Neighborhood group to oppose new Nelson-Atkins Museum plan to expand campus footprint

The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art has filed a request with the city of Kansas City to create a Master Plan District to assist in expansion plans. Campus plans include using the four houses it owns on 45th Street, across from the museum, and, eventually, doing something with the closed Rockhill Tennis Club.
The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art has filed a request with the city of Kansas City to create a Master Plan District to assist in expansion plans. Campus plans include using the four houses it owns on 45th Street, across from the museum, and, eventually, doing something with the closed Rockhill Tennis Club. skeyser@kcstar.com

The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art has gone public with expansion plans that aim to avoid neighborhood opposition that thwarted previous proposals, but a member of the Rockhill Neighborhood Association says nearby residents will fight the plan.

The Nelson Gallery Foundation has asked Kansas City to approve a Master Plan District that would encompass properties the art museum already owns — four houses north of the museum on 45th Street and the former Rockhill Tennis Club site east of the museum on Rockhill Road.

If the Master Plan District is approved, the Nelson will be able to proceed with specific changes to the former Rockhill club property, a process stymied by city ordinance when Rockhill neighbors objected in 2008-09 to an earlier plan to adapt the clubhouse into museum offices. That ordinance prohibited the property from being redeveloped for anything other than single-family homes or parkland.

Jim Wanser, past president and liaison for external affairs for the Rockhill Homes Association, said neighbors “are intent on not giving up” current zoning for either the 45th Street houses or the Rockhill club site.

“This new plan is asking us to trust (the museum) for the future, but there’s no long-term plan specified,” Wanser said.

The museum’s new plans filed with the city also include an existing memorandum of understanding with the Kansas City Parks and Recreation Department. The memo allows extension of the Donald J. Hall Sculpture Park onto city-owned land at Theis Park to the south of the museum and Southmoreland Park to the west.

The museum’s immediate goals, as stated in the Master Plan District documents, are to complete transformation of the four 45th Street houses into offices for museum staff who now occupy gallery space. The galleries then would be returned to art display.

The second phase of the plan calls for razing the Rockhill tennis courts for a sculpture park addition. That phase also would landscape the former club site, improve the parking lot and preserve the former clubhouse for an as yet-unspecified future use.

Wanser said the Rockhill neighborhood opposes any plan that would add visitor traffic east of Rockhill Road, which he said serves as a “natural barrier” between residences and the museum.

Long range — defined as phases three and four and encompassing five to 15 years — the museum said it intends to launch an architectural design competition to present ideas for more gallery space, art storage, parking and multi-purpose use. Fundraising also would be required.

The new filings will work their way through the City Plan Commission, the City Council’s Planning, Zoning and Economic Development Committee and the full council, a process that is likely to take a couple of months.

Nelson officials held two public meetings this summer to explain the need for more gallery, office and parking space, citing record visitor traffic and growth in the museum’s collections.

“So far, we haven’t heard anything contrary,” said Mark Zimmerman, the Nelson’s director of administration. “We are teed up to go through the process through the rest of the year, with the Master Plan District as the goal. Then we can start on more.”

Approval of the Master Plan District would tie the museum to use its property for the purposes specified in the filings. Anything not specified, such as future use of the Rockhill clubhouse, would need to re-enter the city’s approval processes, said attorney Charles Renner, who is representing the museum in the filing.

Renner said the museum hopes to be on the City Plan Commission agenda in October and move through the City Council process in November.

Museum employees already work in one of the four 45th Street houses under a special use permit. A second house has been vacant for about four years. The third and fourth houses, built as multi-tenant homes, currently have renters on month-to-month leases who have been given 20-month notices to relocate.

Completing the transition of all four houses would cost about $1 million, Zimmerman said.

The change requires a zoning change from residential to a category that allows office use in all four houses. Wanser said the Rockhill and Southmoreland neighbors prefer that the houses remain residential. He said neighbors were suspicious that “the Nelson is using an old model to buy property and eventually tear them down to build what they want.”

But museum officials said the plan is the highest and best use for the properties.

“The trade-off for this change is that we have people in offices around the Nelson-Atkins building working in gallery space,” Zimmerman said. “This will free up about 12,000 square feet of galleries for art.”

Zimmerman said the museum intends to hold the Rockhill clubhouse, which it now calls the Kirkwood property in reference to William Rockhill Nelson’s daughter, “in stasis … holding it in check … to be part of something in phase four.”

Museum officials emphasized that the sculpture park memorandum concerning the public parks wouldn’t inhibit any park use such as the summer Shakespeare performances in Southmoreland or the many walks, picnics and other gatherings at Theis.

“We consider our sculpture park, as it is now, as essentially full, with nice spaces between all our works of art,” Zimmerman said. “The density would be the same in the parks. All the walks, everything that exists now, would remain.”

Diane Stafford: 816-234-4359, @kcstarstafford