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After Years of Resolve, Backwater Bridge to Become Leisure Destination

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4 minute read

By Kevin Collison

Mike Zeller’s dogged pursuit of his vision to convert a rusty backwater bridge in the West Bottoms into a major entertainment destination is expected to launch next month.

On March 5, a crew from L.G. Barcus & Sons Construction is scheduled to begin removing rails and ties from the 118 year-old Rock Island Railroad Bridge over the Kaw (Kansas) River.

The span is anticipated to become the centerpiece of what’s being branded the Kansas Waterfront, an area where people will be able to enjoy bicycling, kayaking, picnicking, ziplining or just relaxing with a cold beverage in what has been a gritty industrial zone.

“Going first is never easy,” Zeller said.

“It’s taken nearly five years, but we now have the partnerships, the designs, and the funds to create a magical place for Kansas City to celebrate–one that also starts to transform our relationship with the river.”

The Rock Island Bridge entertainment district will be the centerpiece of a recreational area that includes new trails and a park on the Kansas side of the river. (Rendering by HNTB)

The $12 million bridge revitalization is the latest example of the redevelopment wave in the West Bottoms, an area by downtown that has been relatively dormant since the demise of the once thriving stockyard industry 70 years ago.

The investments include the renovation of the nearby Hy-Vee (former Kemper) Arena into a recreational complex, hundreds of new apartments and recently, the announcement of a $400 million, 26-acre redevelopment plan that will add another 1,250 apartments.

The Rock Island Bridge also will be the linchpin of an ambitious recreational initiative by the Unified Government of Wyandotte County for the odd corner of the West Bottoms that lies in Kansas behind the Hy-Vee Arena.

The UG owns the bridge and has allocated $2.4 million for the project. It will serve as a key crossing over the Kaw for bicycle trails that will run atop the levees being improved by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

Wyandotte County plans to use the bridge as a connection between trails atop the Kaw River levies. (Rendering by HNTB)

The county also plans to build a small park on the east side of the river that will include floating docks to allow people to launch their own canoes and kayaks or rent them from a potential private operator.

As opposed to the swift currents of the Missouri River, the Kaw is a much easier waterway to navigate with small craft.

Sarah White, project manager for the Unified Government, said work on the park is expected to begin in 2024.

“We have a portion of the park funded,” she said. “For full build out, we’ll work through the budget. We hope to find alternative funding and grants.”

The park will be next to a new 224-unit apartment project being built by Flaherty & Collins, an Indianapolis developer. The firm built the nearby 232-unit The Yards apartment project next to the Livestock Exchange Building in 2020.

The Helm, the latest apartment project by Flaherty & Collins, is being built near the Rock Island Bridge seen in the background.

The latest residential project is being called The Helm and is expected to be completed in Spring 2024. The developer also is anticipating a 200-unit third phase on the Kansas side at some point.

As for the Rock Island Bridge project, Zeller said that once Barcus & Sons removes the old rails and ties, the Unified Government has hired the firm to jack up the bridge four feet so it clears the new height of the rebuilt levees.

The improved levees are designed to hold a 750-year flood event. The bridge originally was elevated to be above a 450-year flood event.

The decision to raise the bridge will add $850,000 to the project cost, about half which is expected to be covered by revenues from community improvement district the UG is creating for the bridge project.

The tax revenues generated by the CID also are expected to repay the original $2 million budgeted by the county.

Michael Zeller explains his plans for the Rock Island Bridge during an event hosted by the Greater Kansas City Community Foundation last summer.

Once the bridge is elevated, the next step will be to build a 704 foot-long concrete deck, adding cantilevered extensions over the river, a second level within the bridge frame and installing utilities.

Centric Construction then will build the structures to accommodate the retail businesses planned for the bridge and finishing details.

A video of the project can be seen here.

Zeller said the work is expected to be completed by September.

As for tenants, while in previous interviews Zeller said he has deals with Slaps Barbecue and Buffalo State Pizza to be food vendors, the developer said this week he’s still finalizing agreements.

“A lot of restauranteurs have been coming out of the woodwork the last few months,” he said.

Zeller also said he’s “almost home” in lining up the $10 million in private financing for the project.

The Rock Island Bridge project has the support of the Sunderland Foundation, Helzberg Foundation and Dickinson Foundation.

The plan to redevelop the Rock Island Bridge in the West Bottoms calls for it to be an entertainment and recreation destination. (Rendering by Multistudio)

The Greater Kansas City Community Foundation also has established a Rock Island Bridge Project Fund to accept charitable contributions that will go toward construction of dedicated public space on the bridge.

Flying Truss, the development entity led by Zeller, also is selling shares to investors including David Brain, former CEO and founder of EPR Properties and Frank Uryasz, president of the Uryasz Family Foundation and manager of A&F Real Estate.

Zeller is thrilled his vision for the bridge and the recreational opportunities of the Kaw River are close to becoming a reality. He first discovered the old span canoeing with his sons more than a decade ago.

“We’re starting the process of rebranding the Kansas River,” he said. “It was branded an industrial river in the 19th Century.

“Once you start interacting with it, you realize it’s the same river that goes through Lawrence and can be used for recreation and redevelopment.

“That’s the idea we’d like the metropolitan area to embrace.”

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