses struggling to survive amid an increasingly poor population. In more recent times, much of the population growth is seen in Kansas City’s broader metropolitan -- and predominantly suburban -- area, which covers 15 counties. Census data show the city’s 2003 population was more than 442,000; the broader metro area has nearly 2 million people.

Altman and Larrabee began filming in 2004, just before the city announced it would divert billions of dollars over several decades in general tax revenue to help fund some of the renewal efforts. Other improvements would be paid for with taxes generated by the new projects themselves, a deal known as tax-increment financing.

The pair wandered the downtown streets with their cameras. They found an urban ghost town.

“We got shot after shot of empty streets, empty parking lots, beautiful old buildings boarded up,” Larrabee said. “We had come back from doing an IMAX film in Detroit and realized Kansas City was in just as bad shape.”

But as they filmed, small changes became larger ones. H&R; Block decided to move its corporate headquarters to downtown, leaving the Country Club Plaza and surrounding tony neighborhood. (The filmmakers put a camera on a rooftop near the new building. The result: Nine months of construction whittled down to 45 seconds of time-lapse film.)


State lawmakers approved economic incentives to help the city’s effort, while then-Mayor Kay Barnes aggressively wooed dozens of local and out-of-town developers. Altman and Larrabee filmed some of the city’s heated internal debates, over such things as construction timelines and preserving historical buildings.

Old buildings became new condominium towers, with their slate floors and private concierges drawing thousands of new residents. A grocery store is under construction. Altman and Larrabee interviewed giddy new homeowners and grumpy artists squeezed out by the rising cost of real estate. An $850-million complex of bars and restaurants -- known as the Power & Light Entertainment District -- is rising, and a new downtown venue, the Sprint Center arena, was recently completed.

But such gains have come with growing controversy, with suburban residents and city leaders increasingly critical of how many resources have been eaten up.

Most retailers at the Power & Light district have delayed opening, leading some critics to wonder if tenants will materialize.

On Nov. 8, the City Council shot down a voter-approved, $1-billion light-rail plan.

And voters recently passed a renewal of a 1-cent sales tax for major capital improvement projects, partly to aid areas outside downtown.

“We have spent and borrowed an enormous amount of money on this thing,” Kansas City Mayor Mark Funkhouser said. “Now we’re bending over backward to make it work, and we can’t do that forever.”


That sentiment worries developers and investors.

But for Altman and Larrabee, it’s simply part of the story.

The pair, who are editing their footage, plan to have a rough cut of the documentary by year’s end. They are in talks with cable networks and film festivals.

“There are still a lot of open-ended questions about the health and the future of the city,” Larrabee said. “The stage is set, but the future’s not.”