Steve Paul

Selection of architect is another big step in UMKC’s downtown campus plan

The first phase of a new campus for the UMKC Conservatory of Music and Dance would sit on the block between Central Street and Broadway, from 17th (foreground) to 18th streets.
The first phase of a new campus for the UMKC Conservatory of Music and Dance would sit on the block between Central Street and Broadway, from 17th (foreground) to 18th streets. The Kansas City Star

The choice of an architect to design a new downtown campus for the UMKC Conservatory of Music and Dance is the second major step taken this year that makes the proposal feel like a reality.

First, the university announced in May the generous gift from anonymous sources of a full city block of land. The property had been acquired in a $6 million package of real estate deals with the help of the Downtown Council.

The site sits directly across 17th Street from the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts and the city-owned Arts District Garage.

It’s a sloping piece of land — about 80,000 square feet, currently occupied mostly by four low-lying commercial buildings — that would eventually serve as a vibrant connection between the Kauffman and the adjacent blocks of the Crossroads Arts District.

After a public presentation of conceptual proposals by five architectural teams last weekend, UMKC announced on Thursday that it had selected Helix Architecture + Design of Kansas City and its collaborator, HGA Architects and Engineers of Minneapolis, to design the first phase of the proposed campus.

Presentations by Helix and the four other teams — all strictly preliminary and provisional — showed the designers thinking about how the educational environment for musicians and dancers can benefit from physical and spatial manifestations of connectivity, community and transparency.

“Helix and HGA bring a particular balance to our project, one that celebrates the Crossroads’ maker culture and honors the Kauffman Center,” Conservatory Dean Peter Witte said on Friday. “HGA designs performing arts spaces that work for students and faculty and Helix is committed to Kansas City’s urban fabric. Their partnership resonated with our committee, one that included students, faculty, staff, and community leaders.”

The gift of the property is contingent on a successful UMKC fund-raising campaign. With a lead donation of $20 million from the Muriel McBrien Kauffman Foundation, the university has now received $29 million in pledges toward its goal of $48 million. Arriving there would leverage an equal amount in an expected development grant from the state of Missouri.

The architectural team expects to produce a design proposal early next year, and the deadline for raising the $96 million for the project is the end of 2016. Having concepts in hand will help the university sell the proposed campus to potential donors.

The architect selection process involved a series of charettes by each team to gather information, explore concepts and develop presentations.

Councilwoman Jan Marcason sat in on the Helix charette, in which students posted ideas on white boards and contributed their own thoughts on what they’d want to see in a new campus. She thought the process was engaging and the prospect of this new influx of young energy in the district to be exciting. She was taken by a piece of the Helix proposal — I liked this idea, too — that envisioned the campus and the adjacent neighborhood as a village

“I hope they can fund it,” Marcason said of the UMKC plan. “They seem optimistic.”

This is how the new city is born — good and thoughtful ideas transform bland, underused or vacant spaces and capture the interests of real people looking for fun, inspiration and community. Good money should follow good ideas.

You can sense that spirit of community every now and then downtown — on a First Friday, when the sidewalks overflow, and when the concert halls and outdoor spaces are abuzz with people who spill out into the vibrant night.

You can sense the transformation in the obstacle course of orange cones and construction sites all over the downtown area. Rather than feeling like nuisances, they attest to the fact that something real is going on.

To reach Steve Paul, editorial page editor, call 816-234-4762 or send email to Twitter: @sbpaul.