Fourteen months ago, the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art made a splash by presenting an ambitious concept to create a cultural district in its midtown neighborhood. The idea was to enhance green spaces with art and other activities and make better connections among institutions, cultural amenities and residential blocks in its vicinity.
Some responded with horror over certain details: Elevated pedestrian walkways! Neighborhood encroachment! Inexplicable bling! And who would pay for such a thing?
Others, including us, saw the plan for what it was meant to be: a conversation starter, expressing a bold desire to make something new and great in an area of the city that’s home to many irreplaceable assets, historic features and important institutions.
To its credit, the museum took a step back and then handed off the general conversation to a consortium of planners, architects and other consultants who conducted a series of public discussions and workshops to brainstorm what a “cultural district” might actually be.
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One of the major achievements of that year-long planning process was to widen the concept’s center of gravity. Revealed at a meeting Wednesday evening, a final summation of the cultural district plan creates a vision that goes well beyond the Nelson-Atkins and stretches its possibilities along an east-west axis. It may well help to create urban and cultural connections from the Country Club Plaza to Troost Avenue, the Paseo and even farther to the east.
Mayor Sly James, who has vowed to focus on east side development in his second term, has greeted the idea enthusiastically.
“As this project has evolved,” he told The Star, “it has become more sensitive to the city’s cultural and racial divides. It has adjusted to address those issues in order to be more inclusive and open.”
A wide-ranging jumble of ideas and opinions got narrowed down and refined over the last year. For a while the workshop participants — neighborhood activists, representatives of various institutions, Kansas City Art Institute students, interested members of the public — helped to develop three overall concepts and then selected one that seemed most appealing and flexible.
The focus of the final comprehensive plan, as detailed this week by Vicki Noteis of Collins Noteis & Associates and Lorie Bowman of BBN Architects, landed on a general emphasis on arts and education.
Among its big design ideas are creating a long and winding art walk throughout the area, often encompassing existing sidewalks, trails and pathways; doing a better job of enhancing and incorporating the connective possibilities of Brush Creek; and favoring ground-level and pedestrian-oriented features rather than high-end infrastructure, park furniture and the like.
What might that look like?
Perhaps a Nelson-operated outpost on Troost Avenue. Student housing and artist live-work studios here and there. Renovation and activation of some parts of Theis Park. Art installations along the pathways. And perhaps an emphasis on the creative possibilities of light, reflecting the illuminated assets already established by the Country Club Plaza, the Steeple of Light at Community Christian Church, the Nelson’s Bloch Building and the historic legacy of Electric Park, an amusement park that operated long ago at what’s now Cleaver Boulevard and the Paseo.
Another important component to the plan would be a comprehensive rethinking of some major but poorly designed and pedestrian unfriendly intersections — Main Street at Cleaver Boulevard, Brookside Boulevard at Volker Parkway, Volker and Rockhill Road.
One idea already gaining some traction involves Martin Luther King Jr. Park, an underused green space with tennis courts along Brush Creek at Woodland Avenue and Swope Parkway. Incorporating the park into an art walk trail system could coincide with a city water project and an interest by UMKC to expand its athletics facilities, the consultants said. And it could have the effect of jump-starting other development projects nearby.
That sort of collaborative effort is a logical result of planning processes such as these, and it certainly has captured the imagination of city leaders. City Manager Troy Schulte suggested that a specific proposal involving, say, the King Park, could find its way into a major general obligation bond issue the city will be putting together next year.
The plan consultants did not prescribe specific actions or set priorities. It remains unclear whether stakeholders will form an umbrella organization to manage certain aspects of the plan, including fund-raising. But the opportunity for significant private-public partnerships awaits.
And, for its part, the Nelson-Atkins will proceed as a participant in this plan but also will take a separate track to develop a master plan for its campus. Adjacent neighborhoods may watch for that, somewhat nervously, early next year.
Urban plans come and go, and often they sit around for a while until development trends and civic intentions catch up to their ideas. This one could correct some deficiencies of past initiatives, especially a Brush Creek plan that dates back more than 20 years. But it also provides an inspired framework for little projects and large ones to contribute incrementally to a better and more vibrant city.