A shot of nightlife redefines Waldo 

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Chris Mullins

It's just before midnight on a Friday in early October — excellent drinking weather — and the Waldo bars hubbed around the intersection of 75th Street and Wornall are teeming with partiers. Don't be fooled by its casual name: Quinton's Bar & Deli is a hulking nightclub after dark, with strobe lights, beefy bouncers, and hip-hop and dance music blaring over the speakers. Fifty feet across Wornall, in front of the Shot Stop, you can hear every word of every song: Hey, say hey, baby I got your money.

The Shot Stop, an import from the nearby college town of Manhattan, Kansas, serves somewhere in the vicinity of 80 specialty shots, most of them designed to get the people who drink them as fucked up as possible in the shortest amount of time. An entire column on the menu is reserved for "bombs": various combinations of liquor and energy drinks. Also available for those seeking a pick-me-up is the "Liquid Cocaine" shot, a mélange of Bacardi 151, Jägermeister and Rumple Minze.

A wobbly 20-something in a halter top clutches a man's arm as they stumble out of the Shot Stop and head a few doors north. They walk past Tanner's, a neighborhood sports bar that, like Quinton's, stays open until 3 a.m. They cross 74th Terrace and head into the Well, an upscale restaurant-lounge where post-collegiate dating rituals are playing out in real time. Later, they'll flag one of the many taxis circling this square block or cross Wornall for some late-night eats at Pickleman's (open until 3 a.m.). Hookah Haven, a recently opened tobacco lounge at 7424 Wornall, also welcomes guests until that hour.

"It's more of a late-night crowd here in Waldo lately," says Bette Smith, co-owner of Dave Smith the Lamp Maker, a business operating in the heart of Waldo for going on 45 years. "But if you think about it, Waldo has always been a bit of a bar district."

Smith is right. Quinton's was previously Hannibal's, and before that Fin's, and before that just plain old Waldo Bar. Tanner's and Bobby Baker's Lounge also go back decades in this stretch of the neighborhood.

But those were mostly dive bars, the kind where old men sat on bar stools in silence and stared at crummy TVs. In recent years, the Waldo bar crowd has grown younger and wilder: The bar patrons are in their 20s and 30s, and many of them come in from suburbs such as Olathe, Blue Springs and Leawood. Pub crawls, like the Waldo Crawldo, draw crowds in the thousands to the neighborhood.

Gentrification typically follows a rough pattern: Artist types move into a cheap neighborhood, open coffee shops and music venues; yuppies seeking authenticity follow, driving up rents and bringing with them wine bars and boutique shops; artist types get priced out; then come the Jäger bombs and the sports bars.

But that's not really the story of Waldo, which seems to have skipped a few of those steps. How does a sleepy, family-friendly business district become a major nightlife destination without any formal city planning, à la Power & Light? And what does this new landscape mean for this independently minded neighborhood moving forward?

I don't like that term, 'nightlife district,' " says Chris Lewellen, owner of Lew's Grill & Bar and the Well in Waldo. "I think it makes us apprehensive here in the neighborhood. We don't want to be what Westport was in the '80s or what the Power & Light District is now. We don't have large clubs and piano bars. We don't have food trucks outside. I think if people want to do a bachelor party, they think P&L. If they want a mellower party, there's Waldo."

That's debatable. Few would describe the mood inside the Shot Stop as "mellow," for example. And what else would you call a two-block radius of 10 establishments serving alcohol to young-skewing crowds well after midnight but a nightlife district? Lewellen's reluctance to define Waldo by its bar scene is understandable: He sits on the boards of the Waldo Area Business Association and the Waldo Community Improvement District (CID). Still, he's arguably the person most responsible for the evolution of nightlife in Waldo.

Lewellen grew up in south Kansas City, near 120th Street and Wornall. After college, he bought a house at 67th Street and Oak "mostly because it was walking distance to Charlie Hooper's," the long-running Brookside tavern. In those days, the '90s, Brookside was a gradually gentrifying first-ring suburb, not unlike Waldo today. Hooper's was, and still is, an old-school neighborhood bar pulling in both local residents and young professionals. Lewellen wanted to open a restaurant-bar that would attract a similar clientele.

Waldo is a neighborhood that already had in place the infrastructure for a bar district: bars clustered within walking distance of one another, a handful of 3 a.m. liquor licenses. It was one of the last remaining areas, if not the last, in the metro with those raw assets. But the neighborhood didn't have the broad appeal to make use of them in the way Westport, the Plaza or, to a lesser extent, Brookside could.

Because Lewellen was already close to the neighborhood, his gaze turned toward Waldo. "I always loved going out in Waldo," he says. "But my wife, at the time my girlfriend, would never come with me. I'd say, 'How come you won't ever come to Waldo with me?' And she'd say the bars were all smoky and dirty and served bad food. And I had kind of an epiphany. I thought, 'There's a lot of women in this area like my wife.' I figured if I opened a cleaner place with nicer TVs and better food, I could get some of the females who were otherwise going to Brookside or the Plaza to come to my place instead. And if you get those women to come, then the guys will come, too."

