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Brush Creek is stinky, dirty and poorly maintained. Can Kansas City turn it into an attraction?

A downed tree hangs over a ledge that creates a short waterfall in a murky creek. Also on the ledge is a plastic bag and other debris.
Savannah Hawley-Bates
KCUR 89.3
After storms, Brush Creek becomes a collection ground for trash, debris and sewage. A new plan from Kansas City aims to turn Brush Creek into an amenity for the city.

Kansas City has been trying to make Brush Creek somewhere people gather for almost 100 years. Now, the city is giving it another shot with a new master plan based on community feedback in the hopes that focusing on amenities instead of flood control will finally make the creek a destination.

On a warm summer evening in August, Brush Creek seems sleepy — even dead. Parked gondolas line the Plaza, floating — unoccupied — on the shallow, murky water. Trash and debris slowly drift along the stream. Walk further east and the sidewalk along the creek gets smaller and more cluttered. Sludge sits on top of the water where grit collects. On a very hot day, you might even see thousands of dead fish, regularly killed each year because of the heat and slow-moving currents.

“I'm a little leery about using it when I walk by and I see the walkway is almost collapsing,” Matthew Blaue said. Blaue lives near the creek and says he’d like to one day be able to bike the length of it without being concerned for his safety.

“I see it could be a wonderful place for people to come to, like Loose Park and other parks where you can come and just have picnics and bring the family and whatnot and ride around and walk around.”

For decades, Kansas City officials have tried, and failed, to turn Brush Creek into an attraction people enjoy. It’s not for lack of investment. Floods, lack of follow-through, and some bad luck have kept the creek from reaching its full potential as a public destination. Now, the city is drafting a new plan it hopes can finally transform the area into an amenity for the community.

Kansas City and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers are working to create a master plan to add amenities to Brush Creek from the Paseo to Coal Mine Road, where it meets the Blue River. Unlike the past plans to modify the creek, this is not primarily about flood control.

The changes will be based on community input, which they’ve sought online and at three listening sessions. Courtney Hawkins, a graduate engineer with the water department, says this partnership with the Army Corps of Engineers allows the city to go further than it did with previous plans.

“That includes ecosystem restoration and cultural and recreational opportunities that we have in the area,” Hawkins said. “It’s about hearing from the public and getting a good gauge of what their priorities are.”

At workshops for the plan, residents requested regular creek maintenance, including sediment and trash cleanup, reduced flooding, more park and performing arts spaces and ways to help wildlife through the creek.

Larry Smith, who has lived around Brush Creek for nearly his whole life and owns a mechanic shop off Blue Parkway, said he wants a pedestrian bridge between Martin Luther King Jr. and Emanuel Cleaver II Boulevards so people can navigate through the high-traffic area easier. After speaking at a listening session August 3, it was added to the draft.

“There are some things there that I could take advantage of, but it's just not as sightly or feel as comfortable being in,” Smith said. “There was some talk about that (the bridge) years ago and I’ve been waiting to see it happen. It would make a major difference with that area there — it has so much potential.”

Two men stand over a map of Brush Creek. One points to a park on one section of the map.
Savannah Hawley-Bates
KCUR 89.3
Larry Smith has lived around Brush Creek for almost his entire life, but he doesn't feel comfortable spending much time there. The new master plan gives him hope that one day he will enjoy taking his grandkids to enjoy a day on the creek.

A history of big dreams, cut short

For nearly 100 years, people have been trying to control the creek.

J.C. Nichols, who redlined most of Kansas City, built the Country Club Plaza in the 1920s. To maximize its real estate along the shopping district, Nichols rerouted the north bank of Brush Creek. In the ‘30s, Brush Creek was paved under Kansas City’s Ten-Year Plan by political boss Tom Pendergast’s concrete company, under the guise of flood prevention. Since that time, nearly every change to Brush Creek has been for flood control.

After years of building the creek for people instead of wildlife, some community members want the creek to return to a more natural state. At the listening sessions, many requested “renaturalizing” the creek — introducing elements like floating islands and vegetation to increase biodiversity and resiliency when it comes to keeping it clean and preventing flooding.

Leigh Mitchell, project manager for the Army Corps of Engineers said introducing vegetation within the waterway, reducing concrete and returning water flow to a more natural state are all possible solutions.

“A lot of the existing infrastructure in Brush Creek was put there for a particular purpose, and flood control was that ultimate purpose in many of those cases,” Mitchell said. “What we're looking at now is whether or not we can still maintain that flood risk management within this lower Brush Creek area and potentially modify some of those structures so we achieve the environmental outcomes as well. It's a tricky balance.”

Many of the requested improvements are the same things people have been wanting for more than 30 years. As a councilman in the ‘80s, Emanuel Cleaver II attempted to include those same improvements in his Brush Creek Flood Control and Beautification Project, known as the “Cleaver Plan.”

A red and white bridge stands over a creek in the foreground, its reflection in the water. On the side of the creek are concrete walls.
Savannah Hawley-Bates
KCUR 89.3
Kansas City's new Brush Creek plan focuses less on flood control and more on how the waterway can be turned into an amenity residents are excited about visiting.

In fact, much of his political career has been dedicated to improving Brush Creek. Cleaver decided to get into politics after it flooded in 1977, killing 25 people and causing about $100 million in damages.

“I'm 5’11” and had I been in the Plaza III restaurant, I would've drowned,” Cleaver said about the ‘77 flood. “It’s something that could be prevented because in the news, people were talking about, ‘This is bad. We have flooding around Brush Creek all the time.’”

