ULI Panel Offers Bold Concepts to Energize Barney Allis Plaza

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Barney Allis Plaza was described during a ULI panel discussion as an unwelcoming place.

By Kevin Collison

Barney Allis Plaza, a dreary downtown centerpiece, could be lowered to street level and transformed into a large event lawn flanked by garden and “adventure” playground areas, all atop a new garage, in a $63 million redevelopment concept suggested last week.

The proposal endorsed by an local Urban Land Institute panel assembled was one of four options suggested and would require much additional study. But it comes when major repairs are looming for the 980-space underground garage beneath the Plaza.

“We felt strongly if we’re making a significant investment, we want to do it for the long-term rather than kick it down the road,” said Audrey Navarro of Clemons Real Estate, co-chair of the ULI panel.

In laying out the case for revamping Barney Allis Plaza, Craig Scranton of BNIM, the other co-chair, described it currently as an unwelcoming space, sun-scorched in summer and icy wind-swept during the winter.

The Plaza covers an entire city block between Municipal Auditorium, Bartle Hall, the Downtown Marriott and other hotels.

“People want to see more activity which is not a surprise because there’s not much today,” Scranton said. “It’s not a pleasant place.”

(North at top) The preferred redevelopment option suggested by the ULI panel would create a large event lawn with a garden in the northeast corner and adventure play area in the northwest corner atop a new garage. (Image by ULI panel)

The Plaza, which was named after Barney Allis, the late owner and operator of the historic Muehlebach Hotel, was built along with the garage in 1955 to serve Municipal Auditorium. It was upgraded in 1985 when among other improvements, a long fountain was built facing  12th Street.

The ULI panel that looked at options for improving the space and addressing the garage problem was assembled at the invitation of the Downtown Council.

The group took two days to prepare its concepts, a process that included 50 interviews, briefing documents prepared by the Kansas City Design Center and a full day of team discussion.

The four options were:

–Option One, a short-term plan that calls for repairing the garage to address immediate problems, and making limited improvements to the Plaza to increase shade and provide better visibility.

It would allow more programming, including food trucks, add landscaping, add more public art, and expand the lawn and reduce the paved surface. It also calls for cutting a center opening in the 12th Street fountain to improve accessibility. Estimated cost: $17 million.

The pros were described as lowest cost, improved current conditions and provided additional time to evaluate future needs. Its cons were the garage still would need to be replaced in 15 years, it didn’t solve most design issues and it would remain a poor representation of Kansas City to visitors.

–Option Two calls for lowering the Plaza to street level on all sides to improve accessibility; replacing the 980-space garage for the next “100 years;” creating a large lawn amphitheater facing a stage pavilion on the south side; adding two small food and beverage retail facilities on the north side;

Adding a garden space in the northeast corner, and building an adventure play area in the northwest corner for children attending the Crossroads Academy. Estimated cost: $63 million. Pros were it would add all the features people would desire to the Plaza and build a new garage. Cons, it was the most expensive option.

–Option Three calls for building a new, nine-level garage on the approximately south one-third of the Plaza with seven levels above ground and two below. It also would lower the Plaza to street level on all sides, expand the lawn, and include the garden and play area elements of Option Two. Estimated cost: $53 million.

It’s pros were the lower cost of replacing the garage, lowering the grade and having fewer design limitations on what could be located on the Plaza. Its cons were the garage would block the view of historic Municipal Auditorium, it would close tunnels now used by the hotels and provide a smaller park.

(North at top) The least expensive option would expand green space, add landscaping and repair the underground garage.

–Option Four calls for a new underground garage, a new Plaza at street grade with expanded green space and the construction of two, five-story residential buildings on the east and west sides of the Plaza with 300 “micro-apartments.” Estimated cost: $63 million.

Pros were the apartment projects would generate additional revenues for the Plaza and garage redevelopment and the residents would add more activity during non-peak hours. The cons included the apartment buildings obstructing views, a smaller park footprint and questions about whether the Plaza was public or private space.

In addition to the redesign options, ULI panelist Triveece Penelton, a city planner with Vireo, suggested the city-owned space be rebranded as “The Yard at Barney Allis” and a conservancy be established to manage it that could include the Downtown Council, Sporting KC, VisitKC and nearby hotels.

She suggested a private entity be hired to coordinate activities at the Plaza that would include a single point of contact and engage in ongoing fundraising.

As for how the potential improvements could be paid for, ULI panelist Michael Collins, the former PortKC chief executive who is now at J.E. Dunn Construction, said any scenario would require increases in the current parking fees at the garage which currently are $70 for monthly parking and $8 for events.

Option One would bump up monthly fees to $90 and events to $15. It would still leave a $200,000 annual shortfall to cover the redevelopment cost.

Options Two, Three and Four would increase the monthly charge to $150 and events to $25. Even with the increase however, all three options would have annual revenue shortfalls ranging from $1.1 million to $3.8 million.

Collins suggested extending a current tax-increment financing district in place to help cover the additional cost.

The Downtown Council plans to establish a steering committee to review the ULI panel’s recommendations. Its’ co-chairs are Lynn Carlton of HOK and Cynthia Savage of the Downtown Marriott.

The other ULI panelists were Rob Gray of Hoerr Schaudt Landscape Architects; Jill McCarthy of the Kansas City Area Development Council; Kelley Gipple of Structural Engineering Associates;

Kathryn Jones of Highline Partners; Jacob Littrel of Hufft Projects, and Gib Kerr of Cushman Wakefield.

Barney Allis Plaza opened in 1955, a major improvement project was completed in 1985.

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