So in 2004, Lewellen and his brother, Andy, opened Lew's, in a strip mall near the southeast corner of 75th Street and Wornall. "We had the first flat-screen TVs in Waldo or Brookside — two of them," Lewellen says. "Pretty soon, every bar in Waldo and Brookside had flat-screen TVs. And what we saw was that we rose the standard in the neighborhood. One by one, most of these other restaurants and bars either changed hands or the owners got smart and remodeled. Within five years, the whole neighborhood was looking better. It wasn't just us. Neighborhoods need options. My bars benefit from there being other options in Waldo."

The Lewellens opened the Well in 2009, on a lot across from Tanner's formerly occupied by Roscoe TV and Video. "I felt Waldo could use a really nice place, nicer than Lew's," Lewellen says. "Lew's was getting people stopping in after softball games on Tuesdays, but those same people were going to Kona on the Plaza on Friday."

With its rooftop deck, fancy fire pits, sleek interior and beyond-bar-fare menu, the Well was an immediate hit. "It blew up all the projections I'd given to the bank," Lewellen says. "And it accomplished what I wanted: It made Waldo a destination. The people who come to the Well are coming from Lee's Summit, Olathe, the Plaza, downtown. They're coming to the Well and checking out all the other spots in Waldo while they're here. It's good for all the businesses in Waldo."

Not every Waldo business necessarily views proximity to the 75th-and-Wornall heart of the neighborhood as a boon, though. Dan McCall and Jason Rourke (the latter previously was a manager at Lew's and the Well) recently opened the District Pour House + Kitchen four blocks north, at Gregory and Wornall. Along with Louie's Wine Dive a few doors down and Bier Station a few blocks east, the District is meant to appeal to Waldo residents looking to avoid the aggressive crowds that sometimes populate Quinton's, the Well, et al.

"When I go out there [around 75th and Wornall] now, it doesn't feel like a neighborhood anymore," McCall says. "It's not people you recognize from down the street. That's kind of the opposite of what we're trying to do with the District. We're not into that late-night Waldo scene. We want to be a place for dinner and drinks, and then if you want to really party and stay out late, you can head up to Waldo after."

Phil Bourne started running Waldo Pizza, an anchor of the neighborhood, in 1987. It sits at 7433 Broadway, between the Shot Stop and Tanner's.

"I'm not a big fan of binge drinking, and Waldo seems to be attracting more people into the area that are bent on consuming mass quantities of alcohol," Bourne says. "It's good to see the area becoming more vibrant, but I'm a little concerned about how the younger, rowdier drinking crowd impacts Waldo. I think we need to stay vigilant about the nightlife here becoming overwhelming."

Other business owners privately grouse about the arrival of Hookah Haven. Hookah bars, which have a reputation as seedy magnets for underage late-night crowds, aren't the kind of establishments that a gentrifying district likes to play up in a brochure.

Lewellen allows as much.

"That's why my brother and I have been purchasing real estate in Waldo," Lewellen says. (They now own 80 percent of the square block east of the Well — home to such businesses as Hartman Equipment and the Plumber's Friend — plus a piece of property just west of 75th Street Brewery formerly occupied by a dry cleaner.) "We want to make sure the tenants in these buildings are good businesses that stay up to speed. That's the best way to influence what becomes of Waldo and protect our interests — by being invested in it."

A kitchen fire reduced Kennedy's Bar & Grill, at 75th Street and Washington, to a pile of ashes in February 2007. Kennedy's was, in many ways, the quintessential Waldo bar: an Irish dive equally friendly to old drunks and underage graduates of high schools like Rockhurst, St. Teresa's, Sion and Shawnee Mission East. But in its destruction, property owner Diane Botwin saw opportunity.

Botwin's parents bought their first building in Waldo in 1972: the Waldo Astoria Dinner Playhouse, adjacent to Kennedy's. In 1986, Botwin joined her parents in the business. She now owns many of the commercial spaces in the heart of the district, and is landlord to the Shot Stop, 75th Street Brewery, Pickleman's and Kokoro Maki House.

Botwin is steeped in Waldo history, and the Kennedy's fire opened the door for her to think about the legacy she wanted to leave in the neighborhood. She was aware that mixed-use developments have become a standard model for successful urban development. She also knew that the corner was originally one of the first mixed-use spaces in Kansas City when it was erected in the early 20th century — a nexus of residential, commercial, office and entertainment on the same block.

Today, the northwest corner of 75th and Washington is anchored by a modern, two-story structure. Remedy, a gastropub, and Coffee Girl's Café are the ground-floor tenants; a beauty salon, an investment company, and a video-graphics marketing firm reside upstairs. "The demographics of the neighborhood are changing," Botwin says. "My feeling is that if I keep renovating and keep my buildings moving forward, there's going to be demand for that in Waldo."

