In October 2018, the Gould Evans planning studio worked with local partners to bring the Incremental Development Alliance to Kansas City for the Making a Great City speaker series. This workshop introduced the primary components of project formation to locals interested in investing or supporting small-scale community development projects. It was incredibly well-attended, which made me realize that many Kansas Citians not only love their city, but also want to play a role in its evolution and reinvestment.
The workshop inspired me to organize the first Incremental Development Alliance chapter in Kansas City to cultivate our ecosystem of small-scale local developers who want to make a positive impact, particularly within pre-1950s neighborhoods.
Prior to the American suburban experiment, the physical development of neighborhoods was iterative. Real estate was often locally owned, which helped retain and cultivate wealth in the community. Housing was built in smaller increments and businesses were created based on local residents’ needs.
Cars were not popularized until the mid-20th century, so many pre-1950s neighborhoods were (and are) walkable, built on interconnected networks of streets that reduce the need to drive for every trip. These neighborhoods built through small investments over time were antifragile because their local ownership supported diverse community needs and adapted well to changing economies.
After World War II, however, these neighborhoods were largely abandoned for mass-produced, corporatized real estate and development — subdivisions, shopping centers, and office parks — mostly located on the outskirts of cities where land is cheap and virtually unending, and billions of dollars’ worth of highway investment enable sprawl. They were also built all at once, to a finished state — a practice completely out-of-touch with the natural progression of human societies prior to the 1950s.
Residents are reinvesting in pre-1950s neighborhoods, but these smaller projects are sometimes unable to proceed due to regulatory, financial, and social support networks that only support the oft-exploitive corporate real estate industry. I do not dismiss many of the positive benefits of larger development projects, especially in more intense areas or along transit lines, but we need to recognize the value of localized real estate investment and ownership that builds wealth in our communities from the inside, out.
Our mystified system of real estate for the past 70 years should be retrofitted to support local entrepreneurs. The new, urban “big box” mixed-use building is a catalyst for nothing if smaller projects are not developed in tandem. Small-scale development projects can be incredibly beneficial to our local economy for a number of reasons:
- Incremental developers tend to “find their farm” and build interpersonal relationships with neighborhood residents and business owners over time, and projects tend to require intimate knowledge of what neighborhoods need.
- Incremental growth retains and builds wealth in a community by emphasizing locally-owned development, providing thousands of opportunities for our local economy to grow through existing social capital.
- Small projects can provide infill or adaptive reuse of homes, creating housing diversity to fit the varying needs of many people. Previous generations were wise to leave us with an abundance of housing diversity, such as duplexes, fourplexes, and walkups, that have aged well over time to produce low-cost options in many neighborhoods.
- Small failures can be easily absorbed, making communities antifragile ecosystems that can sustain over time.
- Localized wealth builds a resilient tax base through the productive use of abandoned, vacant, and unbuilt property.
Most of our country has forgotten how to build small. Large-scale development has become so institutionalized that some modern regulations actually cause older neighborhoods to be deemed illegal, making their adaptation to recent and future changes impossible. Large development projects are disproportionately supported by conventional banking practices and development regulations, and our politicians and media often fail to champion the value of localized reinvestment in our neighborhoods. I believe it is critical that we, as Kansas Citians, relearn how to build our city incrementally and change the systems in place that further incentivize disinvestment and excluding local players. It’s time for citizens to step up and reinvest — one project at a time.
The Kansas City Incremental Development Alliance is an advocacy and mentorship group aimed at expanding collective knowledge around small-scale development as a trade, by the local developers who have helped preserve our most loved places through their investments.
Small-scale, incremental development doesn’t get a lot of hype, but is critically important to city-building. While there are many small-scale developers working to incrementally improve our neighborhoods, I’d like to share with you a few people I have met that are mastering the art of small-scale development:
Terrell Jolly’s passion and diverse careers in the retail, manufacturing, and real estate industries have resulted in success with moving organizational agendas forward. He is a dependable, engaging, trusted, and emerging Servant Leader because of his involvement in and commitment to the community where he lives, including leadership roles with R.U.B.I.E.S, 100 Black Men, Prep-KC, Kauffman Scholars, Inc., and 20/20 Leadership.
Thomas and Maren Morefield are incremental developers living in Columbus Park, one of the oldest neighborhoods in Kansas City. They live on the same block as their two small-scale projects: a renovation of a charming brick corner building, and their first infill duplex. While they have faced significant challenges to building in their fine-grained neighborhood, their contribution is revitalizing their block and providing opportunities to people who want to live in the neighborhood.
Butch Rigby is a local entrepreneur and community-conscious developer who got his start painting houses more than 30 years ago. Not only has he perfected the art of small-scale development through his many successful rehabilitation projects, he has also taken an incremental approach for revitalizing East 63rd Street near Brookside. He and other like-minded community builders have created a critical mass of investment that has enabled opportunities to grow Kansas City’s local business ecosystem and expand the number of housing units on the corridor.
Kevin Klinkenberg is a Kansas Citian and expert in “house hacking” or living in a small-scale rental property such as a duplex, 4-plex, or small mixed-use building. He describes this strategy as one of the best ways for a person to begin to invest in real estate with limited capital, because it allows a person to learn about property management and build equity from the comfort of their apartment.
Diane Botwin founded Botwin Commercial Development in 1986 with her parents as a property management company. Thirty years later, it has expanded its services to include development and leasing and still operates as a family business. Diane’s focus is to provide neighborhood-sensitive commercial development. She is dedicated to sustainable, environmentally friendly design, often incorporating native plants, daylight, and green roofs into her properties. She is a strong supporter of the arts and enjoys working with small businesses and entrepreneurs, mentoring them, and providing additional resources whenever possible.