Slowly but unmistakably, downtown Kansas City rises again

05/02/2014 5:48 PM

05/21/2014 9:14 PM

For a few minutes on a drizzly morning, a thick layer of fog obscured the upper levels of downtown Kansas City’s tallest buildings. I was standing on the deck of the Liberty Memorial, looking north over the top of Union Station, and wondering whether a new apartment tower might materially change the skyline. And if so, what would that mean?

There are many ways to look at our city, of course. From a distance, as with any skyline, a city’s vertically oriented core promises a destination of progress and prosperity. Up close, at street level, a city tells a story that can feel more like the truth. Successful cities balance the upward thrust of commerce with a vibrant, human pulse of everyday life on the street.

In the 1950s and ’60s, Kansas City’s apparent post-war boom turned to urban bust as the core city began to decay, exacerbated by highway construction, white flight, suburban sprawl, civic arrogance and severe segregation.

As geographer James R. Shortridge writes in “Kansas City and How It Grew, 1822-2011,” “The new reality caught leaders off guard and took years to fully understand. In retrospect, the largest error appears to have been a planning philosophy that was too steeped in skyscraper construction and traffic efficiency and too little concerned with cultural values and the appreciation of difference.”

Cities evolve, and Kansas City, happily, has been on the move. No need to recount here the forward-thinking projects or the image makeover or cost-benefit analyses of public investments in the creation of the new Kansas City.

But we could pause for a moment, as if on an aimless stroll through the downtown grid, and contemplate a few points.

Optimism abounded at the recent ceremonial ground-breaking for One Light, the luxury apartment building going up at 13th and Walnut Streets.

And why not? This will be the first newly built downtown residential tower in nearly 40 years. It joins a bona fide economic trend, according to a recent story in the Wall Street Journal: 74 rental towers are expected to be completed this year in cities across the nation, and 81 are planned to open in 2015. One Light is being designed by Humphreys & Partners Architects in Dallas and is expected to be completed late next year. Like many of those going up elsewhere, it’ll boast some top-of-the-line rental rates.

At 25 stories, the $79 million project will not be the tallest building downtown. It’ll serve as something of a visual playmate to the relatively diminutive H&R Block headquarters building across 13th Street, a shorter structure though one built on somewhat higher ground. And according to renderings, the Cordish Co.’s One Light will be a narrow, square-cornered box in contrast to the Block’s narrow, green-glassed oval, which, for some odd reason, always makes me think of a Bic lighter.

Like the Block, One Light will certainly dominate its immediate surroundings, but in longer views each building will defer to the three taller office towers nearby — Town Pavilion, One Kansas City Place and 1201 Walnut, all products of the 1980s.

All of these buildings, plus the Sprint Center to the east, represent the proud modernity of glass as a defining material, in stark contrast to the city’s limestone-cladded past. We are lucky that we still have some of the great buildings of the 1920s and ’30s, and we can be grateful that the accumulation of new and old generally creates a lively tension, a feeling of engagement that might only register subconsciously as we walk or drive by.

But the real test of vibrant urbanity can only happen on the street. There are many stretches of the day when parts of downtown still feel underpopulated and underused. With 315 units, the new Cordish tower will do its part to add people to the core. But we’re still a long way from the kind of density that will serve to electrify the city whenever we want to feel it.

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