By Kevin Collison
Less than a month after a consultant urged its immediate closure, the problems at Barney Allis Plaza and its garage continue to worsen as city officials find themselves at loggerheads over its future.
At a City Council Finance Committee meeting Wednesday, members were told the former downtown civic centerpiece has gone dark at night, making it a “hotspot” for social problems.
Sean O’Byrne, executive director of the Downtown Community Improvement District, said the Plaza and surrounding sidewalks no longer have functioning lighting and as a result, has become a crime problem.
In a recent incident, members of the improvement district staff, known as Ambassadors, were chasing a man who had thrown a steel rod through the glass door of a downtown office building at 10th and Main, he said.
The man ran to the dark area of Barney Allis Plaza and when an Ambassador security vehicle came close, threw a rock at it.
“Luckily, the rock went through the back window of the driver’s side and he was uninjured,” O’Byrne said in a letter to the Committee.
“The individual then ran into the open garage and hid in the lower levels that were inaccessible to us because of the danger of falling concrete.”
To address the immediate problem, the Downtown Council, which manages the CID, wants the city to fix the lights at Barney Allis and its perimeter sidewalks, and have the lower two levels of the three-level underground garage sealed to prevent further trespassing.
But even that request went unresolved as Finance Committee members got caught up in another lengthy debate over how to address the short- and long-term future of Barney Allis Plaza which was built in 1955.
For more than a month now, the Committee has delayed a recommendation on a request to authorize $1 million to continue planning for a comprehensive solution that calls for rebuilding Barney Allis Plaza and its garage at a cost of $61.7 million.
That long-term solution calls for lowering the Plaza to street level and building a new, 400-space garage beneath it.
There also is a parallel proposal to build a $20 million, 400-space parking garage on what’s now a surface parking lot the city recently purchased at 12th and Broadway.
Funding for that 12th and Broadway garage plan however, has not been identified although there is potential for a joint project with Kansas City Southern. The railroad headquarters is next door to the site.
City consultants say the resulting, combined 800 spaces would be more than enough to replace what was originally a 970-space garage at Barney Allis.
The bottom floor of the garage however, has been closed for parking in recent years because of deterioration.
And in a report a month ago, a consultant hired by the city recommended the entire garage be closed immediately because of code violations including a non-working ventilation system and antiquated fire sprinklers.
A consultant hired by the city has estimated it would cost $40 million to repair the existing garage over the next 10 years or $30 million to demolish it.
But faced with the looming damage expected to impact the city budget from the Covid-19 economic meltdown, Finance Committee members were reluctant to think big about Barney Allis, at least for the foreseeable future.
Committee Chairwoman Kathryn Shields suggested the Council approve funding to continue planning for a comprehensive solution while spending a relatively small amount, estimated at $100,000, to keep the first level of the garage open until fall.
By then, she said, the city may know if the federal government approves stimulus money for infrastructure projects to help jumpstart the national economy. That could allow the city to build the more comprehensive project.
“We have a window here,” Shields said. “We could make minor safety improvements with Barney Allis and move forward with a design-build (comprehensive) project…to take advantage of federal dollars.”
An alternative concept suggested by Councilman Lee Barnes Jr. would spend about $2.5 million to make enough repairs to allow the first and second levels of the Barney Allis garage, about 600 spaces, to continue operating for three- to five years.
Barnes said that would address the immediate parking needs at the convention center, and provide time to fully prepare a plan to both rebuild Barney Allis Plaza and construct the proposed second garage at 12th and Broadway.
Committee members decided to postpone consideration until next week, partly to allow city staff to prepare more detailed information about the costs of the short-term solutions discussed for the Barney Allis garage.
“I do think we’re at a crossroads,” Shields said.
“Do we just put another band-aid on it or do we try to address what is the fact we have a significant parking structure that’s reached the end of its useful life.”
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