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Downtown UMKC Arts Campus Idea Revived, Barney Allis Plaza in the Mix

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3 minute read

By Kevin Collison

The possibility of a UMKC arts campus in downtown Kansas City is being floated again and this time Barney Allis Plaza is the apparent preferred candidate.

University of Missouri-Kansas City officials announced Thursday they will seek proposals, described as a “request for interest (RFI),” for a new arts facility that would house not only the Conservatory of Music and Dance, but the Department of Theatre as well.

The faculty at both departments recently voted to support a merger of their programs, according to a statement from Interim Chancellor and Provost Barbara A. Bichelmeyer.

She said a new home for the combined programs would require a different facility than originally conceived for the Downtown Conservatory.

The original Downtown UMKC Conservatory proposal, which would have been located on land immediately south of the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts, collapsed in January.

That’s when Julia Irene Kauffman withdrew her $20 million pledge, the foundation of its private funding. She was responding to a veto last summer by Gov. Eric Greitens of what was to have been $48 million in matching state assistance.

Now, the merger of the two departments has UMKC searching for a new home, a potentially controversial hunt that will also include its current Volker campus.

Barney Allis Plaza opened in 1955, a recent study suggested a $63 million redevelopment project.

“There are strong opinions and passionate support in the Kansas City community and beyond about whether the Conservatory should be located downtown or on campus,” Bichelmeyer said in a statement.

“The RFI process will help us determine where the new facility should be located.

“If we find strong academic reasons and the resources to cover the majority cost for building and operating a downtown campus that may be our best solution.

“If there is an existing building in a viable location that can be re-purposed at a much lower cost than new construction, then that may be our most viable option.

“Otherwise, academic interests and resources warrant that will locate the facility on campus.”

Bichelmeyer also noted strong report remains for a new Conservatory in the Missouri Legislature. Both the House and Senate had approved the $48 million match overwhelmingly before Greiten’s veto.

And with the embattled governor’s political future in doubt with the looming possibility of impeachment, there has been speculation the Legislature might reconsider funding for the project and this time send it to a friendlier new chief executive.

Rep. Noel Shull, a Republican representing suburban Clay County, has introduced a bill that would provide $50 million in state funding for a UMKC Conservatory of Music and Dance project.

His bill however, refers to the project being built on the UMKC campus, and does not mention downtown.

Regardless, UMKC’s plan to issue an RFI later this month will have at least one downtown location offered in response, Barney Allis Plaza. That’s according to sources familiar with discussions who asked not to be identified.

The site originally proposed for the UMKC Downtown Conservatory is no longer available.

The original site planned for the Conservatory, the block southeast of 17th and Broadway  across from the Kauffman Center, is no longer available, according to several sources.

This wouldn’t be the first time Barney Allis Plaza was pitched as a downtown location for UMKC.

In 2012, it emerged as one of three potential sites for what was then called a UMKC Downtown Arts Campus in a study done by Helix Architecture + Design and HGA.

That plan had called for not only the Conservatory of Music and Dance to be located there, but the theater program, communications program and KCUR public radio station as well.

The future of city-owned Barney Allis Plaza and its crumbling 900-space underground garage has been a topic in recent weeks.

Last month, the Urban Land Institute reviewed several options for redeveloping the 1950s  civic plaza across from Bartle Hall.

The ULI committee recommended a $63 million plan that would renovate the garage, lower the plaza to street level and introduce a natural amphitheater and other landscaping improvements.

No timetable was mentioned by Bichelmeyer concerning a decision on the combined arts facility.

As part of the announcement, the interim chancellor said she had appointed Diane Helfers Petrella, DMA, as dean of the Conservatory.

“Completing the merger process and developing a solution to the Conservatory’s facility needs requires significant time and attention from a dedicated leader who has the trust and respect of the faculty and the community,” Bichelmeyer said in her statement.

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