When you ask people what their favorite street in Kansas City is, you often get Ward Parkway (recognized as one of the greatest streets in the world), Main Street, Grand Boulevard, Broadway, Westport Road or Delaware Street. My favorite is Gillham Road. As one of the first stretches in Kansas City’s vaunted parks and boulevards system, Gillham is both – a verdant, windy way route from the east side of downtown to many points south, but also a linked system of parks, most notably through the Hyde Park area. The stretch from Armour Boulevard to Cleaver II Boulevard is especially notable.
What is also notable is the amount of development along Gillham. While it is not quite as far east as Troost, I find development along Gillham a signifier moving development eastward in Kansas City – which is a welcome first step. And this development includes both private and public sector investment, which is also a good sign. Centric Projects has been lucky enough to be right in the middle of it. From Gillham’s start at the foot of Hospital Hill, to its end at Volker Boulevard, Centric has worked on no less than seven significant projects in the last few years. So here it is, our “tour” of Gillham Road:
On July 17, 1981, shortly after the opening of the gleaming new Hyatt Regency Hotel in Crown Center, a suspended walkway collapsed during a Friday evening “Tea Dance,” killing 114 and injuring 216. It was the worst structural collapse in United States history until September 11, 2001. A group of survivors and their families formed the “Skywalk Memorial Foundation,” a group intent on developing a memorial to the victims and first responders of that deadly evening. Children’s Mercy Hospital and the Kansas City Parks and Recreation department stepped up to donate the land and infrastructure, and several private donors gave their time, talent, and treasure to the effort. In late 2015, the memorial opened to the public. A quiet place of introspection overlooking the hotel (now a Sheraton flag), wild grasses and flowers surround a circular series of benches centered of a sculpture entitled “Sending Love” by local artist Rita Blitt.
Ronald McDonald House has been serving the families of critically ill children in Kansas City since 1981. In 1988 they opened the Cherry Street House on Hospital Hill, and followed in 2005 with the Longfellow House (which both Centric partners Courtney Kounkel and Richard Wetzel worked on at previous firms), and in 2015 with the Wiley House. With massing taken from neighboring structures and a style reminiscent of a homey New England cottage, the Wiley House provides comfort to 20 families per night.
UC-B Properties and its owners Lance Carlton and John Hoffman have been active in Kansas City’s neighborhoods since the early 2000s. Both partners believe that a compact, walkable community and contemporary architecture are what will draw people back to the urban core. So they recently developed 29 Gillham and Gillham Park Row, both 25-unit multi-family projects that not only fit into their context, but help fill the void left by crumbling infrastructure and dilapidated housing.
MAC Properties has long been a supporter of midtown Kansas City, redeveloping nearly 1,000 units of apartments in beautiful historic buildings along Armour Boulevard from Broadway to Troost. But the building at 301 East Armour is their first foray in Kansas City in redeveloping a mid-century building. Originally built for International Business Machines (IBM) in the 1960s, by 2013 the building had fallen into disrepair and was home to a number of small offices and non-profits. Reimagined as “The International” (get it?) it is now 56 luxury apartments with a more contemporary look than its neighbors, while also providing much-needed services on the ground floors.
Westport Middle School was the pride of the Kansas City Missouri School District when it opened in 1923. It was considered one of the finest schools in Kansas City and among the best in the county. But, like many urban schools, it suffered from a mass exodus of families from the urban core in the 1960s, and even after a large renovation and addition project in 1992, it was finally shuttered in 2010. In 2015, Sustainable Development Partners purchased the property from the school district (with plans to purchase Westport High School as well) to create ‘Westport Commons,’ an innovative co-working environment for the gig economy, start-ups and non-profits. It was recently featured in the New York Times as an example of how cities are reclaiming their lost assets.
And finally, where the grand road ends at Volker Boulevard, is the northern entry to Kansas City’s university – the University of Missouri – Kansas City. And towering over that entrance is the James C. Olsen Performing Arts Center, which houses the university’s Conservatory of Music and Dance and theater department. Also housed at the Olsen PAC is one of the crown jewels of Kansas City’s burgeoning arts scene – the Kansas City Repertory Theatre (or, more simply, KC Rep). As a tenant of the university, KC Rep wanted to cement its presence on the campus with a renovation of the Olsen PAC’s venerated Spencer Theatre, which had not undergone any major renovation since its opening in 1979. With a grand new entrance hall, expanded restrooms, a donor room and walkway, and a wholly renovated theater house (including new acoustics, lighting, seating and flooring), the new Spencer Theatre opened in 2015 for its 35th season of A Christmas Carol – a Kansas City holiday tradition.
So there you have it, a trip down Gillham Road. These projects would never have happened without the tenacity of several institutions and private developers, but more importantly, individuals who saw the promise of Gillham not just as an east side option of getting from downtown to the Plaza, but as a destination unto itself. Eastward ho!