Missouri River fans foresee a new day for the Big Muddy

Port KC, formerly know as the Port Authority of Kansas City, is ready to start work on a mixed-use "urban village" on land adjacent to Berkley Riverfront Park. The development will be built on the land between Front Street where two cars are driving and the road running along the park (left).
Port KC, formerly know as the Port Authority of Kansas City, is ready to start work on a mixed-use "urban village" on land adjacent to Berkley Riverfront Park. The development will be built on the land between Front Street where two cars are driving and the road running along the park (left). kmyers@kcstar.com

People who live downtown around the River Market hear it a lot from visitors:

“Nice place. So where’s the river?”

The Missouri River, chocolate-colored and fast, runs down there below the bluff, behind high-voltage lines and bushy trees, beyond the railroad tracks and just north of that flood wall.

A short distance to the northeast, however, there’s a wide-open, uncluttered view of the nation’s longest stream, the waterway that begat this city. It’s where 410 luxury apartment units are slated to go up.

From that spot last week, Michael Collins imagined a whole new connection between the Big Muddy and Kansas Citians — who never have spent much time around the river unless they’re homeless under tarps hidden by trees.

“To me, it’s lovely,” said Collins, president and chief executive of the Port Authority of Kansas City. “Some people look out and see mud. I see life.”

Michael Collins imagines a new connection between the riverfront and Kansas Citians. The president and CEO of the Port Authority of Kansas City outlines plans for an upscale apartment complex near Berkley Riverfront Park.

Fact is, the Missouri is a lot less muddy than it was a half century ago. And Berkley Riverfront Park, the site being prepared for the upscale apartment project and maybe commercial spaces to come, does command occasional crowds.

The park features a broad bicycling and walking trail, rather popular, that stretches from the gleaming Interstate 35/Interstate 29 bridge to a public elevator.

Did you know the riverbank had an elevator? It takes cyclists up to a majestic footbridge extending from Main Street.

After more than three decades of cleanup and roadwork, perhaps the moment has arrived for Kansas City’s riverfront to boast a touch of luxury, a place to enjoy with visible water and everything.

River fans perplexed by our relationship with the Missouri — at best indifference, if not vile neglect — say our loving embrace is long overdue.

“We have disconnected so dreadfully,” said Vicki Richmond, head of a nonprofit called Healthy Rivers Partnership, based where the Kansas River meets the Missouri in the West Bottoms.

Why this disconnect? This disregard? Disdain, even?

“Dirty. Scary. Dangerous. Those are the words they use about the Missouri,” Richmond said.

Some area high school students whom Richmond invites to the Missouri River don’t recall ever setting eyes on it. But when she works with them to craft artwork based on what they see, feel and collect while exploring the river, the disconnect dissolves, she said.

Richmond is thrilled by the city’s master plan for mixed-use development on the river’s south bank, beginning with the apartment building to be named the Union at Berkley Riverfront Park, or Union | Berkley.

“In the end,” she said, “all those eyes on the river will be a good thing.”

Over the years, eyes on the river have not always fetched pleasant views.

Before the city opened Berkley Riverfront Park in the late 1990s, the property served as a tow lot. People had to search their way to a narrow, industrial Front Street to claim impounded cars.

A dreary memory that sticks.

Nearby, the city had dumped debris from a demolished public housing project. Here stood chunks of Kemper Arena’s roof after it collapsed in a 1979 rainstorm.

And nobody was racing to fix up the area.

“It was the city’s fault it got that way in the first place,” said Mike Burke, a longtime advocate for riverfront change.

Unseen renewal

To many older residents who grew up in Kansas City, the Mighty Mo is a story of life-changing floods, of foul odor and ugly sewage that the river carried from meatpacking plants once wedged into the West Bottoms.

It’s about bottlenecks for motorists trying to choose which bridge to take into and out of downtown.

Plenty of the past problems have been mitigated. Still, it has forever baffled Dana Gibson, a Realtor and River Market resident, how some in Kansas City regard the river’s presence “as a net negative, nothing positive about it.”

But younger generations and out-of-towners moving into the city see the Missouri differently.

This time of year, lines of loft dwellers in their 20s and 30s step 300 paces to the end of the wooden Town of Kansas pier, that footbridge overlooking the river, and descend to the Riverfront Heritage Trail.

The trail takes bikers from Berkley park up through downtown and back down the bluff to the West Bottoms, across from where the Missouri curls around the municipal airport.

“I just like to live by a river,” said River Market resident Katy Gondring, 35. She grew up on an Omaha, Neb., bluff overlooking the Missouri. It’s just as muddy there as here.

“It doesn’t have to look like a postcard. There’s still beauty in a river.”

Gibson said these young professionals, often from other places, “feel like the river is an asset. They just don’t understand why more people here haven’t discovered it.”

The company developing the $65 million riverfront apartment project is also from out of town — Indianapolis-based Flaherty & Collins Properties.

“Maybe by us being outsiders, it’s helping facilitate the development,” said vice president Ryan Cronk. “We think of it as a tremendous opportunity.”

Muddy vista

What will Union | Berkley residents snuggled close to the Missouri see?

To the southwest, an awesome view of the downtown skyline.

To the east, the triangular spire and angled cables of the Christopher S. Bond Bridge.

To the north, beyond an earthen levy, rolling water.

OK, it’s brownish.

There are natural reasons for that, the big one being the river’s speed.

The Missouri gushes down from the upper plains gathering a fine mix of sand, silt and clay soils. It runs so fast, sloping down about a foot each mile, its sediment has little chance to sink to the bottom.

The river’s typical clip of 5 mph may not seem supersonic to motorists whizzing by. But it’s about five times the speed of the Mississippi River, said James Rudy of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. He oversees 500 miles of the Missouri from Rulo, Neb., to its mouth above St. Louis.

