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Kansas City Council passes new district map that radically changes the Northland

Carlos Moreno
KCUR 89.3
Traffic moves along Barry Road near I-29 recently in the Northland. Barry Road serves as the new dividing line between Northland city council Districts 1 and 2.

After weeks of fierce debate, the Kansas City Council approved new boundaries for its six council districts. But the redistricting vote was especially controversial for the Northland, with council members and civic leaders north of the Missouri River vehemently opposed to the change.

The Kansas City Council voted 9 to 4 on Thursday in favor of a controversial new map of its six Council districts, with all four Northland council members arguing it will be bad for their constituents and the city.

The new map determines council districts for the 2023 council elections. It splits Northland council Districts 1 and 2 horizontally, generally along Barry Road. A horizontal divide concentrates wealthier neighborhoods farther north in the 1st District and puts less affluent working-class neighborhoods generally south of Barry Road in the 2nd District.

That’s a radical change from the vertical boundary that has existed since 1991, placing most of Kansas City in Clay County in District 1 and Platte County and a sliver of western Clay County in District 2.

A map of new Kansas City Council districts approved by the council on Dec. 16, 2021.

Advocates for the horizontal split argued it would give low-income residents south of Barry Road better representation and a greater voice by consolidating them in one district. A council majority, including Mayor Quinton Lucas, said the new map’s goal was better, more equitable representation.

“What we try to do each and every day is to make sure we can hear all voices,” Lucas said in explaining his vote. “We want to make sure to listen to those who are sharing new perspectives, new ideas, new attitudes for us.”

But Northland leaders said they already invest millions more infrastructure dollars south of Barry Road. They warned the horizontal split would be divisive and negative.

“I don’t like the idea of being split economically. I don’t think that does anybody any good,” said 2nd District Councilman Dan Fowler, who argued the traditional, vertical map better respects county and school district boundaries as well. “I like living in a diverse district, economically, socially, racially and otherwise.”

Carlos Moreno
KCUR 89.3
A large crack runs through a Northland sidewalk where infrastructure concerns have become part of the redistricting conversation.

A bigger voice for low-income neighborhoods

The boundary changes affect everything from who can run for office, to political power dynamics to investment of infrastructure tax dollars throughout the city.

Redistricting is required because Kansas City has grown by nearly 50,000 people since 2011, according to the 2020 Census count. Current council districts have widely differing populations, violating laws requiring equal representation.

In late November, a citizens’ advisory commission recommended major boundary changes to re-balance populations in the six districts.

The Redistricting Commission voted 6 to 3 in favor of a map that split Districts 1 and 2 in the Northland horizontally. The commission majority sided with some lower-income voters, particularly in the 64117 ZIP code, who said they didn’t feel heard or served by the current council. They predicted they would have more political access and clout with council representatives who live in older, less affluent Northland neighborhoods.

Commissioner Clinton Adams Jr. and others in the majority said they were persuaded by residents who have felt left out of the political process. They also thought a horizontal split might help erase the Missouri River as a barrier to city unity.

Adams acknowledged he had talked to more opponents than supporters of the horizontal split.

“However, the more persuasive argument with me came from those who advocated for change, for giving an opportunity for better representation and for what’s best for the city,” Adams said.

Stephenie Smith, longtime Northland resident who chaired the citizens’ commission, agreed.

“This is about how can we be a better Kansas City and really improve our representation,” she told a city council gathering on Dec. 9. “Recognizing that there are historic challenges and that in order for us to have different outcomes, we must go about this in a different way.”

But many Northland organizations, including the Northland Chamber and Northland Neighborhoods Inc. said the vertical split has promoted Northland solidarity, collaboration and progress for 30 years.

Carlos Moreno
KCUR 89.3
A new city council district map splits Northland council Districts 1 and 2 horizontally, concentrating wealthier neighborhoods farther north in the 1st District and less affluent working-class neighborhoods generally south of Barry Road in the 2nd District.

Vehement opposition from Northland council members

Former Northland City Councilman Ed Ford was furious about the horizontal split.

“The Northland hates this map,” he told a city council committee on Dec. 7, as he suggested a sinister motive for the change. “The agenda was either to punish or diminish the Northland’s seemingly political influence.”

Some critics said that with current growth patterns, a new council district north of Barry Road will soon have thousands more residents than other districts, violating the goal of redistricting.

Northland Councilwoman Heather Hall also told her colleagues that the facts show neighborhoods south of Barry Road do get heard, and receive the lion’s share of public infrastructure dollars. She said that in her six years in office, District 1 has invested $17.4 million for public infrastructure taxes south of Barry Road, versus $4.8 million north of Barry Road. She warned the horizontal split will actually result in less money going to neighborhoods south of Barry Road.

“We have done and listened and heard,” she said. “The horizontal map does not make it better for anybody in our collective districts.”

Councilwoman Teresa Loar, 2nd District, said just a tiny minority of Northland residents want the horizontal split.

“We take care of everyone,” she said. “We don’t spend money in one district just for rich people. I don’t get where that’s coming from.”

Big changes south of the river

Other major changes are also coming — affecting midtown, the Country Club Plaza and South Kansas City.

When Kansas City last drew council districts in 2011, the city had about 460,000 residents, so the six Council districts were drawn to each have 76,500 people.

But the city’s population is now 508,090, with growth occurring unevenly. Both Northland districts and District 4 (representing Briarcliff, downtown and midtown) each have about 90,000 residents while Districts 3, 5 and 6 in the city’s urban core and southern sector each have fewer than 80,000.

The Redistricting Commission recommended new districts that each have about 85,000.

To consolidate more Latino neighborhoods, the 4th District boundaries include both the West Side and old Northeast, as well as a bigger Northland chunk to the Gladstone city limits. That means District 4’s southern boundary at 59th Street moves close to 43rd Street, pushing the Country Club Plaza and much of the southwest corridor into the 6th District, another major change.

Lynn Horsley is a freelance writer in Kansas City. Follow her on Twitter @LynnHorsley.
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