Michael Zeller believes a rusty, forgotten bridge might just become one of Kansas City’s marquee destinations.
Zeller is a partner at Flying Truss LLC, a local company working to reclaim the 702-foot Rock Island Bridge, which spans the Kansas River near Hy-Vee Arena in the West Bottoms.
Flying Truss plans to eventually open a bar, food hall and events venue on the bridge. Zeller said the project will offer a one-of-a-kind entertainment and recreation experience, while also drawing attention to the city’s river system.
“In Kansas City, we don’t really see our rivers,” he said. “We kind of see them out of the corner of our eye when we’re blasting over the overpass. But people are going to come out here and listen to a band and have dinner and drinks for three hours over the river.”
While developers plan to remove the rotted railroad ties and clean up some of the accumulated graffiti, Zeller said they won’t change the rusty patina of the bridge, which the Chicago, Rock Island and Pacific Railway built in 1905.
“This is going to be a funky environment,” Zeller said. “The whole vibe is kind of a cross of Austin, Texas, meets Knuckleheads.”
Though the bridge begins and ends in Kansas, it’s owned by Kansas City, Missouri, a remnant of a long-ago city purchase from the railroad to acquire parking near Kemper Arena, which has been redeveloped and now is called Hy-Vee Arena. That odd arrangement has pushed developers to work with city leaders on both sides of the state line.
“They’re working really nicely together,” Zeller said.
Katherine Carttar, director of economic development for the Unified Government of Wyandotte County/ Kansas City, Kansas, said redevelopment of the bridge will connect pedestrians, runners and cyclists with new trails on the Kansas side of the river to the West Bottoms in Missouri.
But more broadly, she said the project will serve as a catalyst for future development along the river.
“It’s an incredibly unique vision,” Carttar said. “This is something that’s one of a kind — certainly in the country and possibly the world — that really has a different ability to connect both of our cities and put something that’s sitting there kind of forgotten to a new and innovative use.”
Zeller projects the first phase of redevelopment will cost about $2.3 million. That will include restrooms and parking on the east side of the river, new lighting, a concrete path spanning the bridge and an open-air bar over the river. He expects the first phase to be completed as early as next summer.
For now, the project will start with food trucks on the riverbank but plans call for eventually expanding the width of the bridge over the water and adding a six-restaurant food hall.
Zeller said engineers have examined the bridge and determined it to be structurally sound. Because the bridge did not carry cars and trucks, it was never salted in the winters, avoiding deterioration of the metal structure.
“It’s a battleship,” he said. “This bridge was designed to carry locomotives.”
The Unified Government is considering offering incentives, possibly through Tax Increment Financing and Community Improvement District funding. Carttar said commissioners would likely see a proposal by the end of the summer or fall.
While officials in Kansas work to encourage the development, leaders in Missouri also see potential.
“This could be a real game changer for the Stockyards District and the West Bottoms,” said Bruce Holloway, vice president and board member of the Historic West Bottoms Association. “I think it could be catalytic. It could be really important if everything really falls into place. It kind of all depends on getting the two cities to work together.”
Holloway said much of Kansas City’s river systems are inaccessible because of railroad systems, public infrastructure and industrial development. But he said the Kansas River has potential for future development to bring business and recreation to the waterway.
“There are some real opportunities,” he said. “People really buy into the idea. Everybody loves to be by the river.”
Kansas City, Missouri, has agreed to lease the bridge for $9,000 per year for 25 years. Flying Truss has the option to renew the lease for 25 more years.
“The West Bottoms was one of Kansas City’s first neighborhoods, and projects like this one will continue to revitalize the area for a new century,” said city spokesperson Chris Hernandez. “It’s great to see new and redeveloped apartments, businesses, restaurants and nightlife filling the neighborhood. This public-private partnership demonstrates our collaboration with the Unified Government and the developers who will invest private dollars.”
Even as he envisions a lively lineup of weddings, concerts and beer festivals on the bridge, Zeller said nothing about the future phases of redevelopment is rigid.
“This arrangement will be in place for 50 years,” he said. “And I expect the bridge to continually evolve.”