It’s hard to find a part of Kansas City that’s enjoying more of an upswing than the area around Pershing Road and Grand Boulevard.
Crown Center is on a roll. Union Station is thriving. Major law firms, the IRS and Blue Cross Blue Shield have busy offices nearby, along with two of the city’s most prominent convention hotels.
And yet smack dab in the midst of this beehive of activity lies a 5-acre city park between Main Street and Grand Boulevard that — except for a few big events each year — almost no one visits.
“Nobody uses it,” architect Doug Stockman said of Washington Square Park.
Stockman chairs a Downtown Council committee trying to improve the vitality of downtown’s parks and other green space. While the committee has more than a dozen parks on its list for attention, Stockman said Washington Square Park recently has become a top priority.
He joins Kansas City park officials and others with big dreams to rejuvenate the park as a gathering place and civic hub, not least because it will be the southern terminus of the new downtown streetcar route.
“A park could be a very nice asset,” said Tom Trabon, chairman of the Kansas City Streetcar Authority, who is working with the Area Transportation Authority to change what he sees now as a very drab space into part of a “very cool transportation hub.”
Dick Jarrold, chief engineer with the ATA, agreed this could become a place where people linger after getting off streetcars on Main Street or buses on Grand Boulevard, although he acknowledged plans are very much in the early stages and the project probably won’t be ready when the streetcars start rolling in late 2015.
There are other good reasons besides transit to make the park more than just a sanctuary for birds and squirrels. Not only is it the front door for major corporations, hotels and amenities, but 900 federal employees will start moving into Two Pershing Square, 2300 Main St., by the end of this year. And Halls reopens in September with a prominent presence at 24th and Grand.
While the park is currently a big disappointment, planners see great potential.
It’s not blighted. It’s not unsafe. It has a perfectly nice statue of George Washington astride his horse, and a Korean War Memorial dedicated in 2011 to Missouri’s war dead. It has trees and benches, paved walkways and decorative light poles.
For a few days each year, it is filled with people as the start and end point for the Kansas City Marathon and as a main staging area for Irish Fest. But most days, it’s woefully underused and seen by people in the same way Union Station marketing director Joy Torchia sees it — just a place to walk through, in her case to get to the Jimmy John’s deli at 23rd and Grand.
Or as a place to walkabove
. In 2000, a $13 million elevated, glass-enclosed link was completed between Crown Center and Union Station using mostly federal funds. Crown Center Redevelopment Corp. President Bill Lucas notes that as many as 30,000 people traverse the link each way every month, allowing them to avoid the park entirely. If just a fraction of those people descended into the park, it could make a difference.
Part of the problem is that the park was built for a different era.
It was acquired by the Kansas City Park Board in 1921 and chosen to house the Washington statue, purchased with public donations. Stockman says that in the 1920s, the park was seen as a place for weary Union Station travelers to find rest and respite.
But successful modern urban parks must have a much higher calling, he said, and therein lies the challenge for Kansas City’s downtown parks.
“All successful cities that Kansas City quite frankly has to compete with have fantastic public spaces that are vibrant,” he said, adding that it’s not enough for Kansas City’s downtown parks to be beautifully landscaped if there’s nothing to do there.
To that end, the parks board has approved a $49,000 contract with Minneapolis-based Coen + Partners, an award-winning urban planning firm, to re-envision the park and figure out how to pay for that. Stockman and others said that being from Minneapolis, Coen’s planners already know how to enliven areas around skywalks.
“We want to make a pretty park, but it’s the activity and programming and what development is spurred that’s really going to make it successful and make everyone embrace it,” said Heather Runkel, a senior landscape architect with the parks department.
By Monday, the department should have a link on its website, kcparks.org, related to Washington Square Park planning. A public meeting is scheduled for 6 p.m. April 16. The location, to be determined, will be posted on the parks website’s calendar.
Some analysis is expected this summer and a park plan later this fall.
Lucas says programming, more than construction, is what’s needed, but it won’t be easy financially.
“How do you trigger activity?” he asked. “And I think that’s always been the difficult part of it. I think it really is going to get down to money.”
He said big tenants and building owners have partnered in the past, but all those corporations have thinner profit margins now and there’s less government money as well for these kinds of improvements.
Still, Stockman notes there are plenty of examples nationally, such as Bryant Park in New York City or City Garden in St. Louis, where dead parks have been transformed into terrific civic assets that attract regular festivals, performance artists, chess and backgammon tournaments, games and juggling, although it can take a considerable investment.
Parks Director Mark McHenry said there are even examples locally where underused parks were brought back to life.
A $1 million contribution from Children’s Mercy Hospital gave a big facelift to Hospital Hill Park at 22nd and Gillham, adding a walking trail, pergola and basketball court. Sheila Kemper Dietrich Park at 26th and Gillham got $500,000 in public dollars for new playground equipment and other improvements and is now a magnet for kids.
Union Station President George Guastello said the time is ripe for Washington Square Park to get the same kind of love and keep the area’s momentum going. He believes it’s affordable and doable.
“It’ll be the heart and lifeblood and soul of the area,” he said. “It will bring people together, and it should.”