This summer, Kansas City initiated a study to evaluate the lowering of Route 9 to street grade between Interstate 70 and the Heart of America Bridge where it separates the River Market and Columbus Park neighborhoods. While the study is focused on engineering feasibility, the larger purpose of the project is to better connect the adjacent neighborhoods, address the negative impacts of highway construction, and design a transportation network that works better for all of the different users, transportation modes, and destinations in the area.
The idea of lowering Route 9 is not new. Formal recommendations date back to at least 2005, where the Kansas City Downtown Corridor Strategy recommended the removal of the Route 9 embankment. This recommendation for removal came less than twenty years after the latest phase of the Route 9 highway expansion was complete in the late 1980s.
Kansas City Downtown Corridor Strategy, Riverfront Recommendations, page 35:
In the long-term, the removal of the Route 9 embankment will allow for an on-grade boulevard that acts as a seam, rather than a wall between the River Market and Columbus Park. Following the grade of the current ramps from the Heart of America Bridge and then climbing again across I-70, the new roadway will maintain the city street character of Oak Street in downtown Kansas City and Burlington Street in North Kansas City. In keeping with the Kansas City legacy, the new boulevard will create a gracious gateway to the downtown and provide a setting for retail and mid-rise development along its edge.
More recently, the concept of lowering Route 9 was included in the Beyond the Loop study that explored the future of the north loop of I-70 and the realignment and reconstruction of the Buck O’Neil Bridge. The study provided a comprehensive assessment of the need, cost, and value of the existing highway infrastructure in the downtown area. Specifically, the study analyzed the traffic patterns on many highway segments to understand how they were working, what parts of the highway infrastructure were causing problems, and whether there were alternatives that could meet the existing and future needs of Downtown neighborhoods and the wider region.
One of the key high-level takeaways from this study was that the realignment and reconstruction of the Buck O’Neil bridge to directly connect to I-35 had major benefits to traffic flow in the downtown area, and opened up incredible opportunities to rethink the role of highways downtown. The reconfiguration or removal of the north loop of I-70, the returning of Route 9 to street grade, and the reconnecting of Independence Avenue between Columbus Park and the River Market were all shown to be feasible from a traffic perspective. The study illustrated how some of these future design alternatives not only addressed long-term traffic operations and maintenance issues, but also had the potential to return hundreds of acres of unused highway right of way to active, productive uses that could reconnect neighborhoods and add immense value to the City.
While the prospect of replacing highway traffic with more vibrant neighborhoods is appealing, there are concerns from some Columbus Park residents that changes to Route 9 could make things worse. Will an at-grade Route 9 dump traffic from across the region into the neighborhood? Will it be less safe to walk across an at-grade street to get to the River Market? Will road changes or new development affect the character of the neighborhood? Mention of at-grade highways makes some think of Highway 71 – notorious for neighborhood destruction, political shenanigans, and dangerous intersections. If those are truly the outcomes from lowering Route 9, perhaps it should be left alone. While history shows residents are right to be cautious whenever changes to highways are being considered, these concerns remain speculative for now. However, they do provide a useful filter through which to evaluate the merit of any potential changes.
As the current engineering study gets underway, the time is right to look at how Route 9 ended up where it is today, and how its construction has impacted the surrounding neighborhoods. This can help us understand what damage has already been done, and how future design decisions can begin to repair the mistakes of the past.
Before the Highways
Known as the North End for most of its history, the Columbus Park neighborhood prides itself on its unique character and colorful past. Today that history is associated with the small enclave of blocks surrounded by Route 9, Interstate 70, and Interstate 35. However, prior to the construction of highways in the 1950s, the area was indistinguishable from surrounding neighborhoods known today as the River Market, Paseo West and the northeast parts of the Downtown Loop.
In this aerial photograph from 1955, you can see that today’s Columbus Park, River Market, and Paseo West function as a single, coherent neighborhood without any natural or infrastructure barriers.
In the view below looking east from the City Market, Columbus Park and the River Market are closely connected and seamlessly blended. The photo also shows that the pre-highway development patterns of the neighborhoods were very similar. Columbus Park was not an almost exclusively residential area like it is today.
What is now Columbus Park can be seen at the top of the picture below with a vibrant Independence Avenue separating it from today’s Paseo West neighborhood in the foreground. The area was characterized by close connections, a wide variety of uses, and a dense concentration of residents, services, and businesses. About 20 of the approximately 50 blocks shown in this photo were demolished for highways within five years of this photo.
Another notable feature of Columbus Park before the construction of highways is how much denser the neighborhood was compared to today. A full range of businesses, services, and entertainment were located in the neighborhood. Production facilities provided jobs for local residents. Three to four story apartment buildings were common and provided the concentration of residents needed to support the local businesses, schools, and other institutions. Streetcars on 5th Street and Independence Avenue connected the area to Downtown and other parts of the City. The photos below show the scale and intensity of uses on Independence Avenue through Columbus Park in the 1940s, as planning for the highway system was just getting underway.
