Will Kansas City ever truly embrace the waterfront where it was born?
That was the subtext the other day for a talk here by an urban planner from New York. Justin Garrett Moore, a planner for the city and adjunct professor at Columbia University, gave a Design Week audience a slide tour of four recent projects. Each has turned waterfront nightmares into vibrant urban spaces in Brooklyn or Queens. All resulted from public-private collaborations, and each involved geographic areas similar to the footprint of Kansas City’s Richard Berkley Riverfront Park and adjacent properties.
It so happens that a plan to build more than 400 luxury apartments in a development next to Berkley park is making its way through the approval process. With just some “buttoning-up” to go, says Michael Collins, Port Authority of Kansas City president and CEO, construction should begin this summer.
But that project should be seen as only the beginning of a Kansas City waterfront renaissance, which many people have been awaiting for decades. A riverfront plan emerged after World War II, but the proverbial civic can-kicking took over.
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“No other major U.S. city has such a large, empty, well-located piece of prime waterfront property under public ownership,” the noted planner Jaquelin Robertson remarked in the 1990s as he worked to prepare a comprehensive master study for Kansas City’s riverfront district. Mayor Emanuel Cleaver vowed to have a vision in place by the time he left office in 1999. Well, the master plan was drawn, but here we are, 16 years later, and the development gears have only now begun moving.
Things possibly move faster in New York, and though its density — and 520 miles of waterfront over the city’s five boroughs — gives the Big Apple a distinct advantage, the red tape and powerful competing interests certainly could rival development scenarios anywhere.
But there were lessons to be learned in Moore’s survey of recent major projects.
One Brooklyn waterfront redevelopment project followed a study of a 180-block industrial area. (The Port Authority here is working with about 120 acres.) Community outreach resulted in new zoning guidelines for mixed-use developments including such forward-thinking touches as garages wrapped by other uses. (Hear, hear.) “People didn’t want visible parking garages,” Moore said.
That plan also saw the rise of “Smorgasburg,” a food-oriented flea market that, in one location, serves as a kind of place holder until the spaces becomes ready for the market, Moore said. “It created community,” he said.
Moore also detailed the redevelopment of Coney Island; the revival of downtown Brooklyn, which focused on creating more access to the waterfront near the base of the Brooklyn Bridge; and the building of a new neighborhood at Hunter’s Point, Queens. “Ten years ago it was a big pile of gravel,” he said. “Now it’s a neighborhood that relates to the waterfront.”
New neighborhoods are exactly what the Port Authority plan envisions here.
“This project is a great kickoff for us,” Collins told me on Friday, “but it’s not as if we’re going to sit back and relax. What’s important for us is that we create an urban dense setting throughout the area, that creates opportunities and creates walkability and...provides connectivity.”
Moore began his talk, at the Center for Architecture and Design, by noting that quality development was critical at all scales — from the skyline view down to the human experience on the street and in a neighborhood. “It’s what makes the city special,” he said. A legacy of Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s era was that developers learned to incorporate a high level of quality design because they understood how that contributed to better property values.
Wouldn’t it be great if all developers thought that way? Let’s hope this waterfront revival will set a tone for quality and momentum in the ongoing rebirth of Kansas City’s downtown.