Can Kansas River be a Kansas City focal point? Developers — even a skeptic — think so

When Wilma Allen first heard about plans to redevelop a long shuttered bridge over the Kansas River into an entertainment venue, she was less than optimistic.

“I kind of pooh-poohed the whole thing,” she said.

A 78-year-old resident of the Armourdale neighborhood in Kansas City, Kansas, she said the river has never meant much to her.

“It’s just always kind of been there,” she said.

But once she climbed out on the span of the behemoth Rock Island Bridge, she started to change her tune. Though she described the brown waters of the Kansas River as “filthy,” she started to appreciate the view as dusk set in and city lights cast a glow over the Kaw.

“It was sparkling and it really was pretty nice,” she said. “It’s hard for me to admit that, I’ll be honest with you.”

Allen was among a couple hundred locals who descended upon the river this week in the West Bottoms. Against a backdrop of leaves just beginning to turn gold and orange, people gnawed on barbecue and sipped drinks as boats buzzed past below. The event was designed to show off plans for redevelopment of the bridge, but to also cast a wider vision for the long overlooked river.

“Kansas City might be the biggest city in America that hasn’t figured out how to embrace its big river system,” said developer Michael Zeller. “We’re never going to have a mountain or an ocean in Kansas City, but we’ve got rivers. It’s time to figure out how to use them.”

Zeller is a partner at Flying Truss LLC, the company pushing plans to transform the 1905-era bridge into a food hall, concert venue and pedestrian trail. He said the bridge can help connect both sides of the river, but can also help the river itself become more of a destination for entertainment and recreation.

Kansas City once hosted big regattas on its rivers, but he said it’s long since lost those events to cities like Oklahoma City and Wichita that have invested heavily in riverfront development. Zeller wants to again make the Kansas River a hub of activity. Aside from the restaurants and bars on the bridge, he envisions a river full of boats and trails surrounding it peppered with runners, walkers and cyclists.

Zeller and other proponents of riverfront development held an open house on the river Thursday evening to offer a glimpse of what’s possible along the river. The Rock Island Bridge has been fenced off for years, but he offered tours across the river during the open house.

“People love this thing,” he said. “They come out over the river and they’re just in awe at how beautiful this river is that’s right in the heart of our metro.”

Members of the Kansas City Boat Club already use the river for recreational and competitive rowing.

“It’s really an underutilized recreational waterway,” said Phil Donnellan, a co-founder of the nonprofit group. “It’s great for canoeing, kayaking and rowing and we kind of have it all to ourselves right now.”

He said the group hopes to build a boathouse on shore or on a floating barge. He’s excited about bringing more activity to the river, whether it’s on the bridge or in the water.

The Kansas River provides a blend of scenic nature and urban views, he said. Boaters can float under bridges carrying trains overhead or view the downtown skyline lit up on a twilight cruise. Or they can just find quieter stretches of river.

“It’s a very scenic river,” he said.

The Rock Island Bridge project has drawn interest from both Kansas City Mayor Quinton Lucas and David Alvey, mayor of the Unified Government of Wyandotte County/Kansas City, Kansas. The Unified Government is considering offering incentives for redevelopment of the bridge, which is owned by the city of Kansas City, Missouri, but is completely contained on the Kansas side of the state line.

“It’s all about activating the river. In the Midwest, and in Kansas City in particular, we look at our rivers as very utilitarian,” said Katerine Carttar, the UG’s director of economic development. “There’s just so much more we can do to activate the riverfront.”

Aside from retail and residential development along the water, the UG wants to build out recreational trails for cyclists and pedestrians. The reopened bridge will help connect neighborhoods in KCK — such as its on-the-rise Strawberry Hill and downtown core — with the West Bottoms and downtown Kansas City, Missouri.

And the timing is ripe for change on the river: The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers plans $453 million in improvements to 17 miles of levees and floodwalls along the Kansas River. Carttar said the UG plans to install trails on top of the redesigned levees on both sides of the river.

“It’s kind of a great time to take a step back and think about what else you would like to see on the river,” she said.

Any river revival will likely boost other development projects in the Stockyards District of the West Bottoms. That area is home to Hy-Vee Arena, the old Kemper Arena that a year ago was transformed into a multipurpose space for athletic, commercial and retail use.

Nearby, developer Bill Haw has helped finance The Yard, a 232-unit apartment development. He owns nearly 20 acres in the area — on both sides of the state line — and plans to open up more of that land for new apartments.

Already, some 400 people work in his restored Livestock Exchange Building, he said. And other employers, like Butler Manufacturing and Mark One Electric, have moved into the Stockyards area.

He believes the area is on the cusp of a residential revival.

“I wouldn’t be committing tens of millions of dollars down here if I didn’t totally believe in the project,” he said.

He plans to create some sort of green space along the river, which he thinks will be an added draw for young families looking to live in the urban core. The Stockyards already tout several restaurants and bars within walking distance. Likewise, residents can walk to Hy-Vee Arena to work out or play volleyball.

But Haw believes the relatively slow-flowing river will become one of the area’s strongest draws, particularly in comparison to other in-demand neighborhoods like downtown Kansas City and the Crossroads Arts District.

“The distinction is that you can go outside and walk in someplace green,” he said. “The kids can walk down to the river. The Kaw is so approachable in comparison to the Missouri River. You’d be scared to have your kids walk down the Missouri River if you were little. But you wouldn’t be scared to have kids walk down and catch fish or catch frogs on the Kansas River.”

Kevin Hardy covers business for The Kansas City Star. He previously covered business and politics at The Des Moines Register. He also has worked at newspapers in Kansas and Tennessee. He is a graduate of the University of Kansas