Keystone Innovation District Seeks to Transform East 18th Street Corridor

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A preliminary rendering of the building proposed for the Keystone Innovation District at 18th and Troost. (Image from BNIM)

By Kevin Collison

Supporters of the Keystone Innovation District, a major civic initiative intended to help the metro compete in the global economy, are close to landing their first properties in the endeavor’s targeted area, the East Crossroads and 18th & Vine District.

Kevin McGinnis, chairman of the Keystone Community Corp., the nonprofit created to pursue the initiative, told a luncheon meeting of the Downtowners group last week the district would include several locations along the East 18th Street corridor.

“This isn’t one building, this will be a series of places and spaces across a neighborhood that we need to make connected and we need to make sure all have the innovation-entrepreneurial capacities to really move forward,” he said.

In a separate interview, McGinnis said Keystone has identified three existing buildings in the targeted area where it wants to begin operations and hopes to finalize a deal within 30 days. He declined to identify the properties.

CityScene KC previously has reported Keystone’s development partner, J.E. Dunn Capital Partners, also is in discussions with the Kansas City Area Transportation Authority to acquire an entire city block owned by the KCATA northeast of 18th and Troost.

The KCATA property being discussed for a proposed location of part of the proposed Keystone Innovation District is a one block site north of 18th Street between Forest and Troost.

KCATA officials have said the tentative plan calls for a development valued at $90 million- to $120 million that would be built in two phases.

During his presentation to the Downtowners, McGinnis stressed the Keystone Innovation District was not simply a development deal.

“It is about a place, but it’s not a real estate project,” he said.

The idea for the Keystone Innovation District began several years ago, he said, when key civic organizations led by the Civic Council of Greater Kansas City, became increasingly concerned about the region’s sluggish economic growth.

KC Rising, an initiative of the Civic Council, found that while Kansas City metro’s economy was growing, it was at half the rate of 30 communities identified as its peer group. A key finding was the area needed to improve its innovation and entrepreneurial sectors.

Among the contributors to the metro’s weaker performance were the fragmented nature of the bi-state metropolitan area; low corporate engagement in regional economic challenges; the lack of a top quality or R-1 research university, and the lack of skilled workers needed for the “knowledge economy.”

McGinnis was asked by the Civic Council to lead the Keystone Community Corp. last year. The former Sprint executive founded the Sprint Accelerator, a co-working and startup space, at 210 W. 19th Terr. in 2013.

The 16 Tech innovation district in Indianapolis is seen as similar to what is in mind for Kansas City. (Rendering from HR&A Advisors)

He visited several cities that have launched innovation districts to help bolster their entrepreneurial and research sectors. All were cooperative ventures that included governments, corporations, universities, entrepreneurs and risk capital.

The examples most similar to what Kansas City is seeking to achieve are the 16 Tech innovation district in Indianapolis and the Cortex Innovation Community in St. Louis.

The Civic Council also hired HR&A Advisors, a Raleigh, N.C. consulting firm, to conduct a feasibility study for an innovation district in the Kansas City area.

McGinnis said 12 locations were looked at around the metropolitan area before the East 18th Street corridor was chosen.

According to the HR&A study, the Keystone Innovation District should not only include space for business, research and entrepreneurial activities, but be a catalyst for neighborhood redevelopment.

Sites of interest along the East 18th Street corridor identified in the HR&A Advisors feasibility study. (Image from HR&A Advisors)

“There is a shared vision that the innovation district will contain a wide array of spaces and facilities, including teaching and learning space accessible to area colleges and universities; multifamily residential buildings, including affordable housing; retail offerings; and office space,” according to the report.

“The innovation district will create a new cluster of activity to further support the attractions and existing businesses of the 18th & Vine district.

“Mixed-use development within the innovation district will help build a vibrant new corridor to further activate Downtown Kansas City, while new affordable housing options will meet the needs of existing residents.”

The HR&A report also encouraged the Keystone District to take advantage of existing buildings in the 18th Street corridor.

“The adaptive re-use and rehabilitation of existing buildings along 18th Street will be important to preserve and enhance the area’s unique character,” it stated.

McGinnis said the overarching theme of the Keystone Innovation District will be “design.” That emphasis was in response to the Kansas City metro having one of the top five concentrations of architecture and engineering employment in the country, according to the HR&A report.

The Keystone initiative is still in its early stages, McGinnis emphasized, and is expected to be at least a 10-year effort.

A timeline shown to the Downtowners group indicated the district’s initial “placemaking” effort going through 2021. Creating a “permanent presence” for the district is at least three years out.

As for the name Keystone, McGinnis said it was in honor of the Keystone Bridge Co., the entity that built the Hannibal Bridge in 1869, the first permanent crossing of the Missouri River.

Its construction catapulted Kansas City’s rise from frontier village to becoming one of the nation’s premier cities in the late 19th Century.

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