New Kansas City Riverfront Development Hopes To Follow Northland Trends

Aug 14, 2015

The south bank of the Missouri River in Kansas City can seem undeveloped, save for industrial ports and areas like Riverfront Park (shown here).
Credit Caroline Kull / KCUR News

Port KC, the organization in charge of riverfront development in Kansas City, has an ambitious plan for the south bank of the Missouri River. 

For Michael Collins, the group's president and C.E.O, the idea of another park on the river isn't enough.

"We want to see what we can do to push the needle or do better than other riverfront communities across the country," says Collins.

Though Collins says it's too early to talk specifics, the first stage of development will be multi-family housing and mixed-use retail.  Groundbreaking is slated for this fall.

There's a reason past riverfront efforts have been slow to take shape in Kansas City, and it's partly because the city's relationship with the river goes way back.

 

Kansas City used to be small — like other frontier towns around it. Historians believe that all changed when the Missouri Pacific and other railroads decided to make Kansas City a hub for their business.

Brad Wold, the Kansas City Historic Preservation Officer, says when the trains came, Kansas City exploded.

 

"[The railroad] ended up being the natural point to transfer goods from ship or wagon onto the railroad, and the river was the main way to do it."

 

Kansas City's growth was centered around the railroad, and the railroad needed to be close to the barges.  That meant the city's riverfront evolved as a place of business, not recreation.

 

What's more, Kansas City was built on a bluff, so the riverfront is actually several feet below the city itself.  You can still see that looking up from the West Bottoms.

 

"Even nowadays, if you're driving down the Broadway Bridge, you get a much better feel for how Kansas City is up on a hill," says Wolf.

This photo, taken in 1909, illustrates the industrial past of Kansas City's southern riverfront
Credit W. H. Jones, Kansas City, Mo / flickr

What made Kansas City so attractive to commerce is what makes it so difficult to establish a riverfront on the south bank today. Historically, the north bank wasn't as as commercially developed because of its proximity to the unpredictable river. Today, however, management of the Missouri River has made the riverfronts of the Northland attractive to residents from both sides of the "big muddy."

"It's just a really special amenity, the river," says Brian Nowotny, director of Platte County Parks and Recreation.

Nowotny says over half of the residents of Platte County visited English Landing Park in Parkville, Missouri, alone last year.  That's about 45,000 people — and only one of the Northland's riverfront parks.

"It really has a special place in people's hearts and minds. People are drawn to the river," he says.

That friendly relationship that Platte Countians have with the Missouri River is exactly what future development ams to recreate on the south bank. But in order to bring people to the river, developers have to get past one major obstacle: a lot of people see the Missouri River as dangerous.

A barge passes Platte Landing Park in Parkville, MO. Platte Landing is one of three Northland parks on the Missouri River.
Credit Caroline Kull / KCUR News

According to the Army Corps of Engineers, the average water level for the Missouri River in Kansas City is around 10 feet.  The water level varies widely with rainfall, and the current is swift for a river of its size 2.5 to 3.5 miles per hour.

"Well, it is dangerous," says Randy White, owner of a canoeing and kayaking business on the Missouri river called River Run Rentals. 

I met White at the boat launch at Riverfront Park on the south bank of the Missouri River. He says debris gets stuck on the river's many sandbars because of the changeable water levels, but that doesn't mean the river isn't enjoyable.

"There's a huge interest in the river.  People want to get out there, but they feel...like they can't.  I'll sum it up - you just have to respect (the river.") says White.

As much as White loves the river, he has a hard time getting people from Kansas City out on the water. Most of his clients are from other cities, some as far away as Seattle.

Looking out at the Missouri River from the boat landing at Riverfront Park, the river appears smooth and calm. Debris can be hidden below the surface, and the current is swift at 2.5 to 3.5 miles per hour.
Credit Caroline Kull / KCUR News

A push for interest in the riverfront isn't new to Kansas Citians. Berkley Riverfront Park opened in 1999, but its main draw is in large events, not daily visits.

Officials say riverfront attractions are drawing more people every year. The hope is that if developments like that of Port KC succeed, a similar trend might take off on the south bank.

This look at the Missouri River is part of KCUR's months-long examination of how geographic borders affect our daily lives in Kansas City. KCUR will go Beyond Our Bordersand spark a community conversation through social outreach and innovative journalism.

We will share the history of these lines, how the borders affect the current Kansas City experience and what’s being done to bridge or dissolve them.