by BILL JOHNSON | photos by BRAD FEINKNOPF
As an architect, the nature of our business brings many clients to Kansas City for the first time. I’ve become an ambassador of sorts for our city during my career, and I’ve gone from approaching downtown with hesitation with visitors in tow to beaming with pride. Our city is experiencing the revitalization of the century, with the downtown population quadrupling in the last decade and expected to grow an additional 50 percent over the next five years. More than $380 million in investments have been made downtown in the past year alone, and more than 2,700 new jobs have been added. As a long-time Kansas Citian, it certainly feels good to see Kansas City plastered in national magazines as a great place to live, work, and play.
But Kansas City’s currently ranked relevance didn’t come to be overnight. Development in Kansas City’s urban core has had a long and treacherous history. City leaders have fought to activate downtown and there have certainly been setbacks along the way.
In the ’80s, the city experienced what felt like a mass exodus, with Kansas Citians moving to the suburbs, leaving downtown abandoned and the downtown core hurting for activity. Despite the city’s notable architecture and ample space, the city became a ghost town on weekends and evenings, and there seemed to be little incentive to drive activity back downtown. In fact, many in the city were resistant to redevelopment for decades, putting the city’s reputation and future at stake. However, in the early 2000s, there was an undeniable shift. Kansas City’s Power & Light District was born. The district was certainly a risk, but city leaders saw an opportunity to create a catalytic development with Sprint Center as the anchor, engaging in a public- private partnership with The Cordish Companies, developer of similar districts nationwide.
Kansas City is uniquely shaped by neighborhoods and defined by districts. It’s part of what makes the city great. From Brookside to the River Market, the city is brimming with pockets and places that feel completely different. For quite some time, those charming neighborhoods were centered on areas outside the urban core. Touring visitors through the Plaza and Waldo, the charm of the city is evident, but there was never much to see downtown. The Power & Light District changed that, creating a bustling downtown neighborhood for the first time in recent history.
But what makes a district — whether carefully planned or organically grown — work? Is there a checklist that leads to growth and success?
While it hasn’t been without its own set of challenges, Power & Light serves as an example of how sound urban planning can work. The project has transformed the south loop and our once-blighted downtown core, bringing business, entertainment, restaurants, retail, residential, hospitality space, and, now, even public transit to the district.
This innovative “live-work-play” district carefully integrates these components over seven city blocks and more than 3 million square feet. It was carefully designed with pedestrian-friendly proportions, multiple entry points, sidewalks with narrow streets, open storefronts, public art, and extensive green space. But the design is notably highlighted by a public celebration space, which drove many design decisions. That space, KC Live, has since become one of the most recognizable spaces in the country to watch a game or event, helping put Kansas City on the map and becoming the city’s living room!
These elements, when strategically planned and executed, generate activity at the pedestrian level, giving the district a distinct urban feel that was desperately needed in Kansas City. To provide an authentic Kansas City experience, materials and textures are rooted in our historic downtown architecture. The Power & Light District and districts like it at all scales bring density that help to brand the city and bring people together around commerce, entertainment, or sports. And there is more to come! As we see and experience the revitalization of downtown, plans have emerged for future development in other corners of the city.
While there have been ongoing conversations about the district’s success, as is always the case with mixed-use developments, as an architect, I believe vision and a desire to evolve come with an element of risk essential to revitalization. Development is about both the tangible and the intangible. The things you see and the things you feel. We saw a district come up in a previously ignored part of Kansas City’s downtown, and we felt, for the first time in a long time, a level of energy and momentum in downtown. There was a feeling of emphatically turning the page and starting a new chapter in Kansas City’s history. What often is forgotten in the long road to redeveloping a city is the time it takes. While a district can be deemed complete, the organic growth that takes place over time is what embeds a development. There is always more to come.
So what’s the next step? We must keep the momentum going! Let’s continue to build density through development. Let’s commit to connect the city’s neighborhoods with careful, people-centered planning.
Kansas City has been the benefactor of some beautifully designed spaces. The city is home to some of the most notable examples of art deco architecture in the Kansas City Power & Light Building and Municipal Auditorium. We have architectural landmarks in the Country Club Plaza, Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Liberty Memorial, and, most recently, the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts. We even boast the often forgotten about Community Christian Church, designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. And the city is also home to a bustling architecture and arts community. Some of the region’s — and nation’s — most beautiful design work is coming from our city. And our lives are shaped by these designs, whether we recognize it or not. We spend nearly every moment of every day interacting with architecture and the built environment. It’s synonymous with being. Yet we forget to look around and take stock. We forget to appreciate how the nooks and crannies of our city and districts have been designed and developed with us in mind.
The reality is that the Power & Light District is just the beginning. Over the co.ming months, we’ll give you a look at the districts and developments that are transforming what it means to live in Kansas City.
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