A few good things emerged from the weekend workshop aimed at helping to craft coherent ideas for enhancing a large swath of midtown Kansas City surrounding the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art.
After several hours of rather unfocused and scatter-shot conversations in previous months, Saturday morning’s public talk session began to feel as if some sharper edges were developing around priorities and details related to the museum-inspired project of “envisioning a cultural district.”
This is the planning process instigated last fall when the Nelson-Atkins unveiled a master plan it had commissioned to address ways to better connect the museum and its neighboring cultural institutions and residential blocks. The plan featured no shortage of ambitious building projects — elevated pedestrian bridges! a boutique hotel! a boulevard realignment! Some of those things caused discomfort and concern among those in favor of historic preservation and street-smart, pedestrian-oriented urban development.
The museum stepped back from that initial grand announcement to start a public conversation about the area’s public and private assets and ways to create better outdoor art experiences, collaborative programs, circulation patterns, neighborhood identifiers and a better, more vibrant city for all.
So by Saturday, the conversation proceeded more productively along several tracks. The planning team will spend the next month or so collating the ideas, sketches and many details into a cohesive outline.
Some key points focused on traffic and pedestrian values. One major priority, for example is to improve physical and psychological connections between the Country Club Plaza and the Nelson as part of an effort to make the entire district more walkable for locals and visitors alike.
A major obstacle is a stretch of Cleaver Boulevard east of the Plaza, the equivalent of perhaps four blocks to the museum grounds. The original master plan, developed by the New York architectural firm of Weiss/Manfredi, projected a pedestrian bridge to cross the foreboding intersection of Cleaver and Main. But that kind of over-engineered design solution has been roundly attacked in this process, and Saturday’s session brought up more intriguing and organic ways of addressing the issue. Here’s some new terminology for your urban planning toolkit: The “pedestrian scramble.” That’s right, imagine an intersection where all vehicular traffic stops at the same time, and people at all four corners can cross in any direction.
One side benefit of that approach to the Main and Cleaver intersection would be to reduce vehicular traffic on Cleaver as impatient drivers rerouted themselves to Volker Boulevard for east-west circulation.
Along with that bit of traffic calming, a related idea got some airing on Saturday to lure pedestrians between the two destinations by enlivening those blocks with food trucks, pop-up artist vendor events and the like. Those activities could be placed along the north curbside of the wide boulevard. Of course, the Plaza interests might hate the competition, but so be it. That plan makes a lot of sense, and it encourages the kind of urban connection and heightened art experience that this whole process is meant to explore.
Examples of park enhancements and similar urban projects in other cities lined a couple of walls of the auditorium in the redeveloped Bancroft school building, where the weekend workshop sessions, or charrette, was held. One group outlined a projected route of a bus or trolley system that could run throughout the district, connecting UMKC, the Plaza, the museum, Troost Avenue and other area neighborhoods.
The conversations on Saturday included ideas about how to govern such a district — independently and non-governmentally was the consensus, with perhaps a new organization in which no single member, including the Nelson, could dominate. Financing mechanisms were discussed, and although no price tags have been floated, anything that occurs should be sustainable, one workshop group concluded. Another work group emphasized the importance of creating a significant gateway connection near the Kansas City School District’s art-oriented Paseo Academy. And better connections between the Nelson and Theis Park to the south continued to prompt discussion of appropriate ways to improve walkability, biking, access and public amenities.
Beautifying Cleaver Boulevard and unifying the entire district — which roughly stretches from 39th to 55th streets, Main to the Paseo — with signage, lighting, streetscape and landscape improvements and other touches also rose to the level of priority.
“We’re trying to get down from this amorphous description to something real,” said Vicki Noteis, whose urban planning firm has been leading this monthslong process for the Nelson.
Noteis said that after another public meeting in March, she hoped to have a final draft of plan by May.
It was heartening on Saturday to see citizens and planners alike take real ownership of these discussions. Some skepticism lay beneath the surface regarding the Nelson and its long-range plans for properties it owns around the museum. Historic preservation has been expressed frequently and emphatically by many of those involved in these talks. It’s incumbent that the Nelson pay more than lip service to that value as it spawns this vision for a brighter, smarter and livelier central piece of the city.