Rock Island Bridge is transforming 3 million pounds of steel to connect a Kansas City riverfront
This historic railroad bridge — built in 1905 but out of service since the 70s — is being reimagined as a gathering space and entertainment hub, elevated 40 feet above the Kansas River. Developers hope the project will also help spur more development in the West Bottoms and connect the two Kansas Cities.
When the in-the-works Rock Island Bridge opens in 2024, the hulking infrastructure renewal project will become Kansas City’s — and America’s — first “destination landmark bridge,” said Mike Zeller.
And the effort pointedly capitalizes on one of the metro’s most overlooked assets: its rivers.
“We’re maybe the biggest river town in America that hasn’t really figured out how to get our arms around our rivers,” said Zeller, CEO of Flying Truss, which is leading the Rock Island Bridge project — a public-private partnership that also taps into philanthropic and corporate funding.
This historic railroad bridge will be reimagined as a gathering space and entertainment hub with music, dining, coffee shops, bars, trailhead services, and more. It is expected to boast 35,000 square feet of usable space — all elevated 40 feet above the Kansas River.
New cantilevers and bumpouts add significant stretches of “land” along the bridge’s 702-foot length, making the structure longer than the St. Louis Arch is tall.
“It’s a public crossing, a trail, and it’s also a community space,” Zeller said. “It’ll have seating for hundreds of people, people can come out here and gather kind of like Union Station.”
Built in 1905 by the Rock Island Railroad for transporting livestock and freight, the bridge has been out of service since the 1970s.
The Rock Island Bridge project — in the West Bottoms, near the Hy-Vee Arena — aims to not only reactivate the bridge, but use the structure as a catalyst for economic development and revitalization along the waterfront, as well as a means to physically connect Kansas City, Missouri, and Kansas City, Kansas.
A day out on the bridge
The redevelopment project is expected to offer the nation’s first entertainment district on a bridge by adding shops and restaurants overlooking the river, with a pedestrian path connecting to Kansas levee-trails system and the Greenline Trail.
“What can you do for entertainment? The answer is, Saturday morning, maybe fishing catfish, and, Saturday afternoon, maybe the farmers market, or doing something else on Saturday night downstairs, while there’s a wedding upstairs and live music,” said Mike Laddin, CFO of Flying Truss.
Flying Truss also is collaborating with such community and business partners as Brad McDonald with ZipKC, who plans to build towers for activities like zip lining across the river.
“You can rent kayaks and canoes down here. So, you could show up on Saturday morning with 10 of your friends and then go up to Bonner Springs,” said Zeller. “You can zip up there and then get in the river and paddle down, and have dinner here and catch a concert. We don’t have to drive to the Ozarks.”
Free Wheels for Kids, an organization dedicated to getting more children on bikes more often and safely, will also be located and operating at the bridge, he said.
“They teach kids how to fix bikes, give them free bikes, and organize bike rides. They want to have a bike check-out here,” said Zeller. “It’ll help activate the trails.”
Boosting local economy
This bridge is projected to bring a rising tide to Wyandotte County economically, Zeller said.
“The Unified Government gets a beautiful connector for their trails,” he said, noting Eastern Wyandotte County gains more entertainment options through the effort, as well as a financial boost.
“In several communities that have access to outdoor activities, income goes up, their health goes up, crime goes down, families are more stable,” said Zeller.
“The burden [for maintaining Rock Island Bridge as an asset] doesn’t go back to the taxpayers,” he continued. “With some of the profits from the enterprise, we clean and take care of the decks and clean the bathrooms. It’s self supporting.”
The venture yields returns for investors, while also providing a unique addition to Wyandotte County and the broader Kansas City metropolitan area, activating the riverfront and standing as a pioneering project on a global scale, Zeller said.
Laddin highlighted the Rock Island Bridge’s inclusion in a recent Lonely Planet travel feature as notable national recognition for the bridge. The travel guide designates Kansas City as one of just two must-visit cities in the United States, in part because of the forthcoming Rock Island Bridge opening.
“It’s not only going to be a regional best city destination, It’s going to be national. People are going to read the Lonely Planet about what we’re doing,” said Laddin. “We’re going to be a World Cup watch station, and, depending upon who the countries are, we’ll fly their flags.”
Flying Truss is currently selling up to $2 million in equity to qualified investors.
“It can be used for exercise, and outdoor recreation, and it activates an important resource that we have,” said Laddin. “We don’t have mountains and lakes, but we have this cool river.”