Oak Street in downtown should be one of Kansas City’s grandest rides.
If you could raise your eyes, you’d take in the sights of the city’s opulent public towers — the federal courthouse, City Hall and the Jackson County Courthouse — and the springtime beauty of Ilus Davis Park and the Sprint Center’s glass and steel bowl.
But ground-level perils keep getting in the way. Oak, it seems, is forever stuck in construction-mode while the city around it gleams with new attractions.
It’s hard taking in the grand sights while plotting a slalom course between construction cones and around steel plates.
“Over the years, I’ve seen them painting, and digging, and backhoeing,” frequent downtown visitor Keith Westhues said. “The whole nine yards.”
Rather than enjoy Oak’s views on his way in, Westhues said, he takes pains to avoid it.
“I come down 11th Street and shoot back around this way,” he said, now safely on foot at the corner of 11th and Oak, pointing back to the west.
City records show some 150 work permits issued in the past 10 years for Oak along the six blocks between Seventh Street and the Sprint Center.
Neon spray paint left by utility crews coats the length of the street like graffiti with their color-coded cues to the labyrinth of conduits and pipes below.
No fewer than 74 manhole covers on that six-block stretch hint at just how busy it is underground.
Westhues, as an electrical contractor, deals with Oak weekly when he comes downtown to City Hall to obtain building permits.
Amy Mitchell and Andrus Gaytan-Ramirez, who work downtown, say for them it’s been a daily experience for three years, and they are just as perplexed.
“It’s chaotic,” Mitchell said.
“Always under construction,” Gaytan-Ramirez said.
“I don’t see what the progress is,” Mitchell adds.
Actually, says Public Works Deputy Director Ralph Davis, Oak Street could be considered a victim of progress.
The largest portion of those 150 construction permits went to utility companies working to meet customers’ demands for more fiber, more electricity — more data and faster data.
“It is at a crossroads of a lot of telecommunication,” Davis said.
The city shares in the frustration, he said. The city meets monthly with utility companies to coordinate work among the different firms and with the work the city has planned.
The idea is to reduce the time that any street — including Oak — gets torn up.
But telecommunications and utility companies are pressed by customers for more connections, “and as utilities need access,” Davis said, Oak Street “gets opened up more.”
Oak is likely very much like Main Street, which the city got a good look at underground when it rebuilt Main for the streetcar and the Smart City technology sensors.
“Under Main Street, we counted 27 different underground utilities” that are squeezing for room in the city’s old and new infrastructure, Davis said.
Crews found an ancient brick Fire Department water cistern under Main Street.
When utilities dig beneath Oak, “they have to go from Point A to Point B,” Davis said, “and they’re trying to find a way through the maze of pipes and conduits.”
In some ways, the repeated demand for construction is a good problem to have, he said.
“It shows a healthy urban downtown environment,” Davis said. “Things are happening, and we’re building.”
Still, longer breaks in the action would be nice, said Sy Noorbakhsh, the city’s supervisor of plans management, whose work for the city has made him a 30-year witness to Oak’s travails.
“We have family friends who say that so much has been done to beautify downtown,” he said, “but they say there’s always construction going on.”
For Oak, it seems to be a three-decade-long trend.
“There’s no end to it,” Noorbakhsh said. “The steel plates go on and on.”