Prior to highway construction in the 1950s the ASB Bridge (opened in 1911) returned to grade at 3rd Street, directing traffic onto Locust, which functioned as a normal City street.
1947 Master Plan
Following World War II cities across the United States, including Kansas City, embarked on massive programs of slum clearance, highway construction, public housing, and urban renewal. The consequences of these planning decisions still reverberate today, but few neighborhoods were impacted as severely as Columbus Park. As early as 1947, plans for a highway loop that would encircle the Downtown area were already in place. The 1947 Master Plan for Kansas City, one of Kansas City’s first comprehensive plans, illustrates some of this early thinking, including features like a highway tunnel under Broadway.
The 1947 Master Plan shows a detailed plan for the riverfront area, including designs for what would become the Paseo Bridge. At the time, it was expected that the new river crossing would tie to directly to what is now Route 9, with highways and ramps crossing the heart of Columbus Park. If these early plans had been built, even less of Columbus Park would remain today.
By 1951, the alignment of what would become I-29/I-35 had settled on its final position, swinging east of Lydia Ave and around Independence Avenue.
Highway Construction Begins
The Interstate Highway Act was passed in 1956 and by 1957 highway construction in Downtown Kansas City was well underway. This photo below from 1957 shows land cleared for the construction of I-70, severing Downtown from the River Market.
A few months later, this 1957 aerial photo shows progress on highway construction around Columbus Park including I-70, I-29/I-35, and ramps at Route 9 and Troost Avenue. Independence Avenue, an important link to Downtown since the mid-1800s, was cut off at Route 9, with traffic directed onto Holmes Street.
By 1960, construction was also underway on the East Loop. While there is demolition everywhere, at this time many of the uses on Independence Avenue in Columbus Park remained intact.
This 1961 photo shows how construction of I-70 and all of its interchanges destroyed dozens of blocks east of Downtown, a wound from which the east Loop and Paseo West neighborhoods never fully recovered.
By 1965, most of the major highways and interchanges were in place. Many of the buildings along Independence Avenue and Cherry Street survived the first round of highway construction but they were no longer located along a key urban artery. They were separated from Downtown, the River Market, and other parts of the City and relegated to the stub ends of streets that now primarily served a small residential area. To compound the challenges, these urban corridors were no longer in the heart of active urban neighborhoods. They were directly adjacent to all of the noise, traffic, pollution, and isolation that highways bring, while getting none of the benefits of the traffic the highways carried. Faced with these conditions, these areas began to decline, following a pattern of blight and demolition for highway-adjacent areas across the City and the country.
Heart of America Bridge
Thirty years after highways first tore through Columbus Park, the construction of the new Heart of America Bridge in 1987 brought with it a new round of highway expansion. With that expansion came additional taking of land and destruction of the neighborhood. In addition to providing a new and expanded Missouri River crossing, this new highway work was intended to address several lingering issues from the original highway construction in the 1950s.
First, the construction of the Route 9 embankments and highway ramps disconnected Independence Avenue from Downtown with no clear detour. The result was that all the traffic from eastern parts of Kansas City funneled into the neighborhood on narrow Holmes Street, which was never designed to function in that way. Second, while the new Heart of America Bridge and Route 9 / I-70 interchange were designed to function like highways, the ASB Bridge landing at 3rd Street was still functioning as a typical at-grade City intersection.
To fix these problems, Route 9 was elevated along its entire length from the Heart of America Bridge to I-70. The highway was moved closer to Columbus Park and embankments were replaced with a tall vertical wall. Independence Avenue was connected to a reconstructed Cherry Street that carried traffic around the edge of the surviving neighborhood. In the process, the final remains of the urban corridor on Independence Avenue and several additional buildings on Cherry Street that had held on since the 1950s were demolished.
The impact from decades of highway construction on Columbus Park is so severe that it is difficult for even long-time residents to conceptualize what has been lost. Today, Columbus Park is surrounded by highways with ramps and interchanges so large they outsize what remains of the neighborhood.
There are literal walls between Columbus Park and surrounding neighborhoods, creating physical and psychological barriers that separate residents from the amenities and opportunities that are geographically nearby and that should be more accessible.
The portions of the neighborhood lost directly to highway construction are nearly as large as the areas that remain intact. Below the highway footprints are overlaid on a 1925 atlas showing the pre-highway neighborhood.
