Published December 14th, 2021 at 10:30 AM
A proposal to convert the old Buck O’Neil Bridge into a linear park with dramatic downtown views is being described as a top priority at City Hall, but key questions remain about its ownership, cost and operation.
“The goal of this whole thing is the idea of a bridge for the people,” Diane Binckley, deputy director of the City Planning Department, said at a virtual briefing last week.
“How can we get a nice pedestrian space going from downtown to the Northland using this amazing historic structure as we move forward?”
The presentation made last Thursday indicated it would require at least $50 million to convert the 65-year-old span into a linear park, according to a preliminary budget prepared by the city.
No estimate was provided for the ongoing maintenance and operational costs of the bridge and park, or its potential ownership and management structure.
Councilman Eric Bunch said the linear park concept has been actively explored by a team of city planners and “outside stakeholders” since October 2019. He anticipated it potentially could seek federal infrastructure funding.
“There is strong support at the City Council and mayoral level that want to see this project move forward,” Bunch said during the virtual briefing attended by 75 people.
“This will be a top priority of ours as we move forward with the new infrastructure dollars coming from the federal government.”
At this point, the Missouri Department of Transportation plans to demolish the old bridge in 2023 to make way for its $220 million replacement project now under construction immediately to the west.
“We’re on a tight timeline, that’s why it’s critical to get a (feasibility) study started and also making sure we have the dollars identified through the infrastructure bill,” Binckley said.
MoDOT has set aside $300,000 to fund a feasibility study for reusing the existing bridge, but has expressed no interest in owning and operating it after the replacement bridge is completed.
James Wang, a city engineer, said the existing steel-truss bridge, which began construction as the Broadway Bridge in 1955, has experienced rust deterioration, observing it “needs a lot of work.”
He added the condition of its underwater foundations are unknown.
A MoDOT spokesperson said no estimate was made regarding the cost of rehabbing the old Buck O’Neil Bridge after the agency decided to replace the span.
Wang also said the farthest north arch of the three-arch bridge would have to be removed from the existing O’Neil Bridge regardless of whether the park idea moves forward to accommodate the new bridge.
The remaining bridge surface would provide 80,000 square feet for a potential linear park. Some additional approach construction would be required to link the south and north ends of the proposed linear park to complete the pedestrian and bicycle access.
The new bridge being built by MoDOT does have a protected pedestrian and bicycling path included as part of the project.
The virtual meeting organized by the City Planning Department also featured a presentation by a representative of the High Line, a popular 1.5-mile linear park in New York City that began opening in 2009.
The High Line was built on an abandoned elevated rail line on the West Side of Manhattan and was completed in 2019 at a cost of about $250 million, much of it from the city along with significant fundraising by the Friends of the High Line, a nonprofit group.
The structure is owned by the city, but the park’s ongoing funding and management is handled by the High Line nonprofit organization.
“The High Line was always intended to be more than a park,” according to the organization website.
“You can walk through gardens, view art, experience a performance, savor delicious food, or connect with friends and neighbors-all while enjoying a unique perspective of New York City.”
Binckley said a new linear park on the old Buck O’Neil Bridge could be popular tourism draw as well as a downtown amenity.
“We’re looking at entertainment, recreation,” she said. “This could be an urban play space we really don’t have downtown.
“It’s about dreaming. How can we dream to develop this space into something that’s truly iconic?”
Bunch added a linear park named after Buck O’Neil, the Kansas City Monarch legend recently named to the Baseball Hall of Fame, would be an appropriate tribute. The bridge was renamed after O’Neil in 2016.
“How do we want to honor the great Buck O’Neil?” Bunch asked.
“One way to do that is create an incredible linear park from downtown to the Northland to not only save the historic bridge but provide an opportunity to create an amazing public space.”
Bunch said the potential linear park also could be connected to the proposed Greenline recreational trail that would encircle downtown, and other riverfront improvements.
The Buck O’Neil linear park concept is one of several big ticket downtown infrastructure ideas being contemplated that would likely require federal funding assistance.
The Downtown Council is leading an effort to deck the South Loop freeway; the city wants federal help to rebuild Barney Allis Plaza; and there is a proposal to lower Missouri 9 to grade, reconnecting Independence Avenue, and the River Market and Columbus Park.
Binckley said the Buck O’Neil Bridge idea remains in its “infancy” and the next phase will be obtaining the $300,000 from MoDOT for the feasibility study. It would require participation from the railroads, Army Corps of Engineers, the Coast Guard and other local governments.
At this point, the only city expenditures exploring the idea has been planning staff time.
Should the proposal move forward, it would cost about $2.7 million to prepare design documents, according to the city.
Individuals interested in learning more about the concept were told to contact Marissa Iden, Councilman Bunch’s legislative aide, at email@example.com.
Flatland contributor Kevin Collison is the founder of CityScene KC, an online source for downtown news and issues.