Two decades after work began on one of this area's most ambitious public improvement plans, Kansas City is finally on the verge of wrapping up the Brush Creek flood control and beautification project.
You thought it was finished years ago?
Mostly. But important details remained, and it is about time they are being addressed, said Carol Grimaldi of Brush Creek Community Partners, the nonprofit group that has pushed for completion of the project since it petered out in the mid-1990s. Still, she's not complaining.
"It's getting done," she said. "I just wish it had been done faster."
The bulk of the work alongside and to the east of the Country Club Plaza was completed in 1995 at a cost of $82 million.
Then, said Councilman Ed Ford, "we ran out of money."
Chief among the unfinished work were trail connections bridging the city's historic racial divide at Troost Avenue.
Besides flood control, knitting together the city's east and west sides was one of the oft-cited goals when the project came together.
Now it's happening. Thanks to $3 million in federal stimulus funds, The City Council last week approved a construction contract to build that link under the Troost Bridge.
Two other trail gaps east of Troost were finished this year. When this last trail project is finished early next summer, a continuous path will meander along Brush Creek's north bank for more than four miles, from Elmwood Avenue on the east to the far end of the Plaza.
But that's not all.
Two other important pieces of the project could be finished in the next few years if funding comes through:
- Along the south bank of the creek, between the Paseo and Prospect Avenue in an area known as the Bruce Watkins Reach, plans are to build playing fields and other attractions such as a botanical garden in Martin Luther King Jr. Park.
That could remedy another one of the project's chief failings: having a destination that would draw more people to the underused trails and parkland along the creek.
- Plans also are being laid upstream in the so-called Bi-State Reach to rip up the remaining Pendergast-era concrete channel west of the Plaza and transform the creek into a more natural-looking stream.
None of these final pieces has gotten near the attention of the initial project, but in approving the Troost trail contract last week, Councilman Russ Johnson said a significant milestone was approaching.
The project begun in 1990 is finally coming to a close, he said.
The 1977 Plaza flood was the impetus for all of it. In one 24-hour period that September, a foot of rain pounded the Kansas City area. Brush Creek usually flows at a trickle from its headwaters in Johnson County through Kansas City to its mouth at the Blue River. That night it became a deadly torrent.
The flood killed 25 people and caused $232 million damage in today's dollars.
"More than 80 percent of that was incurred by shops in the Country Club Plaza," according to the Army Corps of Engineers.
The Brush Creek project was always first and foremost about flood control, but city officials convinced the corps in the 1980s that the deeper and wider channel that the project envisioned should be more than a big ditch.
They saw the project as an opportunity to build what Terry Dopson, former director of the Kansas City Parks and Recreation Department, once described as "one of the great linear urban parks in the country."
The inspiration was the famous San Antonio River Walk, one of the most popular tourist destinations in Texas.
But while handsome and impressive from an engineering standpoint, the first phase of the Kansas City project (between the Plaza and Troost) never became the tourist draw that Dopson, then-Mayor Emanuel Cleaver and park board commissioners had hoped for.
For one thing, the banks were too steep to allow easy connections between the Plaza and walks along the waterway. Farther east, where the slope was gentler, there was little commercial development.
A more troubling problem was the water itself. After rains, Brush Creek had long been an open sewer because of overflows from the city's combined sanitary and storm sewer system. The project didn't change that, and only now is Kansas City being forced to tackle the challenge citywide at a cost of billions of dollars.
Back then, designers had hoped to cope with odor and water quality with aerators and other technical fixes. But it wasn't enough to make the water safe.
Fountains were turned off. Plans for fishing and boat rentals were scrapped.
Today, signs still advise people to steer clear of contact with the water for 72 hours after a rain.
Despite suffering that public relations blow -- critics called the stream "Flush Creek" -- the project's chief backers still hoped it would be a major attraction knitting together the community.
Architect Rafael Garcia's design called for an amphitheater at the foot of the great lawn beneath the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art. Seven lighted towers were to be spaced every few blocks along the channel east of the Plaza. Garcia also envisioned tree-lined "fingers" that would link Brush Creek parkland with parks in the adjacent neighborhoods, drawing people to the creek's trails.
Garcia's vision was to bring together people from both sides of Troost, rich and poor, black and white. He dubbed it the Brush Creek Cultural Corridor.
But construction costs soared. The flood-control elements of the project were finished, but the beautification work suffered.
Instead of concrete steps for seating, the amphitheater south of the Nelson was downsized to a grass bowl.
The towers were deemed too expensive. As early as 1994, the Parks Department estimated that the landscaping east of Troost was underfunded by $25 million.
And landscaping was secondary to flood control. Another deadly flood in 1998 killed a dozen people areawide, including seven who were swept to their deaths when Brush Creek topped the Prospect Avenue Bridge.
Rebuilding the bridge, channel work and park improvements cost $11 million. At the same time, City Hall was grappling with other big-ticket projects, such as renovating Liberty Memorial, and turned its attention to reviving downtown.
The upshot was that the aesthetics and connectivity aspects of the Brush Creek project became less of a priority.
"For a while there, there was a loss of a sense of urgency," Grimaldi said.
Garcia is among those who credit Grimaldi for pursuing the project's original vision, albeit scaled down.
That vision now jibes with the Corps of Engineers' new philosophy of finding more natural ways to control floods.
The current proposals at the Bruce Watkins and Bi-State reaches call for "holistic, creative solutions" that would also improve water quality.
It is thought that by planting native grasses, widening the channel and re-creating the creek's original curvature west of the Plaza, flood surges can be reduced, said Lynda Hoffman, the city's waterways manager.
For the Bi-State Reach, that would mean replacing two bridges and rebuilding one between Roanoke Parkway and the state line. City officials said federal dollars might cover 65 to 75 percent of the $8 million cost of that project, which would also extend the Brush Creek trail another mile or so.
The city does not have a cost estimate for the Bruce Watkins project east of the Paseo, largely because no decision has been made on the flood control and recreational elements it will entail.
But the cost is much less than the other one, Hoffman said.
The timing of both projects depends on how Congress deals with the federal budget. However, the trail under the Troost Bridge is locked in.
Twenty years ago, Garcia dreamed of a time when people could walk or bike underneath Troost and not even realize they had crossed what for generations had been a real and symbolic line dividing the community.
It's too bad it's taken so long, he said, "but I'm optimistic."
Or as Ford said, "Better late than never."