But even the areas that remain have been deeply scarred. From The historic Karnes school to the beloved Jennie’s restaurant, brewers and barbershops, ice cream parlors and cabarets, even auto service and tire shops – nothing could endure in the environment the highways created. In the areas adjacent to highways in Columbus Park, almost nothing pre-highway remains. Vacant lots, vacant buildings, fenced yards, and looming walls are the substitute.
The presence of the highways in the neighborhood has a real daily impact on quality of life in the neighborhood. Unlit underpasses at 3rd Street, 5th Street, and Charlotte Street are the only connections between Columbus Park, River Market, and downtown. Because they have no lighting, easy hiding places, and force pedestrians through these choke points, the underpasses are frequent locations for robberies and assaults.
Troost Avenue has been transformed into an actual highway ramp, while Cherry Street has become a frontage road. Missing sidewalks and crosswalks, these streets suffer from constant speeding, collisions, and ignored stop signs.
Columbus Square also suffers from safety issues. Large areas of the park are bordered not by active uses and attentive residents but by highway embankments. The highway environment around the park and its isolation from Downtown and the River Market limits the number of potential park users. With lower use and fewer watchful eyes, vagrants, drug dealers, and other negative activities fill the gap.
The impacts of decades of highway isolation can be seen in demographic data as well. The US Census 5-Year American Community Survey reports median home values are about $80,000 lower in Columbus Park than they are across Route 9 in the River Market, and about $40,000 lower than the Central Business District. Median household incomes are $40,000 and $25,000 lower than the River Market and Central Business District respectively. The concentration of highway traffic around the neighborhood has measurable impacts on air quality, resident health, and noise. Almost all of the neighborhood challenges that are brought by residents to the Columbus Park Community Council on a regular basis are driven and exacerbated by highway impacts: safety, traffic, use of public spaces, maintenance of vacant lots and buildings, and a desire for more neighborhood amenities.
A Rare Opportunity
In the context of the historical and ongoing damage highways have caused Columbus Park, the current study of Route 9 represents an opportunity that has not been seen since the first highways were constructed in the 1950s. Finally, there is the real possibility that some of the damage from highway construction can be undone, and some of the neighborhood fabric that has been lost might be restored. For the first time in six decades, there is a chance to replace highway ramps and barrier walls with new neighbors and long-desired amenities. There is a chance to transform Columbus Park’s front door from a dark and dangerous underpass to a welcoming gateway that reflects the spirit of its residents. There is potential to improve connectivity between the neighborhoods, simultaneously fixing many chronic neighborhood concerns while making the destinations in surrounding neighborhoods more accessible to Columbus Park residents. If in the future the decommissioning of I-70 moves forward, these opportunities are multiplied many times over.
In the near term, there are important City projects and initiatives that Columbus Park is poised to benefit from, if Route 9 can be re-imagined through the neighborhood. About five city blocks of vacant right-of-way and loop ramps separate Columbus Park from the River Market. Even minor modifications to the configuration of these ramps could position large parcels of land for redevelopment with more active and productive uses that benefit Columbus Park and reduce the isolation of the neighborhood.
Since the building demolitions along Independence Avenue in the 1980s, most of the north street frontage has been occupied by parking lots and resident yards. On the south side of the street, however, many of the original parcels are still intact. These are parcels that the City could work to redevelop today, with a mix of uses and services that improve the livability of the neighborhood. Having a reconnected Independence Avenue that links this potential development to the River Market and the rest of downtown increases the viability and marketability of these properties for uses that can benefit the neighborhood.
Kansas City is in the middle of implementing a $30 million Choice Neighborhoods grant to redevelop affordable, mixed neighborhoods in the Paseo Gateway area around Independence Avenue and Paseo Boulevard. This work includes new housing construction, historic building renovations, the deployment of a wide range of neighborhood and community support services, and the total reconstruction of the Paseo/Independence intersection as a gateway that is safer and more inviting for all users and modes of transportation. The City’s work in this area also includes the redevelopment of the Chouteau Courts site directly adjacent to Columbus Park. The reconnection of Independence Avenue and the redevelopment of the vacant frontage along the street has great potential to both connect the City’s Paseo Gateway investments to Downtown, and to connect Columbus Park residents to new amenities within the neighborhood and in both directions on Independence Avenue.
The reconnecting of Independence Avenue also has important implications for how Columbus Park residents access other parts of the City. Today, KCATA’s heavily used 24 route travels along Independence Avenue through Columbus Park. However, without changes to Independence Avenue Columbus Park is likely to see reduced bus service in the future despite its many transit-dependent residents. Current plans anticipate that a future Independence Avenue MAX route would turn off of Independence Avenue in the Paseo West neighborhood to serve the high concentration of employment, institutions and services there, before reaching the new transit center at 12th and Charlotte. If these plans move forward Columbus Park may be left with a local bus route that is less frequent than the service provided today. Part of the motivation for the routing of a future MAX route is the very low densities (and thus potential riders) that would be served in Columbus Park. Another factor is the circuitous routing that would require a Columbus Park serving route to circulate north to third street before heading south again to the new transit center. The reconnecting of Independence Avenue and the redevelopment of areas along Independence Avenue and Locust/Cherry strengthen the case for high quality transit service in the neighborhood.
