Helmut Jahn wants to make something clear. “I am not out to save my building,” he said Monday by phone from his Chicago office. His purpose was to share an idea that could make Kemper Arena more useful. City officials and those with an interest in preserving the arena should listen to what he has to offer.
Jahn is the original design architect for Kemper Arena. He imagined the innovative exterior truss system to create a column-free event bowl and once told The Star the gleaming white building “has what we call almost a civic spirit that has a distinctive and recognizable look that becomes an image for the city.”
Some people over the years, sadly, have rejected that notion, and Kemper’s fate has been cloudy since the city opted to build the Sprint Center as part of a much-needed downtown revival. The city didn’t help matters when it allowed AEG (the Anschutz Entertainment Group) to manage (or mostly ignore) Kemper for five years as that firm built Sprint into a mega-successful event space.
Now, the American Royal Association has proposed demolishing the underused, 40-year-old arena and has asked the city to put up $60 million or more to help it build and operate a new, smaller, multipurpose facility and to renovate the adjacent Royal complex.
Last week, City Council members put the brakes on the fast track to demolition when they called for the issuance of a request for proposals in the hopes of smoking out potential new visions for adapting and reusing the taxpayer-owned Kemper.
Jahn has been following the controversy, and one day last week he sat down with pen in hand to depict a concept that could help the city imagine a future for the arena.
The big idea is relatively simple. It incorporates a fabric ceiling and a catwalk for lighting and sound, each of which could be lowered to create a more intimate bowl seating 5,000 or more people. Clearly the plan would cost far less than installing a second floor in the current arena space, as had been envisioned in a previous reuse proposal, now withdrawn.
Jahn has special insight into the arena, of course, but he also has a strong connection to the American Royal because his wife, Deborah, participates in horse shows and to Kansas City because of relationships he has developed in the community.
“This is an issue which isn’t just about Kemper,” Jahn told us, “but it’s about the future of that whole area, the West Bottoms. Many people see something of value in a building that enriches a community and a city.”
Jahn recognizes his downsizing concept doesn’t necessarily address all of the Royal’s concerns about Kemper and its needs. And he suspects Royal officials would not even want to look at his suggestion.
Still, the city has an obligation to consider all feasible options. Its request for proposals may well uncover deep-pocket developers with great new ideas, not only for updating and adapting Kemper for a new use but for knitting a more sensible fabric to revitalize adjacent stretches of the West Bottoms. Jahn’s sketches could kickstart such brainstorms.
In that spirit, we invite readers, including developers, to share ideas that might serve to save Kemper Arena from the wrecking ball and create a more vibrant urban district in the lowlands west of downtown. Send letters and images to firstname.lastname@example.org.
And send thanks to Helmut Jahn for thinking enough about this community to contribute to the conversation.