See Hear: Steve Paul on Rambling Around the Arts | A New Green Space Can Help Heal Downtown’s Old Highway Wound

Looking east from Wyandotte Street, where the South Loop Park would become a landscaped green space above the highway (photo by Steve Paul)

Chicago has Millennium Park. Boston has the Rose Kennedy Greenway. New York has the long and extremely lively High Line.

Inventive urban green spaces, often reclaiming transportation-oriented dead zones and sometimes serving to heal communities formerly wounded by highway gashes, have sprouted all over. Will Kansas City join the club?

Momentum for such plans here is growing. Saving and repurposing the Buck O’Neil Bridge, as a replacement span rises beside it, remains a possibility. An old railroad bridge in the West Bottoms may yet see new life as a restaurant and entertainment complex. A downscaling of the north interstate loop from highway to boulevard would improve walkability between the downtown core and the River Market area.

And now, adding to the portfolio, a vision for a South Loop Park would better connect the heart of downtown with the Crossroads Arts District by capping a four-block stretch of canyon air above Interstate 670. The rumble of semis and passenger vehicles would be suppressed below a tree-lined refuge.

A series of public meetings has helped to gather ideas and wish lists, and a still-quiet civic fundraising campaign has begun to rake in corporate pledges to turn the vision into a reality.

What’s not to like about this? Well, some negativos would say, it’d cost too much. But, as the saying goes, make no small plans. Kansas City has been on a roll. Despite the buffeting economic winds, the city has begun a new era of expansion, and I’m not just talking about the warehouse farms of Cass County and elsewhere along the outer ring of the metro area. With a new airport terminal, a riverfront soccer stadium, an apartment boom, a maybe ballpark, and, well, you’re seeing the rest every day.

Another argument would go, “But why are we building a park? What about affordable housing?” My mostly under-reported response to that is, “Why can’t we do both?” This is not an either-or choice. An urban park would enhance the lives of everyone. Sure, the South Loop Park would become the front yard for the luxe condo towers lining its northern edge. But a pedestrian-oriented green space with natural plantings, trails and abundant gathering areas would be open to all.

I recall talking some years ago with a principal at HNTB, the architecture and engineering firm, which had developed a downtown master plan coinciding with the ballroom expansion of the Bartle Hall convention center. There were already rumblings about capping the interstate and recapturing land that had been hijacked by the highway system, which two or three generations earlier caused the near-fatal squeezing of the city’s heart. I also remember standing above the highway, probably on the McGee Street bridge, and wondering what could happen if the civic vision were large enough to imagine a connecting ground atop the highway and stretching between the newly opened Sprint Center (now T-Mobile) and the Kauffman Center, which was still under construction.

For those involved in the planning nuts and bolts, the project remained a too-costly pipe dream for nearly two decades.

Now HNTB has helped bring the plan to the forefront along with the city, the KC Port Authority, the Downtown Council and other partners. A request for proposals (RFP) could be issued as early as Sept. 1. But that’s just one of presumably many milestones on the far horizon. A pool of state, federal, city and private funds still has a long way to go before reaching the estimated cost, currently about $160 million.

A shot of downtown Chicago’s Millennium Park, showing (front left) Spanish artist Jaume Plensa’s towering video screens, (rear left) Anish Kapoor’s “Cloud Gate,” and (center) Frank Gehry’s Pritzker Pavilion. (photo by Steve Paul)

Project planners point to Klyde Warren Park in Dallas as a template. Built atop a short stretch of highway, it spans 5.2 acres, slightly larger than the 4.6 acres of South Loop Park. It adjoins the Dallas Museum of Art and other arts institutions and presents a variety of gathering opportunities, including an interactive fountain, though little in the way of what we’d call public art.

As I was writing this, I happened to find myself perched high above Millennium Park in Chicago. In the evening, colored lights illuminated the architect Frank Gehry’s Pritzker Pavilion, a ribbony, open-air performance stage. Anish Kapoor’s mirror-surfaced “Cloud Gate,” popularly known as “The Bean,” was, as usual, posing for pictures. The huge face of an everyday Chicagoan filled one of the towering video screens that make up the park’s conceptual Crown Fountain (by Krueck + Sexton Architects and the Spanish artist Jaume Plensa).

Public preferences for South Loop seem to lean heavily toward it being a passive gathering space, rather than, say, a huge entertainment venue. This, after all, is a mere block or two south of the Power and Light District’s entertainment and sports “living room,” Kansas City Live! So, relative calm, reflection and chilling out in a garden setting will be the more likely mode of operation. With an ever-increasing downtown population, more public green space and quiet oases should be valued.

There are lots of reasons to get behind the South Loop project. Fresh air, tree-shade, pedestrian comfort, lunchtime exercise and attractive playground can all serve to enhance the urban experience and soften the edges around tall buildings and clanging streets.

Public art ranked high in a survey conducted by HNTB and its partners. Something on the order of Millennium Park’s attractions — though let’s not just pick another Bean off the shelf — could become the equivalent of hitting one out of the park.


Summertime typically brings a pause in various arts arenas, but there’s always music. Perhaps you could find a theme running through the following.

JULY 8 — Take your pick: If you’re skipping the Taylor Swift show at the GEHA, or whatever, stadium, maybe you could opt for the rockin’, Prine-inspired Billy Bob Thornton and his band the Boxmasters the same night: knuckleheadskc.com.

JULY 19 — Probably sold out, but worth checking: Jeff Tweedy, the Wilco frontman on a solo tour, stops in Salina. stiefeltheater.org.

AUG. 17 — Undoubtedly because I’ve been on a Dylan jag, it feels natural to take in a show by the Wallflowers, which these days means son Jakob Dylan in the spotlight, backed by a touring band. uptowntheater.com

Steve Paul

Steve Paul is the author of “Hemingway at Eighteen” and a biography of Evan S. Connell. He has been a writer and editor in Kansas City for more than 45 years.

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