Streetside: Everyone has an agenda for the Nelson-Atkins’ ambitious improvement agenda

Talk about urban planning long enough — as about 75 citizens did recently as part of a community meeting organized by the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art (held at the Bancroft School, at 4300 Tracy) — and you begin to see certain civic blights and unexamined potential hiding in plain sight.

Why, for instance, is the intersection of Main Street and Emanuel Cleaver II Boulevard so congested and so pedestrian-unfriendly, and how could it be improved? What could be done to better connect the Nelson to the equally iconic Country Club Plaza? How could Troost — just as close to the Nelson as the museum is to the Plaza — become part of a reimagined district? Why is there no development along Brush Creek? Why is the museum buying nearby historic houses, and does that chip away at the fabric of the Rockhill and Southmoreland neighborhoods? Can Volker Park, nestled in a prime location but underutilized outside the handful of events held there each year, become more vibrant and appealing?

Round and round went these and other questions at the February 7 “charrette,” as the Nelson called the event. The exercise, alternately exciting and depressing, was an attempt to solicit public input on the museum’s vague but ambitious plan, announced last summer, to more meaningfully connect itself with the many cultural destinations and institutions surrounding it. That list includes but is not limited to: the Kansas City Art Institute, the University of Missouri–-Kansas City, Rockhurst University, the Linda Hall Library, the Kansas City Repertory Theatre, Gillham Park, the Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art, and the Plaza.

The Nelson’s original outline — which the museum commissioned from Weiss/Manfredi, a New York urban-design firm — called for pedestrian bridges; bike paths; a hotel and café north of the museum; the closing and rerouting of various roads; and other amenities, services and structures that generally fall under the umbrella of “new urbanism.”

As leaders at the Nelson are well-aware, such a scheme must involve several other players, some of which it can influence and others it cannot. Among them are neighborhood associations, historical preservationists and a voting public not recently keen on bankrolling inessential projects during a time when citywide deferred maintenance runs into the billions of dollars. (See: the resounding defeat of a proposal to extend the streetcar line into the very area that the Nelson hopes to improve.)

The charrette was the Nelson’s way of giving various constituents an opportunity to naysay this golden dream. As Julián Zugazagoitia, the museum’s director and CEO, told me later, “I think a lot of people saw the original drawings [last summer] and thought maybe that was the end of the conversation. We viewed it as the beginning of a dialogue about what might be done.”

One person participating in that dialogue over the charrette’s course: a Plaza neighborhood booster identifying herself as Sally, who took a seat midway through a small-group meeting about Theis Park and Plaza-area walkability and announced that she would play the role of the black hat. Among her comments: “We don’t need to change for change’s sake.” “The property value has held over the years, and many of these plans would threaten that.” “I’m trying to protect the people who have invested money in this area.” “Leave the open landscape that Mr. Nelson wanted.”

An event like the charrette also tends to draw the city’s public-transit advocates, many of whom view parking lots the way Kansans for Life views abortion clinics. A middle-aged woman approached the same small group later in the morning and declared that any plan worth a damn would address the need for some kind of bus stop at the intersection of Oak Street and Cleaver II Boulevard.

“There’s no excuse not to have one there,” she said. “Public transportation isn’t something people in town pay attention to. People in this city need to get a grip.” By then, she was speaking at something like a roar. The architect leading the discussion nodded politely and looked down at his blueprints; a few moments of silence followed. Sally then spoke again, this time rattling off a list of reasons why Southmoreland Park can absolutely under no circumstances be touched by development.

The most widely panned part of the Nelson’s proposal, though, involves tearing down the four historic houses it owns to the north of the museum, in favor of a development containing a hotel, a café, an event space, a bookstore, and what museum leaders have said is badly needed office space.

Jim Wanser, a board member of Historic Kansas City and a former president of the Rockhill Homes Association, said institutional encroachment — whereby the Nelson and UMKC buy up historic properties, then raze the structures to make way for their own expansion — is the biggest challenge facing the Rockhill Homes Association.

“You’d think it’d be noise or crime,” he told me after the charrette. “But the last 40 years, it’s been fighting off these institutions that try to solve their expansion problems on the back of our historic neighborhoods.”

He cited the failed Sailors project in the 1980s, which would have put 20-story condo towers near Theis Park, and, more recently, Historic Kansas City’s frustrations regarding the Kirkwood mansion (remembered by many as the former Rockhill Tennis Club), which the Nelson owns. “The Kirkwood is vacant, and it looks bad,” Wanser said. “Our concern is, they will let it rot and claim economic hardship and get a demolition permit. We’ve seen that happen before.”

Michael Frisch, associate professor and program director of the urban planning and design program at UMKC, did not attend the charrette but has been following the proposal’s progress since the drawings first emerged. He said if the Nelson is serious about forging a connection with the neighborhoods that lie to its east — Troost, the Paseo — then it should move its hotel plans in that direction rather than tear down beautiful old houses.

“The intersection near Cleaver and Troost is already zoned for commercial use,” Frisch told me. “It’s two blocks away. Couldn’t they work with Mr. [Ollie] Gates [who owns much of the property near the intersection] and develop one there? It could become an anchor there — I think UMKC, Stowers, Kauffman, a lot of institutions could have a stake in that being a part of something like that — and it could help revitalize the commercial stretch between Troost and the Paseo, and north and south of that intersection as well. Suddenly you have a reason to walk from the Plaza to Troost, and vice versa. To me, it’s simple: Go east.”

Zugazagoitia doesn’t necessarily see just one simple fix. “Our [the Nelson’s] needs and those [the surrounding district’s] are intertwined,” he said. “We have very specific needs as an institution. Some can be addressed in these conversations, and some are outside this line of thinking. But we’re trying to see where our needs align with a larger project, a larger vision. In any case, what we do will be informed by these conversations we’re having.”

Meaning, for now, more community meetings. (Zugazagoitia said he wants to have one in the Crossroads, “to bring together people who are less central to where we’re located but have ideas about art and community.”) As Toni Wood, the museum’s director of communications, told me, “We’re a long, long ways off from detailed plans, much less putting something in front of the city. A long ways.”

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