Nelson-Atkins Museum dreams of a cultural district with pedestrian bridges and a hotel

08/02/2014 5:47 PM

08/03/2014 4:52 PM

Imagine a cultural district emanating from the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art a mile in any direction. Lawns, walkways, sculptures and parks — it’s a big idea that’s certain to generate a lot of debate.

But from the iconic “Shuttlecocks” to the internationally acclaimed Bloch Building, the museum has a history of turning controversy into triumph.

A new study the museum commissioned from the New York urban design firm Weiss/Manfredi envisions a unified cultural district stretching from Broadway to the Paseo and 44th to 55th streets. The district would encompass roughly 4 square miles in a 1-mile radius around the intersection of Oak Street and Emanuel Cleaver II Boulevard.

Though no one has yet put a price tag on this big idea, maps and renderings produced by Weiss/Manfredi show the area linked by bike paths and walking trails; sleek pedestrian bridges over Main Street, Cleaver Boulevard and Brush Creek; and enhanced lighting and security. Outdoor art plays a prominent role, along with improved parks and spaces designed for gatherings and performances.

The study also includes some ambitious changes and additions on museum-owned property, including rerouting part of Rockhill Road and putting new structures in place of the residential properties to the north.

“We’re trying to dream a future for the Nelson-Atkins and for Kansas City in which art and our institution play a more intrinsic role in people’s lives,” said the museum’s director/CEO, Julian Zugazagoitia. “This is first renderings, a crystallization of dreams that have been discussed for many years by many, being brought to light for public discussion by these great architects.”

Although the idea of having a cultural district centered on the Nelson has been around for 50 years, it has been reborn and reinvigorated as a key goal in the museum’s April 2013 strategic plan.

The museum believes this is the moment to move on it.

In recent months, Zugazagoitia has been informally sharing the Weiss/Manfredi study with board members, city officials, and the museum’s residential and institutional neighbors.

Response has generally been supportive, with hesitation.

Galen Mussman, president of the Rockhill Homes Association, saw slides of the study during a July 16 presentation at the Nelson.

“I think that many of these ideas about connectivity are really exciting, and it looks like a wonderfully incredibly ambitious plan in general,” he said.

But regarding razing current buildings to put up new ones, he added: “From a neighborhood perspective, that’s a good chunk of neighborhood in those homes across the street. People move into a historic neighborhood because they like history, and it’s difficult to have some of that go away.”

Museum officials, however, stress that the study is a starting point.

“They are not by any means written in stone,” said Catherine Futter, the museum’s senior curator of architecture, design and decorative arts. “New ideas can come from these.”

Time to grow again

It’s been seven years since the museum opened the Bloch Building. Ongoing additions to the collection and staff and increased attendance, especially at special events, have brought a need for more storage, office space and parking.

Some of the most dramatic elements in the study, which was paid for by the Hall Family Foundation and the Kauffman Foundation, sought to address these needs and the community reaction to the Bloch Building’s imposing east wall along Rockhill Road.

One idea being floated is to extend the Donald J. Hall Sculpture Park eastward into the area that is now Rockhill Road and reroute the road through the Kirkwood property (a building formerly occupied by the Rockhill Tennis Club). For years the museum had planned to put administrative offices in that building, but they are now prohibited from doing so by a recent zoning ordinance that limits the building’s use to a single-family residence or a social club.

Weiss/Manfredi’s study also proposes creating more office space — as well as an additional gallery building and a hotel with spa — by tearing down the residential properties on the land the museum owns to the north. Additional parking and storage would be created under the present path of Rockhill Road.

Futter says these changes fit into the city’s “movement toward using the arts as a catalyst for neighborhood development, economic development and civic pride.”

“The city recently rebranded itself as America’s Creative Crossroads, and the Nelson is part of that momentum,” she said.

Currently, none of the study’s recommendations is funded. And nothing will be decided until the community has a chance to weigh in.

That process will officially begin Oct. 24 when Marion Weiss and Michael Manfredi hold a public discussion about the possibilities of a Kansas City cultural district. The day before, the two will give a talk in the museum’s Mary Atkins Lecture Series in which they will share their body of work.

The museum engaged Weiss/Manfredi at the recommendation of Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation board member Benno C. Schmidt Jr., who at the time was serving as the foundation’s interim CEO. One of Weiss/Manfredi’s best-known projects is the Seattle Art Museum’s Olympic Sculpture Park, which involved creating a connection between an elevated part of the city and the waterfront.

Other parks across the country that Weiss/Manfredi and the museum are looking at include Chicago’s Millennium Park and The High Line in New York City, an elevated park incorporating art and green space created along a former railroad spur in Manhattan.

Schmidt, who is chairman of the board of trustees for the City University of New York, is a big fan of High Line.

“I have a business in New York City on the High Line, which has turned into an incredibly popular attraction for New Yorkers and tourists,” Schmidt said. “Julian and I had an idea that something like that might help tie together the various large institutions around the museum and the Kauffman Foundation.”

Process began in 2012

Weiss/Manfredi’s appearance in October will be the firm’s third visit to Kansas City.

Following an initial visit in summer 2012 to meet with museum and Kauffman officials, the design firm representatives returned in April 2013 to do research and collect information for the cultural district study. The plan was completed six months later.

On Thursday, an informal group advising the city’s planning department looked at elements of the study to consider how the ideas might affect land use planning around the museum.

“We are supportive of the efforts the Nelson-Atkins Museum has underway to evaluate a number of different options for enhancements to their campus and immediate environs,” assistant city manager Bob Langenkamp said in a recent email. “Should they develop any finalized concepts, we will certainly evaluate incorporating them into the city’s Midtown-Plaza planning effort.”

These ideas could prove controversial, predicts Greg Corwin, president of the Southmoreland Neighborhood Association.

“I think that (the study) is a very exciting, very thoughtful starting point. I really like the direction it’s going in,” he said.

But Corwin, who was part of a group that got the Kirkwood property rezoned, doubts that any plan that involves rerouting Rockhill and tearing down historic properties will get through “unless there are some major compromises.”

Mussman, of the Rockhill Homes Association, agrees.

“The people in Rockhill love the Nelson as an institution, but we’re not crazy about the Nelson as a neighbor,” he said. “It’s almost a schizophrenic thing. We love what they do and we’re happy to have that jewel close by, but they’re not doing a lot of things directly to help the neighborhood.”

But the idea of cultural district emanating from the museum is not new. Nelson staff recently unearthed a plan from the 1960s calling for the creation of a cultural center in the same area covered by the Weiss/Manfredi study.

A half century later Kansas City is a different place, riding on a reputation as a vital center for the arts and with a Nelson-Atkins emboldened by the success of the Shuttlecocks and the Bloch Building. The museum also is energized by new leadership, including a dynamic director and a board of trustees chairwoman with a reputation for making things happen in Kansas City.

“This is just a beginning, a gathering of creative ideas,” said Shirley Bush Helzberg, who became board chairwoman in May 2013. “It’s already stimulated a lot of conversation among leaders of these neighboring institutions and neighborhood groups, and I think there’s a real synergy to having people share their thoughts and dreams. Dreams can become reality, and it could be so important to the future of the museum and the growth of the city.”

To reach Alice Thorson, art critic, call 816-234-4763 or send email to athorson@kcstar.com.

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