Barely a half mile separates the surging Crossroads Arts District, with its artsy, hipster vibe, from the often sleepy 18th and Vine area.
As much as the Jazz District could use some of that Crossroads energy, little back-and-forth flows between the two downtown Kansas City entertainment hubs.
That has everything to do with the grim, soulless ribbon of asphalt lying between them. Seemingly six of the longest blocks in the whole city, lined with broken, weedy parking lots and boxy, industrial buildings.
“It’s visually unappealing, that short stretch,” said Crossroads neighborhood association leader David Johnson. “There is no destination.”
But a new study, authored by a couple of recent Iowa State University graduates, has planners at City Hall taking a new look at ways to meld the two together.
What if 18th Street were lined with trees and wider sidewalks so that it didn’t feel like such a trudge?
And what if either side of the U.S. 71 overpass — now a magnet for graffiti, litter and the homeless — were turned into an art-themed park for concerts and other events?
Add in bike lanes and some other elements, such as a free shuttle bus to make up for the lack of regular bus service between the two districts. Then you have the gist of the plan that Michael Schmidt and his Iowa State classmate Andrew Smith came up with in their report, “18th Street Reimagined.”
It was Schmidt’s idea. He grew up in Olathe and had been to the Jazz District on field trips as a kid. But it wasn’t until recently that he drove there for the first time as an adult to attend a concert at the Blue Room.
That introduced him to the problems that have been stewing since the city spent more than $20 million trying to revive the area in the late 1990s.
“I noticed the disconnect as I drove down 18th to the show at 18th and Vine,” said Schmidt, who is a landscape architect-in-training at a firm in the River Market.
The Crossroads buzzed with its shops, galleries and restaurants. Then suddenly, east of Charlotte Street, stretched a yawning dead zone, home to the Kansas City Area Transportation Authority bus lot, a janitorial firm, a smattering of other nonretail businesses and vacant lots.
“During my last year of school, I wanted to do an independent study in Kansas City,” Schmidt said. “And this one seemed like the perfect project.”
Smith, who now works for an engineering firm in Omaha, Neb., joined in. The pair spent all last school year working on the project, holding public meetings to get people’s ideas and share their own.
Previous studies have addressed the need for better linkage between the Crossroads and the Jazz District. Among the most recent was the proposal to extend the streetcar down 18th Street.
But few have been as practical or seemingly affordable as this one, said Jeffrey Williams, the city’s director of planning and development.
“They were making some very straightforward suggestions,” he said.
Suggestions that Williams asked his staff to look at and see if some of them can be implemented at little cost. Fixing and better aligning sidewalks, for instance.
Some of the study’s suggestions were already in the works, such as bike lanes that the city will be striping later this year.
Others have been suggested before, but there hasn’t been any follow-through. For instance, a 2005 report suggested cutting the number of traffic lanes on 18th Street from the current four to just two. There isn’t enough vehicular traffic to justify four lanes, that study said, and this new one agrees, then goes further.
According to Schmidt and Smith, by putting 18th on what planners call a street diet, there would be room for bike lanes and wider sidewalks, as well as trees and shrubs.
It would also mean room for on-street parking where none exists today.
Having those parking spaces, they say, would free up land now used for parking lots by area businesses. That land could, in turn, be sold for development as the east Crossroads continues to fill up.
“The more the Crossroads moves east, the more that the Vine District will move west,” Schmidt said.
In fact, the two areas already are inching toward each other. The east Crossroads still has ample commercial space available. Lately, it’s become home to small breweries and distilleries. Meanwhile, in the Jazz District, barbecue baron Ollie Gates is working on a project that would possibly add new housing units for the first time in years.
“There is new momentum,” said Steff Hedenkamp, a public relations specialist with an office in the Jazz District who helped put the Iowa State students in touch with local officials. “When they started talking about this project, I thought, ‘Wow, this is great.’”
Perhaps the more adventurous proposal calls for transforming the highway overpass from an eyesore into an asset.
The grass buffer on both sides off the bridge is fenced off and publicly owned. The transportation authority also owns a grass lot nearby.
Schmidt and Smith suggest it become a gathering place, with art installed beneath the bridge where graffiti mars the concrete.
Williams said the city has no immediate plans to adopt that suggestion, but “I think we need to look at how we can best use that portion of the corridor.”