The seven-year quest to bring the UMKC Conservatory of Music and Dance to downtown Kansas City ended abruptly Tuesday when university officials issued a statement rejecting any downtown location.
Instead, UMKC will consider sites either on or within a 2.5-mile radius of the Volker campus in the next round of considering proposals, according to a letter from UMKC Chancellor C. Mauli Agrawal.
Agrawal cited resistance from the school’s faculty in announcing the decision.
“This decision has been driven by extensive conversations with our Music, Dance and Theatre faculty, most of whom felt strongly that proximity to the Volker campus must be an essential element of the new facility,” Agrawal said in his statement. “With that decision made, we can now move forward with a sharper focus to our planning and decision-making.”
The effort to attract the UMKC Conservatory to downtown began in 2013 when Julia Irene Kauffman pledged $20 million. It had earlier been named by the Greater Kansas City Chamber of Commerce as one of its “Big 5 Ideas” in 2011.
The proposed site at 17th and Broadway across from the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts was intended to create a synergy between music students and the performance hall, similar to the Juilliard School of Music and Lincoln Center in New York.
Kauffman’s pledge was intended to spark a $48 million private fundraising effort to match state funds for what was then a $98 million project. That goal was reached in early 2017, but by summer, then-Gov. Eric Greitens had vetoed state funding for the project. Although the Missouri General Assembly overwhelmingly approved funding by veto-proof margins, University of Missouri officials did not ask for lawmakers to override the veto, saying other funding options would be pursued.
Any downtown facility downtown was further endangered at the beginning of this year when Kauffman withdrew her pledge and the proposed site across from the Kauffman Center was taken off the table.
But civic leaders, notably the Downtown Council of Kansas City, continued to push for a site downtown such as Barney Allis Plaza, which a 2012 study suggested as a potential site.
In June, UMKC issued what it called a Request for Interest (RFI) for potential development ideas for the UMKC conservatory. At least three downtown sites were pitched, including the Barney Allis Plaza proposal.
The new price tag for the 250,000-square-foot facility was listed at $100 million; half the funding would be sought from private sources. The RFI also required a minimum of 300 parking spaces for the conservatory. UMKC also opened its search to a large area from downtown south as far as 63rd Street, including the Volker campus.
One proposal that emerged was redeveloping the former Westport High School, which is well within the 2.5-mile radius. The backer of the proposal, developer David Brain, told CityScene KC that the property has plenty of space for parking and is on the transit shuttle between the UMKC Volker campus and its Hospital Hill campus.
It’s also about 3.5 blocks from the proposed 39th Street streetcar station.
“It’s kind of a hybrid,” Brain said at the time. “It’s not on campus but its close to campus.”
Platform Ventures, a real estate firm that’s currently proposing a major downtown redevelopment project, is teaming with KC Development Partners on the potential conservatory project at the old school building.
In his letter Tuesday, Agrawal said the university has set a Sept. 18 deadline for responses from developers within the targeted geographic area.
“We are committed to preserving, and building on, the proud history of leadership in the arts and the profound impact on the cultural life of Kansas City that our performing arts programs have created over many decades,” he said. “I strongly believe this is our best path toward that goal. Please join me in the excitement of coming one step closer to bringing this dream to fruition.”
KCUR is licensed to the University of Missouri Board of Curators and is an editorially independent community service of the University of Missouri-Kansas City.
Kevin Collison, a freelance contributor to KCUR 89.3, writes about downtown Kansas City for his website CityScene KC.