Will Changes Make Things Worse?
For the past 80 years, every change that has been made to the roads and highways around Columbus Park has progressively increased the damage and destruction to the neighborhood, so resident wariness of any future changes is warranted. Many of the concerns focus on the negative impacts the highways already bring to the neighborhood – traffic, noise, pollution, safety – and whether changes will make these conditions even worse than they are today. Other concerns focus on the new environment – the density and character of development and public spaces – that might be facilitated by changes to the highway configuration.
The development concerns seem to be solvable through community planning and City policy. As long as the City works closely and collaboratively with adjacent neighborhoods, new development can respond to a shared vision for future connections and community in the area that strengthens all the highway-adjacent neighborhoods. In this context the best outcomes of the current study are options that maximize the potential for community supported improvements. But no matter what vision for future development is preferred, maintaining the status quo ensures it cannot be achieved, and that the harms of the existing highways will persist.
The traffic questions require more technical analysis. If highways through neighborhoods are bad, then at first blush at-grade highways surely seem worse, bringing the danger, noise, and pollution of the highway closer to residents and creating new conflicts with pedestrians, cyclists, and local traffic. But while Route 9 through Columbus Park is built like an interstate highway, the number of cars that use that infrastructure every day is more comparable to a medium-sized city street than a highway. We can use MoDOT’s own counts for average annual daily traffic to better understand what it might mean for Route 9 traffic to interact with the street grid Downtown. While average daily traffic is by no means the entirety of traffic analysis to consider for future changes, it does help us understand the relative magnitude of potential impacts.
MoDOT’s own traffic counts estimate that fewer than 19,000 cars per day use Route 9 between the HOA Bridge and I-70. For comparison, about 108,000 cars are using I-29/I-35 every day. Highway 71, our at-grade highway reference point, has more than four times the traffic of Route 9 with around 86,000 cars per day. Local city streets like Main Street, Westport Road, 63rd Street, and State Line Road all carry more traffic than Route 9. Any suggestion that these City streets and the neighborhoods adjacent to them would be better off with grade-separated highways and ramps would be met with torches and pitchforks by residents, but fear of change leaves Route 9 with strong defenders.
Not only is the traffic on Route 9 lower today than many City streets, but it is likely to decrease in the future with the construction of the new Buck O’Neil bridge. The Beyond the Loop study modeled the traffic impacts of a new direct connection between US 169-and I-35. As a result of this and other proposed changes in the downtown highway network, traffic was estimated to decrease on Route 9 by at least 25%. That puts average daily traffic around 12,000 cars per day, which is less traffic than MoDOT estimates on two lane streets like 5th Street in the River Market and 31st Street.
Across the Missouri River, North Kansas City is already planning a future where Burlington is an active urban street rather than a highway. Federal funding has already been secured for improvements to Burlington that will build new pedestrian and bicycle facilities, improve street crossings, and slow traffic. As regional traffic volumes decrease, North Kansas City is focused on making Burlington a local gateway and urban boulevard, including new mixed-use development of adjacent parcels and potential reduction of existing travel lanes. A reconfiguration of Route 9 in Columbus Park can extend this urban boulevard and provide a more comfortable and inviting link between North Kansas City and downtown neighborhoods.
The negative impacts of highways in Columbus Park are omnipresent and impossible to ignore. For the first time since the highways were built, there is an opportunity to reverse the damage and rethink how Columbus Park connects to its neighbors. All the available data suggests changes to Route 9 are feasible and can make things better. It’s possible to trade highway ramps for inviting neighborhood streets. We can swap ominous underpasses for amenities that link neighborhoods and serve residents. We can help to keep the cost of living in Columbus Park affordable by expanding opportunities for future neighbors to live here. As usual, the devil is in the details. If Route 9 is reconfigured in a way that does not return land to the neighborhoods for more active uses, or if new at-grade intersections exacerbate the burdens of highway traffic on existing residents, then the effort will simply be one more chapter in the history of highway harm to Downtown.
The current feasibility study is the first chance to write a new story. Over the course of the fall, several public online meetings and outreach opportunities will give everyone a chance to weigh in on the project and provide feedback on potential options to rethink Route 9. While many will use this engagement process to articulate concerns about potential impacts of changes, that should not cloud the stronger message: that Columbus Park and Kansas City will be stronger if we repair the damage highways have caused, and that now is the time to plan how to do it.