Kansas City’s Green Impact Zone – A Vision for 21st Century Urban Renewal

kc-green-zoneBy Andrea Buffa, The Apollo Alliance

U.S. Rep. Emanuel Cleaver II (D-Mo.) had a vision for how the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) could benefit the urban core of Kansas City, Missouri, where he served as mayor from 1991 – 1999. The city would create a 150-block “Green Impact Zone,” where federal dollars could spur the renewal of a poor and dilapidated area by creating a program to put residents to work weatherizing thousands of neighborhood homes.

“The key is we are investing federal money wisely and building an inclusive green economy strong enough to create jobs for residents,” Cleaver told the Kansas City Star in April.

Cleaver’s vision was quickly embraced by the City Council of Kansas City and by many neighborhood groups. It has now evolved into a green community revitalization effort that touches not only on green jobs and home weatherization, but also on transit, community safety and other services that are vital to a healthy neighborhood. In April, the City Council formally committed itself to focusing its ARRA funds on the Green Impact Zone, and soon thereafter the city dedicated $1.5 million of its Public Improvements Advisory Committee funds to get the program started. By Sept. 1, Obama administration officials were touring the zone and proclaiming the project a model for the rest of the country.

The Green Impact Zone plan is still in an early phase, but it is notable for the comprehensiveness of its approach and the depth of its community involvement. Such an approach will be necessary to address severe unemployment in the area, which is estimated to range from 13 percent to 53 percent, depending on the neighborhood. The Green Impact Zone also suffers from what can only be called abandonment. Some 25 percent of the area’s properties are vacant lots. One area that was included in the Green Impact Zone is called the “murder zone.”

“I grew up here in Kansas City,” said Anita Maltbia, director of the Green Impact Zone, which is being sponsored by the Mid-America Regional Council, a nonprofit regional planning organization, and will be housed in a building located in the zone. “I was aware of what this community was like 30 to 40 years ago. It’s been in constant demise for the last 30 to 40 years—environmentally, economically and socially, it used to be stronger than it is today.”
Maltbia coordinates the various organizations and individuals that will be working together to develop the Green Impact Zone. These include neighborhood associations, utility companies, employment training centers, educational institutions, and government agencies, among others.

Maltbia is also responsible for monitoring which ARRA funds Green Impact Zone partners have applied for and which have been approved. Funds that are already secured include part of the $9 million Weatherization Assistance Program grant that was awarded to Kansas City and a $1.6 million EPA grant to clean up brownfields in the Green Impact Zone and train 80 zone residents in handling hazardous waste associated with cleaning up contaminated sites. The program has applied for funding from the Department of Justice for community policing; HUD’s Neighborhood Stabilization Program for redeveloping abandoned and foreclosed homes; a Department of Labor Pathways out of Poverty grant for green jobs training; and several other ARRA programs.

The project has also attracted private funding. In early September, KCP&L (Kansas City Power and Light) announced that the company and its corporate partners planned to spend $24 million in private money in the Green Impact Zone to improve the distribution grid and a midtown substation, install smart technologies and more advanced appliances in some homes and businesses, and install advanced meters. However, the private funding is contingent on an ARRA matching grant from the Department of Energy.

The weatherization component of the Green Impact Zone program has received the vast majority of media attention for the program, which makes sense to Bob Housh, executive director of the Metropolitan Energy Center, one of the Green Impact Zone training partners.

“Almost half of the people in the Green Impact Zone are unemployed,” Housh said. “Although residential energy efficiency in itself is not enough to cure the problem, it starts developing jobs and new businesses in the Green Impact Zone. And with the other things the federal government is doing around residential energy efficiency—tax rebates, incentives, and so on—it’s going to help create a market for this.”

Housh’s organization is partnering with the Full Employment Council of Kansas City and the University of Central Missouri to train Green Impact Zone residents to be certified energy auditors. The organizations have completed two trainings so far and are planning to develop a crew chief training course so that trainees will have career advancement opportunities.

Another benefit of the weatherization program is the impact it will have on residents’ energy bills. “A lot of the people who live in this neighborhood in the wintertime have $600 to $800 heating bills, because they have windows without storm windows, very old heaters, and little insulation,” said Margaret May, executive director of the Ivanhoe Neighborhood Council. The Ivanhoe neighborhood is one of five neighborhoods in the Green Impact Zone.

But plans for the Green Impact Zone go way beyond home weatherization and the green jobs associated with it. Other components of the program include a rapid-transit bus route; a smart grid energy project; a green sewer demonstration project; a botanical garden; and a citizen engagement center that will serve as a one-stop shop for residents’ public safety issues. “What we’re hoping is that we come up with processes and procedures and a model that can be replicated,” Maltbia said. “I’m just so pleased for the citizens of the Green Impact Zone and then for citizens beyond that, because through our successes we’ll be able to duplicate this model. It’s a boon for Kansas City in general and the whole entire region if we’re able to pull an area out of the statistics we have.”

One of the unique aspects of the Green Impact Zone is its focus on community participation. “One thing about the Green Impact Zone that may be really different than a lot of other projects is the level of input and control by the local community,” Housh said. “It was decided early on that rather than just do the usual thing with the usual organizations and agencies that they would try to do this from the community up.”

May of the Ivanhoe Neighborhood Council said she’s been involved from the very beginning of the process, when Congressman Cleaver came up with the Green Impact Zone concept. There are regular community meetings on topics like public safety, infrastructure and energy. May also mentioned that neighborhood residents joined political leaders on a Green Impact Zone outing to visit the town of Greensburg, Kansas, which rebuilt green after it was destroyed by a tornado in 2007.

May says that Green Impact Zone residents are excited about the project and its prospects for improving their community, despite some obstacles that have come up during the planning process. For example, Green Impact Zone organizers have discovered that there is a federal regulation that prevents households that have had any federally funded weatherization work done since 1994 from receiving ARRA weatherization assistance. This regulation may prevent some Green Impact Zone homes from participating in the energy efficiency part of the program, even though technologies to improve home and appliance energy efficiency have improved dramatically since 1994.

Such obstacles don’t intimidate May, who has dealt with far more menacing neighborhood problems than an inconvenient federal regulation. “We are very grateful for this opportunity,” she said. “We believe we’re going to do this and exceed the goals that we have, and that we’re going to be so successful that across the nation this concept is going to spread, and within our city it will go into an area that’s even larger than what’s currently planned for.”


Andrea Buffa is a senior write and policy associate at the Apollo Alliance, www.apolloalliance.org.

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One response

  1. This is excellent news! It’s important to do urban renewal in a comprehensive way. Energy efficiency efforts and weatherization can reduce energy, create jobs, and spur the local economy. When you combine mass transit, integrated wastewater management, and community involvement, you’re really making a “Green Impact”! This is the most productive use of ARRA funds and a prime example of positive public-private partnership. Way to go!

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