Yellow snow and a nonfunctioning fire hydrant mark one of the best parks in downtown Kansas City, Missouri.
It isn't officially a park. It's a patch of gravel and grass, no more than 20 feet wide, between the sidewalk and the Central Library's parking garage.
Dog owners who live in surrounding buildings claimed the spot soon after the garage opened in 2004. The space wasn't designed with beagles in mind, but the installation of the fire hydrant and a plastic-bag dispenser signaled the eventual acceptance of squatting four-legged creatures.
People and pets who live in the urban core don't suffer from lack of green space. The city started assembling land for what would become known as Case Park, on a bluff overlooking the confluence of the Kansas and Missouri rivers, in 1903. Ilus Davis Park, a much more recent addition, consumes two blocks between City Hall and the U.S. Courthouse.
The problem isn't quantity but quality. Berkley Riverfront Park offers a massive lawn for sitting and contemplating the flows of the Missouri River. But activity? Better stay close to the hydrant.
People were talking about parks at a recent public meeting at the Kansas City Design Center, a place for University of Kansas and Kansas State University architecture students to hone their skills in the big city. Hosting the event was HNTB, the engineering and design firm. HNTB has a $1.1 million contract (one of those dreaded federal earmarks) to come up with ideas for putting a deck over Interstate 670, the freeway moat between downtown and the Crossroads.
HNTB's architects and planners have come up with a variety of ideas for mending the gash. A dozen or so onionskin drawings were tacked to the walls. The decks varied in size, grandeur and objective (commercial development or a transit plaza?). Nearly all would create parkland.
Wayne Feuerborn, an HNTB urban planner working on the project, tells me that the steering committee identified open or green space as important. Green space also came up in conversations with the public about connecting the currently separated parts of town.
That's not surprising. Green space is the architectural equivalent of a box of puppies. Who doesn't like trees? Still, during the conversation at the design center, a warning about the shortcomings of downtown's existing parks seemed to provoke the most murmurs of agreement.
Thomas Morefield lives in the River Market and works as a city planner in Olathe. At age 27, he isn't far removed from graduate school (University of Kansas).
One gift of youth is the ability to see clearly a previous generation's failures. So Morefield politely reminded the HNTB team that downtown didn't need another Barney Allis Plaza sitting barren.
Morefield tells me that he supports taking advantage of the opportunity to improve I-670. (The Missouri Department of Transportation plans to replace the bridges above the interstate in the next 10 years.) At the same time, he would hate to see more ill-conceived green space. "That would be a real disappointment for the community," he says.
A tour of downtown parks is pretty demoralizing. The riverfront park feels isolated and disconnected. Ilus Davis Park works best as an exercise in theory — see how its curves take cues from the federal courthouse! Case Park was the setting of one of the year's most heartbreaking crimes: the carjacking and murder of aspiring law student Brandon Fauntleroy-McDowel. Barney Allis Plaza is, in Morefield's words, "a big empty square surrounded by massive concrete walls."
The past doesn't determine the future, of course. Maybe a park on top of I-670 would unlock a secret.
Still, HNTB's brainstorming looks dangerous for many reasons.
One of its designs calls for an expensive-looking, pickle-shaped park connecting the Performing Arts Center with the Sprint Center. Interesting. But is a connection between those two facilities a high priority? That Mahler sure knew how to write a symphony. Now let's go see the Harlem Globetrotters.
The pickle plan also appears to take out a few buildings in the Crossroads. Morefield felt a tremble when he saw the drawing. Not only the park might fail, but also the investment might remove pieces of the neighborhood. "You could actually subsidize the destruction of the urban fabric," he says.
Another troubling aspect of HNTB's work is that, in all the plans, Bartle Hall gets larger. The convention center has expanded twice in recent years, even with stagnant growth in the convention trade. HNTB has an interest in seeing Bartle Hall continue to spread: The firm designed the $150 million ballroom addition that spans I-670 between Central and Wyandotte streets.
Architects and planners I've spoken with also express concern that HNTB might over-engineer a solution.
I-670 in its current form is ghastly, all right. The noise alone presents a problem. Still, the bridges are much less forbidding today than they were a few years ago. A $3.7 million investment in wider sidewalks, sturdier fences and artist James Woodfills glass panels has helped ease the sense of imminent death that pedestrians used to feel crossing Truman Road.
The success of the improvements suggests that a low-cost fix might work.
Money saved on a tricked-out deck could be put to use tuning up Penn Valley Park or improving the streetscape between Crown Center and the Power & Light District. (One architect points out to me that I-670 represents only a small sliver of real estate between the two destinations.)
To HNTB's credit, not every idea under consideration looks like a $500 million project.
The firm has looked at a freeway deck in Columbus, Ohio, that cost only $1.3 million to build. A private developer spent an additional $6.5 million to build shops and restaurants on the cap. In addition to hiding a freeway segment, the retail businesses will share profits with the city.
Early next year, a city-appointed steering committee will narrow the options. A final selection is slated for April.
Morefield, for one, hopes the decision makers realize that green pencil marks on paper don't necessarily lead to fun and pleasure. "You can put in a nice patch of grass with a fountain, but that's not a guarantee of a great public space," he says.
Besides, in this economy, pet comfort stations may be all we can afford.
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