The Waldo neighborhood has historically been a haven for young families buying their first homes. But home ownership isn't such a viable option for many people in their 20s and 30s, an age group that is renting longer than previous generations. That, combined with Waldo's increased visibility, has convinced Botwin that the area is ripe for new apartments.

"It'll be a building with 14 small, one-bedroom apartments," Botwin says about a vacant lot at 76th and Washington. "Hopefully the apartments will have a wonderful aesthetic appeal — lean and mean but with sustainable amenities, nice landscaping, very contemporary. We're finalizing the construction budget right now and hope to start leasing them by the end of 2014."

Botwin also owns some property in the Crossroads District. She sees some parallels between Waldo today and the Crossroads a decade ago. "They're both very organically developed and they both have forward-thinking property owners and business owners," she says. "It's not this super-planned, cookie-cutter type of thing. As a result, you get this wonderful influx of different personalities, different sensibilities. It makes for an interesting mix."

The different personalities and sensibilities inhabiting Waldo rose to the fore, in the context of dispute, earlier this year. At issue was the proposed development of a Wal-Mart on property occupied by Bingham Middle School, a Kansas City public school tucked behind the Trolley Trail, at 7618 Wyandotte. Bingham closed in 2002.

The Kansas City school district was weighing Wal-Mart's plan to purchase the land, raze the building and construct one of its neighborhood markets — a grocery store, not a traditional Wal-Mart — on the property. Wal-Mart would also build a parking lot and cut a new road over the Trolley Trail at 77th and Wornall to provide access to the market. Consensus among Waldo businesses was elusive.

"Our board did not agree," says Melissa Saubers, referring to the Waldo Area Business Association, on which she sits. (Until recently, Saubers served as the mayor of Waldo, an unofficial title that involves a lot of neighborhood cheerleading. She also owns Cowork Waldo, a community work space, at 7449 Broadway, that rents desks and conference rooms to freelancers and self-employed workers.) "Some were excited about the additional tax revenue Wal-Mart would bring in for the Waldo CID. But the flip side was what it would do to the residential community here in Waldo. And the residential community was really vocal about it."

Yes, it was. Shortly after the proposal was made, six homes associations in the neighborhood banded together to vigorously oppose it. In community meetings, they vocalized their concerns about how hard a commercial development of that magnitude would be on the area in terms of traffic, noise and pedestrian safety.

What mostly went unsaid publicly among those who opposed the Wal-Mart plan was the simple fact that many of them just didn't like the idea of a Wal-Mart in their neighborhood. The company's corporatism and reputation for wiping out small businesses put it at odds with the independent-minded culture many Waldo residents are trying to preserve. A previous proposal, for a Hen House at the Bingham site, drew virtually no ire from the community.

Wal-Mart made some concessions: It would close at midnight, rather than staying open 24 hours, as originally planned. But in September, after nine months of wrangling, Wal-Mart — not an entity that usually forfeits such battles — scrapped its plans for the site following the school district's announcement that it would not sell to the corporate giant.

"Our objection was less about Wal-Mart than I think it appeared on the surface," says Tiffany Moore, president of the Armour Hills Homes Association, which opposed the Bingham plan. "But I think the takeaway is relatively straightforward: If Waldo neighborhoods remain engaged and informed and have strong leaders, we can ensure that the area will continue to be a great place to live, work, play."

Lewellen says he ended up neutral on the topic of Wal-Mart, but he wants to see Bingham developed. "We're pretty sensitive about the site because it abuts our property line at Lew's," he says. "We've sat here and watched an empty school deteriorate for 10 years, and we think it's holding Waldo back. I believe that once the neighborhood figures out how to develop that property, you'll see Wornall south of 75th Street really take off."

That stretch of Wornall, which KCUR 89.3 personality Walt Bodine once famously dubbed "the ugliest street in the world," is a gauntlet of automotive shops, fast-food chains, tattoo parlors and blue-collar bars. But lately, there's movement afoot there, too.

Local beer aficionado Steve Holle has cobbled together $1.7 million to turn the former Babyland & Kids' Room, at 310 West 79th Street (where that street meets Wornall, along the Trolley Track Trail), into a brewery, beer hall and beer garden called Kansas City Bier Co. It'll open later this year.

And hopes are high in the neighborhood that one of the streetcar-extension proposals under review will bring a new mode of transportation into the area, plus new businesses along its line. "That's the next big conversation," Moore says. "We're advocating strongly for the Main Street and Country Club extensions because those could eventually connect to Waldo."

Imagine that: A modern streetcar running alongside a pedestrian path that 70 years ago was a trolley track, connecting riders to Kansas City's most unlikely entertainment district, a full 70 blocks from downtown. To Botwin, the scenario is the best of both worlds. "I think a challenge for Waldo is to continue to see itself as a contemporary place," she says. "To keep thinking in a forward manner and not get caught up in the nostalgia that can grip older neighborhoods. A little bit of nostalgia is OK. But you've got to keep looking ahead."

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