The Missouri’s swiftness allows the river to be what Rudy calls “self-scouring.” Little dredging is needed because sediments ride the top.

Where the river rounds Kansas City, it hauls about 41,000 cubic feet of water per second.

“Imagine water in 41,000 boxes 1 foot wide and 1 foot deep. And they’re passing you every second,” Rudy said. “That’s a lot of water.”

As it completes its 2,300-mile marathon and spills into the Mississippi River, the Missouri carries its color with it. Seen from the air, the Mississippi becomes striped as it continues south, its west half laden with the beige silt imported from the plains.

“People would like the Missouri River more if it were clear,” said University of Missouri hydrologist Jason Hubbart. “But it’s called the Big Muddy for a reason. It’s always been muddy. It’s not the Big Clear.”

But it is clearer these days, carrying through Kansas City only about 20 percent of the silt that it held decades ago. That’s because dams to make reservoirs in Montana and the Dakotas trap sediment from those states before the water gets here.

River’s edge

The corps has designed the river to be at least 9 feet deep and 300 feet wide. The corps regulates the flow, which was a source of agitation in 2011 when farmland in northwest Missouri flooded and the river swept over I-29, closing it for months.

Floodwaters affect communities along the Missouri in different ways, said Rudy. Industries can be devastated, as were the West Bottoms meatpackers when the Kaw jumped its banks in 1951, sending the corpses of cows and pigs down the Missouri.

Another memory that sticks.

Still, smaller Missouri places such as Boonville, Hermann and Washington love their river, using it for recreation and in marketing to tourists.

Just next door to Kansas City, Parkville wouldn’t be the quaint day-trip stop and residential attraction that it is without the Missouri churning by, a backdrop for concerts, fairs and ballgames.

Parkville, with help from Platte County, last year opened a 144-acre riverfront park west of town to complement its popular English Landing site. Dog runs, miles of hiking trails, volleyball courts, wetlands restoration — all right there along the river.

“Some communities along the Missouri are unbelievably committed to their riverfront. And do they flood? Yes,” said Rudy. “Kansas City just chose to utilize it differently.”

Here, the river and railroads hugging it became arteries for industry.

Smokestacks rose in the West Bottoms — soap plants, grain millers and packers around the old stockyards. Together they produced the rudest smell for visitors departing from planes at the municipal airport on the Missouri’s north bank.

Today, most of that industry is gone. But John Trager, aka “Captain Catfish,” still smells something rank when he steers his boat east out of Kaw Point to take groups fishing on the Missouri.

Below the Lewis and Clark Viaduct, he’ll point to a discharge line belching out treated sewage from a wastewater station.

When south winds blow, “it makes you gag,” Trager said.

Upstream from the Bond bridge, a warm, blackish mixture drains from an industrial canal on the north bank.

“Actually, that’s not a bad smell. (More) like molasses,” he said. “And you have to be right up on it. …

“Yeah, I call it the River of Smells.”

Pioneer point

When the Lewis and Clark expedition embarked upstream in 1804, the Missouri was shallow and three times as wide as today. A hard rain would reroute the current, causing 19th-century steamboats to get snagged and wreck, especially at the Kansas City bend.

But without that pesky river, there would be no Kansas City.

A rock ledge below the present-day River Market allowed boats to dock, bringing pioneers within a few miles of Westport outfitters on the Santa Fe Trail.

Later, in 1868, the first long-term bridge over the Missouri put early Kansas City on the national map. Fortunes followed.

You might think Kansas City leaders would praise that river, particularly because most residents on both sides of the state line drink from it.

But here’s what the late city manager L. Perry Cookingham said in an interview in the 1970s: “Everyone had always thought the river was a barrier to growth. The state line was also a barrier. These barriers meant that Kansas City was growing in a quadrant rather than a circle. … There wasn’t any way for Kansas City to grow but south and east.”

Cookingham helped the city jump the river by annexing areas in what’s now the Northland. Not a move welcomed by all, especially not up there.

Through no fault of its own, the Missouri came to symbolize much of what divides Kansas City politics.

Flowing forward

Now what may rise out of Berkley Riverfront Park could be a symbol of hard-earned progress: 55 acres of cleaned-up property owned by the quasi-governmental Port Authority, all intended for development.

Port executive Collins (no relation to the second name in developer Flaherty & Collins) said infrastructure work set to begin in a few weeks will be done by the Port Authority, which is investing $5 million and may issue revenue bonds to fund future developments.

The Indiana developer was drawn to the riverfront site while building a $28 million mixed-use project in Gladstone.

Collins and Cronk said they envision courtyards and small shops in the mix, outdoor eating places, maybe a little entertainment, certainly bike stations.

Because of the river’s churning current, don’t expect to see kayakers dropping in, developer Cronk said: “But what we’ll be able to offer residents just in outdoor living will be unparalleled.”

It’s already occurred in places such Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, and Dubuque, Iowa, and many communities that took far less time than Kansas City to spruce up their riverfronts.

Civic leader Burke has been pitching it since at least the late 1970s, when he chaired a city task force to look into riverfront beautification.

Back then, whenever discussions centered on the site now named after former mayor Richard L. Berkley, some city officials asked: “What would we do with the tow lot?”

The city had owned more than 100 acres there since 1952, when notions flew of squeezing in a major league baseball stadium. That didn’t happen. Near century’s end, the city got stuck with cleaning out black goo underground, where coal used to gas streetlights had been dumped.

Today, with the Bond bridge in view and providing more accessible interchanges to Front Street, why wouldn’t luxury living follow?

“It’s a beautiful site,” Burke said.

Not that all Kansas Citians can be convinced.

“As so often happens,” said Burke, “it’s the out-of-town people who see the qualities of Kansas City.”

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