Westport street privatization proposal set for public hearing

Kansas City Star |

--A controversial proposal to privatize a portion of the Westport entertainment district's streets, to aid in screening for weapons, goes before the Kansas City Plan Commission on Tuesday for public debate.

The plan calls for privatizing Pennsylvania Avenue from West 40th Street to Archibald Street, and Westport Road from Broadway to Mill Street on weekend nights, which would allow law enforcement to search for and keep weapons and firearms out of the district. Under Missouri law, they can screen for concealed weapons on private property but not on public streets.

The Westport Business League argues this move is needed to ensure public safety, while critics say there has to be a better answer than turning public streets into private property.

The measure had been scheduled for a hearing in June but prompted considerable disagreement and was postponed in an attempt to reach a consensus. Opposing sides held a number of meetings but there still isn't full agreement. Still, supporters say it's time to get moving through the public approval process.

"The reality is that the planning commission is one of these steps in the process," said attorney Charles Renner, who represents the Westport Community Improvement District. "We'd like to keep making progress."

The plan commission is a citizens advisory group, so Renner said any recommendation must still go to the City Council for approval, leaving the door open for more conversations to reach consensus.

The streets would be closed on Friday and Saturday nights at the next morning, and during about 20 other festival and event times when streets may be closed for 24 hours.

Eight days are outlined that could charge for admission, with the proceeds covering the cost of the increased law enforcement. The weapons screening would apply to everyone and would not be selectively administered, and no one under age 21 would be admitted.

The method of screening has not yet been determined but could include either metal detectors or wands. These would be in place at the end points of the streets. Other parking lots or other ways of accessing the district would have barriers set up, although Renner said there's "not the intention to build a wall, but to create a more certain safe environment on our weekend nights."

The proposal has been revised somewhat since June to address various concerns. Renner and assistant city manager Rick Usher said provisions have been added to assure there's no intent to discriminate and that the district would comply with the city's civil rights policy. Also, it would not enforce a dress code.

"The property would continue to be an area welcoming to all," Usher said.

The agreement could be reviewed a year after it takes effect and every five years after that to determine if changes are needed.

The city staff did not make a recommendation on this proposal, so it will be up to the plan commission to decide whether to support or oppose it.

The staff report notes that the Westport business owners' street vacation request is of a much larger scale than it usually reviews. City planner Ashley Winchell wrote that the proposal "seeks to balance the assurances of rights available to citizens within the public right-of-way and the overall goal of keeping patrons of a popular neighborhood safe."

If the agreement and future event management plans are followed, she wrote, public access to these roads should not be hindered.

Lynn Horsley: 816-226-2058, @LynnHorsley


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