One of the more clever and interesting local urban planning ideas I’ve come across lately came from students.
Late last year, the Kansas City Design Center, which serves as an urban outpost for the architecture programs at Kansas State University and the University of Kansas, presented a group of proposals to enliven Washington Square Park. The small triangular patch of greenery and benches is an underused open space north of Crown Center between Main Street and Grand Boulevard.
One of the student teams had the brilliant idea of peeling back a piece of the glass-lined, elevated walkway that connects the Westin hotel and Union Station.
Granted, the gesture didn’t go as far as former Milwaukee mayor and noted urbanist John Norquist once suggested to me — that the anti-urban walkway, known as The Link, ought to be blown up. But the students had the correct insight that pedestrians should have more options to engage the outdoors, and their idea to open a portal and lay a welcoming grand staircase toward the park remains compelling.
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My conversation with Norquist came in a reporting trip a dozen years ago as The Star was examining the malaise of Kansas City’s downtown and looking to peer cities for solutions. Our downtown certainly has changed much for the better since then, and economic development in the city’s core continues to advance, though more slowly than some would like.
We’ll have to wait at least a year before passengers alight from the streetcar line that will end just a few steps from where that stairway to The Link could land.
But with hundreds of more federal employees moving in nearby and developers getting itchy to seize opportunities in downtown’s southern corridor, an intriguing plan to rethink and revive Washington Square Park is bubbling to the surface. Shane Coen, principal of a Minneapolis design firm, Coen + Partners, spent part of this week in Kansas City presenting design concepts to turn the tired, 5.4-acre greenspace into an urban destination.
The idea has evolved through a lucky collision of interests and an inspired vision to peer into the possibilities. At one point the VanTrust development group was talking with Union Station about putting up an office tower on the lower-level surface parking lot, owned by the station, directly north of the park. But that would have blocked views of the downtown skyline, someone surmised, and in the current vision, Union Station would swap its acreage with the city. That would allow the park to expand northward, elevated above the parking lot and give developers the space to put up mixed-use residential buildings along Grand.
Key to that plan is the architecture that integrates those buildings with the park and makes the public spaces vibrant and attractive. Water features, including an echo of the vestigial OK Creek, are possible components. The role or obstacle of The Link is certainly under discussion. One concept envisions a grassy amphitheater with a skyline view, perhaps a beer garden and a pedestrian bridge connecting the park northward to Walnut Street. Public art certainly could play a dominant role, in the way that Anish Kapoor’s “Cloud Gate” performs its mirror-surfaced, crowd-pleasing magic in Chicago’s Millennium Park.
As the Design Center’s Vladimir Krstic noted, the park plan is a far better investment for downtown than the proposed demolition of Kemper Arena would be.
Kansas City’s experience with downtown area parks in recent years has been less than encouraging. While Davis Park, north of City Hall, and Berkley Riverfront Park, are highly appealing spaces, they suffer from a lack of surrounding residents.
Parks need people, and people need parks. A renovated Washington Square Park will, of course, require a city investment as part of a public-private partnership. But this idea seems to have many of the right moves and a far better chance to succeed.