(Editor’s note: Updated with reaction from the Downtown Council and City Manager Troy Schulte)
By Kevin Collison
The seven-year quest by civic leaders to bring the UMKC Conservatory to downtown Kansas City ended abruptly Tuesday when university officials issued a statement that rejects any downtown location.
Instead, Chancellor C. Mauli Agrawal said that UMKC will only consider sites either on the Volker Campus or within a 2.5 mile radius in the next round of considering proposals. Downtown is five miles away from the campus.
Agrawal cited resistance from the schools’ faculty in announcing the decision.
“This decision has been driven by extensive conversations with our Music, Dance and Theatre faculty, most of whom felt strongly that proximity to the Volker campus must be an essential element of the new facility,” Agrawal said in his statement.
“With that decision made, we can now move forward with a sharper focus to our planning and decision-making.”
The university’s announcement ends a huge civic endeavor that came achingly close to fruition before Gov. Eric Greitens killed state funding, derisively referring to the project as a “new building for dancers and art students.”
The Downtown Conservatory effort began in earnest in 2013 when Julia Irene Kauffman pledged $20 million to the effort. It had earlier been named by the Greater Kansas City Chamber of Commerce as one of its “Big 5 Ideas” in 2011.
A site at 17th and Broadway across from the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts was proposed to create a synergy between music students and the performance hall similar to the Juilliard School of Music and Lincoln Center in New York City,
Kauffman’s pledge launched a $48 million private fundraising effort to match state funds for what was then a $96 million project.
That goal was reached in early 2017, only to be sabotaged that summer when Greitens vetoed state funding.
Although the Missouri Legislature overwhelmingly had approved funding by veto-proof margins, University of Missouri officials did not ask for an override, saying other options would be pursued.
The project received another blow when Peter Witte, the former dean of the Conservatory, left for a new post as dean of the music conservatory at the University of the Pacific in Stockton, Calif. He had been a tireless advocate for the downtown project.
The effort to bring the facility downtown became further endangered at the beginning of this year when Kauffman withdrew her pledge. The site across from the Kauffman Center also was taken off the table.
But civic leaders, notably the Downtown Council, continued to push for a site downtown, suggesting Barney Allis Plaza as a potential location. The Plaza had been included as potential site for a UMKC Arts Campus in a study done in 2012.
In June, UMKC issued what it called a Request for Interest (RFI) for potential development ideas for the UMKC Conservatory. At least three downtown sites were pitched, including the Barney Allis Plaza proposal.
The new price tag for the 250,000 square-foot facility was listed at $100 million. Half the funding would be sought from private sources. The RFI also required a minimum of 300 parking spaces for the Conservatory.
UMKC opened its search to a large area of the urban core from downtown south as far as 63rd Street, including the Volker campus.
One proposal that also emerged during the RFI process was redeveloping the former Westport High School for the Conservatory site. That site is well within the 2.5 mile radius of the UMKC Volker Campus.
The backer of the Westport High School proposal, developer David Brain, told CityScene KC the Westport High School property has plenty of space for parking and is located on the transit shuttle between the UMKC Volker Campus and its Hospital Hill campus.
It’s also 3 1/2 blocks from the proposed 39th Street streetcar station.
“It’s kind of a hybrid,” Brain said at the time. “It’s not on campus but its close to campus.”
Platform Ventures, a real estate firm that’s currently proposing a major downtown redevelopment project, is teaming with KC Development Partners on a potential Conservatory project at Westport High.
In his letter announcing that downtown was no longer in the running, Agrawal said the university has set a Sept. 18 deadline for responses from developers within the targeted geographic area.
“We are committed to preserving, and building on, the proud history of leadership in the arts and the profound impact on the cultural life of Kansas City that our performing arts programs have created over many decades.” he stated.
“I strongly believe this is our best path toward that goal. Please join me in the excitement of coming one step closer to bringing this dream to fruition.”
While there is a bill that’s been introduced to the Missouri Legislature that would fund $50 million toward a Conservatory project, Agrawal’s statement did not address what, if any, private funds have been raised for the endeavor.
The Downtown Council released a statement expressing the organization’s disappointment in the UMKC decision. The organization also laid the ultimate blame for the collapse of the downtown effort on Greitens veto.
“Today’s decision marks the end of the journey to move the UMKC Conservatory of Music and Dance to downtown Kansas City,” the statement said.
“This vision of former Dean Peter Witte inspired dreams of locating the Conservatory – and its students, faculty and alumni – within steps of the world-class Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts…
“But in spite of years of collaboration, fundraising and lobbying, the Conservatory move to downtown was ultimately derailed by the errant stroke of a pen in Jefferson City.”
The Kansas City manager’s office also Tweeted the UMKC decision to reject downtown sites means it now will seek proposals for major repairs at Barney Allis Plaza.
“With the decision today regarding the @UMKCConslocation, @kcmo will now proceed to issue an RFQ/P for the reconstruction of the Barney Allis Plaza and Garage,” the Tweet stated.
“(The) Goal would be to replace all parking and improve the Plaza as community gathering place.”
Several proposals for revamping Barney Allis Plaza were recommended following a review by the Urban Land Institute earlier this year.
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