5 questions about KC’s proposed food hall on an abandoned river bridge

Local developer wants to turn Rock Island Bridge into an entertainment center

Developer Michael Zeller wants to transform a 1905 bridge over the Kansas River into a bustling entertainment center and food hall as well as pedestrian and bicycle connection between the West Bottoms in Missouri and Kansas City, Kansas.
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Developer Michael Zeller wants to transform a 1905 bridge over the Kansas River into a bustling entertainment center and food hall as well as pedestrian and bicycle connection between the West Bottoms in Missouri and Kansas City, Kansas.

There’s no question that a developer’s plan to turn a forgotten railroad bridge into the city’s next food hall and entertainment venue is a unique one.

Flying Truss LLC, the company behind the proposal to redevelop the Rock Island Bridge over the Kansas River, looked far and wide for a similar project to base its plan on. The only example they could find was in South Korea, where a historic railroad bridge was rehabilitated into a pedestrian walkway with a museum, rest area and cafe.

Many cities across the United States have transformed old railroad or auto bridges into pedestrian spans.

“But no one has created new, programmable real estate on a steel bridge that we’ve been able to find,” said Flying Truss Partner Michael Zeller. “We’re taking it to a new level.”

Given its unique nature, it’s understandable that Kansas Citians have questions.

While government leaders and neighbors cheer on the effort as a major boon to economic development, entertainment and recreation, others are asking just exactly how it would work.

Here, The Star answers some basic questions about the proposal that have popped up on social media:

Q. Wait, what bridge are we talking about?

A. Flying Truss has secured a 25-year lease on the Rock Island Bridge, also known as the Kaw River Bridge. It spans the Kansas River, beginning in Amourdale in the west and landing on the far eastern edge of Kansas near State Line Road in the West Bottoms.

The Chicago, Rock Island and Pacific Railway opened the 702-foot bridge in 1905. But after the need to carry livestock to the stockyards dissipated, the railroad stopped using the bridge and it has been idled since the early 1970s. While it begins and ends in Kansas, the city of Kansas City, Missouri, actually owns the structure. City leaders purchased it from the railroad to acquire parking for Kemper Arena.

It has sat unused for decades.

Q. Is it structurally sound?

A. The bridge looks like a rusty urban ruin. But its bones remain strong, Zeller said.

As part of a feasibility study funded by the Mid-America Regional Council, engineers with TranSystems completed an in-depth examination of the bridge in 2017, concluding the bridge can safely support the proposed pedestrian walkway.

Zeller said the bridge needs about $60,000 to $70,0000 in deferred maintenance repairs, but noted it will carry a much lighter load than the cattle-filled locomotives it was designed to support. And because the bridge never carried cars and trucks, it was never salted in the winters, preventing deterioration of the metal structure.

“It’s a battleship,” he said.

Q. Is there a risk of people jumping into the water?

A. Zeller says the bridge will exceed safety requirements for railings to keep people out of the water. Plus, he noted there’s similar risk of people jumping from apartment balconies or rooftop patios — neither of which stops development of those amenities.

While the bridge will be open to pedestrians, runners and cyclists throughout the day, it will be locked up at night from both sides of the river to keep out trespassers.

And the bridge sits high enough to protect visitors from routine flooding: “The bridge is higher than the levee, so the whole valley would have to flood,” Zeller said.

Q. When will this thing actually happen?

A. Zeller hopes to begin work as soon as this fall.

The project is seeking incentives from the United Government of Wyandotte County/Kansas City, Kansas. Katherine Carttar, director of economic development for the Unified Government, said officials were considering Tax Increment Financing and Community Improvement District funding for the project. She said commissioners would likely see a formal proposal by the end of the summer or fall.

Once crews break ground, Zeller said the first phase of construction should move quickly. He expects to spend about $2.3 million building 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.

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.

“Phase one is not a massive construction project,” he said. “We’re working toward a ribbon cutting for the Fourth of July, 2020.”

Q. What about the smell of the river?

A. Zeller dismissed comments about the odor on the river. With high waters and swiftly moving debris this week, the quickly moving current carried debris and a strong scent. But he said the setting would prove more pleasant when the river gets back to normal levels.

“That just comes and goes with the flooding,” Zeller said.

While people pick apart the details of the proposal, Zeller doesn’t want to lose focus on the big picture here. He, along with leaders in both Kansas and Missouri, view this as a catalyst of sorts, a project that can connect the two states, spur more development on both sides of the river and connect locals back to the river system.

“This is a platform from which the whole city will be able to see the river and linger and enjoy it,” he said. “I think that’s important — and to develop ideas and plans for how to engage the whole river valley from canoeing and kayaking to biking, fishing, residential condominiums, heck maybe even zip lines. It’s very much the beginning.”

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