By the 1990s, the creek had earned the nickname ‘flush creek’ because of the sewage that flowed into the water.

From 1991-1996, the city and Corps of Engineers led by then-Mayor Cleaver added circulation pumps and aerator fountains to reduce the fecal bacteria caused by the sewage in the creek, which was 10-15 times higher than the level recommended by the EPA.

Cleaver wanted to add more amenities to the creek, especially east of Troost, and turn it into Kansas City’s version of the San Antonio Riverwalk. But more money had to be spent on flood control.

Officials also expanded some of the bond money set aside in the Cleaver Plan for the creek to use for other priorities, like the development of the American Royal and 18th and Vine. Any amenities added to the creek went to more affluent areas — like adding gondolas to the Plaza portion. Though more money was spent on the east part of the creek for flood control, it remained overlooked and under-maintained.

“If we had been able to use the money only for Brush Creek, we probably could have made it almost exactly what we wanted it to be and what it's becoming,” said Cleaver. “But that was not how I wanted to do it. I wanted to make sure that we did something in every part of the city.”

The 1991 beautification project did help improve water quality and prevent devastating floods. But maintenance on the creek, especially east of Troost Avenue, has been lacking. In the end, it didn’t bring the masses out to enjoy the creek.

A shopping cart lies at the bottom of a murky creek alongside other trash. Sediment floats around it.
Savannah Hawley-Bates
KCUR 89.3
Officials say it's hard to maintain Brush Creek. During listening sessions on a new plan to change the creek, residents overwhelmingly asked for ways to keep the creek clean.

Grit, grime and a failing maintenance system

For years, a city group maintained the area every single day. But, according to City Manager Brian Platt, that group dissipated over the years and the aerators — which help oxygenate the water to prevent odors and fish kills — fell into disrepair.

Even today, parts of the creek flood regularly, making Emanuel Cleaver II and Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevards unpassable during big storms.

Platt says the concrete walls and landscaping on the western portion of the creek make it look nicer with minimal maintenance, while the eastern portion collects sediment and debris along with the flow of the water.

“The entire corridor is of equal importance to us, both sides of it,” Platt said. “We've got a lot of cleanup to do in that area.”

Andy Shively, deputy director of the city’s water department, says that with this new plan, the city is hoping to correct visible environmental inequities. Part of that includes stream restoration and natural landscaping around the creek to address the grit that collects.

At any part of the creek, Shively says there are about 3-4 feet of grit – “enough to fill Arrowhead Stadium and pile it 150 feet tall.” While the post-flood projects from the ‘80s-’00s did help to improve the creek, he says the city knows more now than it did and is capable of building a more sustainable and resilient creek.

“That is a goal of our parks and recreation department, that whatever is built, it is more easily maintained than what is currently there,” Shively said. “And the community backs that up. They're not very happy that it's not well maintained.”

A community pool sits on a hill above a creek
Savannah Hawley-Bates
KCUR 89.3
The Brush Creek Community Center offers residents a gathering place right next to the creek. Officials hope to add more places like this under the new master plan.

A new day for Brush Creek?

The preliminary draft for the plan includes multiple pedestrian bridges, a skate park with terrace seating, stream improvements, upgrades to Martin Luther King, Jr. Square Park, a sculpture garden and event spaces, a wetland boardwalk, a green lawn, trails to connect the area to neighborhoods and removal of the dam structure.

Platt thinks the plan signals a new day for Brush Creek. He once again compared its potential to the San Antonio Riverwalk — the second political generation to do so.

After looking at the planned improvements, Blaue is excited to one day see Brush Creek as an asset to the city, instead of a neglected eyesore.

“It's kinda like with anything in life: expect the best, but don't be surprised if you don't quite get what you want,” Blaue said. “I hope everything will go through as they've planned it. But you know, any improvement is better than no improvement.”

Residents have one more opportunity to weigh in on the plan at a fourth listening session on September 12 from 5-7 p.m. at the Brush Creek Community Center. People can also leave comments on the KC Water website.

The city and Army Corps of Engineers will wrap up their work on the plan in late fall of this year. But the plan only lays out possible improvements. Officials will still need to decide which projects get done in what order. Feasibility studies must be conducted for each possible change to the creek. And then there’s the issue of funding.

Comprehensive plans in partnership with the Corps of Engineers, like this one, typically have a 50-50 cost share. The city comes up with half of the money, but the rest is subject to the availability of federal funds and congressional approval.

It takes several years to move through the process, but officials like Hawkins are still optimistic that with the right funding structure and community involvement, this project will actually deliver the amenities the community wants.

“With this project, we're needing all the stars to align. We want to achieve a more sustainable creek area, something that's easier to manage and then also the funding. … I'm pretty positive that we'll get something that ends up being a nice, usable, sustainable, maintainable community amenity.”

Smith likes the prospective changes and is excited about one day taking his grandkids to hang out in the green space along the creek or on a stroll through a public art display alongside it. He just hopes he lives long enough to see the changes come to fruition.

“An area where someone can pull down here, park their car, and just enjoy the area,” Smith said. “ Just someplace to let your hair down and be comfortable and you can sit and hear water trickling … and see people skateboarding and bicycling and things of that nature. That's nice for the city, very nice for the city.”

When news breaks, it can be easy to rely on officials and people in power to get information fast. As KCUR’s general assignment and breaking news reporter, I want to bring you the human faces of the day’s biggest stories. Whether it’s a local shop owner or a worker on the picket line, I want to give you the stories of the real people who are driving change in the Kansas City area. Email me at savannahhawley@kcur.org or follow me on Twitter @savannahhawley.
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