Arts News: Midtown Marvel

Welcome to 160,000 square feet of innovation.

After five years of planning and negotiating, Plexpod Westport Commons, a millennial-styled center for business that encompasses community, culture and entertainment, opened to the public Oct. 11 in the former Westport Junior High School building at 300 E. 39th St. The open house allowed visitors a firsthand look at the building’s transformation and a preview of what will go on there.

Variously described as a “co-working campus” and a “business incubator” hive, the five-floor complex includes 50 open “team spaces,” 40 offices and 200 flexible desks, computer labs, a maker’s studio, coffee shop, gaming rooms and a photography studio.

A massive event space is available for weddings and corporate and community activities. The Medallion Theatre, a beautiful auditorium with hand-painted ceiling and exquisite molding, is available for performances.

There is also a smaller 1923 Room Event Space, the lower level Westport Room and Physical Theaters, where martial arts, fitness and dance classes will take place (City in Motion Dance Theater is a new resident), and a roof deck.

Surrounding the facility are 80 acres of green with walking trails, maintained by KC Parks, adding greatly to the appeal of the complex. In the weeks following the ribbon-cutting, the public was invited to participate in a planting party, a joint effort by Surface Water Solutions, Down to Earth Services and Elise Hubbard, Landscape Architect.

The entire project is the brainchild (and, through the years, massive headache) of the Sustainable Development Partners of Kansas City (SDPKC). This group is made up of David Brain, co-founder and former CEO of EPR Properties, Bob Berkebile of BNIM architectural firm, Butch Rigby, local property developer, Lou Steele, commercial real estate businessman and Edward F. “Chip” Walsh, attorney.

Rigby said that the team’s genesis was the closing of nearby Rockhill Tennis Club, of which they were all members and loyal fans. After plans to bring it back to life in another location failed, the team turned their attention to the Westport Junior High building, which closed in 2010. Uniting them is a love of the neighborhood and its history and a commitment to help it thrive. They plan to tackle Westport High School across the street next.

From the start, SDPKC needed a partner experienced and successful in the “shared economy” model. After searching nationwide to find the right one, they were surprised and delighted to find the perfect collaborator in their own backyard — Plexpod of Lenexa, led by Gerald and Dianna Smith.

The completed project evidences progress and innovation at every turn, while retaining many of the building’s original elements, including hardwood floors and school lockers. A newly restored mural, inspired by the Thomas Hart Benton-influenced “History of Kansas City” mural from seven decades ago, adds to the building’s sense of history. Moving from images of Great Plains Indians and frontiersmen to high-rise offices and a modernized city, the 60-foot, three-wall mural was a class project of art instructor Mary E. Moulton when the building was occupied by the Kansas City Junior College.

In late fall, the Sundry Restaurant from the Crossroads was finalizing its move to Westport Commons. “We look at ourselves as food makers, so we feel like we totally fit into a collaborative co-working environment,” said Sundry owner Ryan Wing. Cultivate KC will use the on-site green space as an urban farm, supplying The Sundry and thus maximizing what Wing described as “field-to-fork on a single site.” Cultivate KC also plans to host a weekend farmer’s market there.

Mayor Sly James’ enthusiasm for Plexpod Westport Commons was clear when he spoke at the opening. Considering that the independent worker population is expected to double in the next five years, the project adds mightily to his efforts to promote and build Kansas City as a nationally recognized, tech-savvy, young entrepreneurial hub. But the project recognizes that there’s more to life than work, offering community, entertainment and dining pleasures for all, while rejuvenating a languishing midtown district.

Above: A unique team space, only for that team or individual’s use, is one of the benefits of Plexpod’s private office membership. (Plexpod Westport Commons)

About The Author: Rebecca Smith

Rebecca Smith

Rebecca Smith is an impassioned supporter of local performances of all types, who welcomes the  opportunity to promote them to KC Studio readers.

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