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Navigating Downtown Kansas City's Ring Of Highways Is Throwing Pedestrians For A Loop

Kansas City Public Library
Kansas City's downtown in the 1940s, before the interstates were built.

Matt Staub considers himself to be a forward-thinking guy.

And lately, he's been wondering whether, if he'd been a city leader in the 1950s, would he have wanted to build the downtown loop — those four highway arteries that form a boundary around Kansas City, Missouri's central business district.

Staub wishes the loop could be undone now, in 2019, but he can see how it seemed like a good idea 70 years ago.

Interstates 35 and 70 were built through Kansas City as part of President Dwight D. Eisenhower's Federal Aid Highway Act of 1956, and were also tied to midcentury "urban renewal" efforts. 

"Where we put highways and where we tore down buildings was all about: We're going to create a city for another generation, but really we just killed it for a generation," says Staub. He’s chair of Kansas City's Parking and Transportation Commission and vice president of the River Market Community Association.

Credit Wikimedia Commons
Kansas City's downtown loop.

The loop is the series of highway arteries that wraps around downtown just south of the City Market and north of Truman Road and forms a boundary around the Central Business District.

According to a recent study by the Mid-America Regional Council, a lot of Kansas City residents are interested in making downtown more walkable and reconnecting the Central Business District to the River Market and Columbus Park, which also need to be reconnected to each other.

Staub says those areas have been "strangled by the freeway," which he sees as preventing "natural synergies between the neighborhoods."

Ron Achelpohl, MARC's Director of Transportation and Environment, says that the original idea was that the interstates would connect Kansas City's various metropolitan areas during a time when most economic activity was focused downtown.

But, he points out, an unintended consequence of that connection — combined with federal policies around funding for housing and the development of nearby suburbs — was that the interstates made exiting downtown as easy as getting in.

Credit Kansas City Public Library
A historical photo shows a view of Main Street to the north, and the buildings that were torn down when the highways were built.

"One of the impacts of that was you saw the downtown area lose its retail base over time, lose its population over time. We're seeing that come back, at least the population growth in the downtown area," Achelpohl says.

And that increasing population really wants to be able to walk the 10 or so blocks from the River Market to the downtown library, for instance, but as it is now would have to cross six lanes of highway traffic.

The MARC study proposes several solutions, the most radical being replacing what's referred to as the "north loop" (the downtown portion of I-70) with a sort of boulevard. Achelpohl says Dallas and Denver are considering similar ideas for their downtown highways.

Staub says removing the north loop would be an expensive fix, but the Missouri Department of Transportation is listening to ideas because maintaining an interstate is also very expensive.

Additionally, the highway takes up 32 acres of prime downtown real estate, which he says could be used for, say, the headquarters of a major company.

"If you think about the connectivity today, the biggest detractors of this probably are commuters who rely on that infrastructure every day. They know that it doesn't work very well. The incidents of crashes is much higher, the connectivity is terrible and it just shoves people through urban neighborhoods," Staub says.

He adds that when considering major changes, leaders must remember that "the city doesn't belong to us, it belongs to the generations before and after us as well."

Follow KCUR contributor AnneKniggendorf on Twitter @annekniggendorf.

Anne Kniggendorf is a staff writer/editor at the Kansas City Public Library and freelance contributor to KCUR. She is the author of "Secret Kansas City."
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