East and West Bottoms visionaries unite

Scott Brown, general counsel Faultless Starch Bon Ami Co., Jeffrey Williams, director of city planning & development Kansas City, Mo., John McDonald, founder Boulevard Brewery, Steve Foutch, CEO Foutch Brothers. 

In the late 1800s and early 1900s, the West Bottoms was home to churches, public buildings, schools and residents, until the floods of 1903 and 1951 led occupants of the river basin to seek higher ground, leaving behind a ghost town of abandoned buildings.

A multitude of historic buildings and warehouses sat vacant alongside the railroad tracks until the 1990s, when it all started to change. Since 1998, over $150 million has been invested for public infrastructure in an attempt to revitalize the industrial hub and attempt to give developers the hope that this is a good place to start to develop. The West Bottoms is now home to a vast array of antique shops, restaurants, haunted houses and event spaces, but there is still room to grow, and it’s not the only part of town that needs a little TLC.

The East Bottoms, which was once home to Heim Brewery and Electric Park, also took a hit from the major floods of the 1900’s, which left the area in a similar disarray to the West Bottoms. Joseph Heim, founder of Heim Brewery, constructed Electric Park in 1899, and later a second, larger park in 1907, which served as inspiration for Walt Disney’s construction of Disneyland. The popularity of Electric Park spiked a growth in residents living in the East Bottoms thanks in large part to the amount of staff required to operate the park. In 1925, however, prohibition ultimately led to the close of the Heim Brewery and eventually the residents of the East Bottoms sought residence elsewhere.

Thanks to John McDonald, founder of Boulevard Brewery, and his partner Jamie Jeffries, a new sense of life has been sparked in the East Bottoms area with their butcher shop, Local Pig. McDonald was one of three panelists, alongside Foutch Brothers CEO Steve Fouch and City of KCMO Director of City Planning & Development Jeffrey Williams, who discussed the revitalization of the East and West Bottoms at a recent SMPSKC luncheon. Scott Brown, general counsel Faultless Starch, moderated the discussion.

Brown: How did you get involved in the East and West Bottoms development? 

McDonald: My dad had bought the brewery building in 1975, and I had my cabinet shop there, so I was on Southwest Boulevard. I bought a house in the west side, so I have lived in the downtown part of Kansas City from 1978 until now, so I’ve just kind of naturally been a part of the development. I knew about the Heim brewery building because it used to be a business called Case Supply and I would go there to buy cabinet hardware. I always loved the building and when I heard it was for sale, I went and bought it.

Foutch: About three years ago, I had a large group in my office trying to figure out how to get a large sports complex to host larger tournaments here in town for below the collegiate level. In that same week, I received calls from the historical society telling me they were going to tear down the Kemper Arena. I’m not a genius, but I put two and two together and I just had to figure out how to get to work. I didn’t realize what I was getting into, but I figured out a way to put in a second floor and eventually make it work. That’s when I started noticing most about West Bottoms.  A lot of good buildings down there and opportunities for growth.

Williams: I'm from just north of of New York City and moved to Kansas City three years ago. When I came here, I was intrigued. I have a background in architecture and historic preservation, and I will admit, I was an ignorant “Eastener” who had an impression of what Kansas City would be. I was thinking flat and modern, until I came and found tons of great architecture. It was so much about authenticity. I think that’s the amazing story of Kansas City and the future of the West and East Bottoms, really tapping into that authenticity. A lot of it is about the physical presence of the space and the people who are there -- people who have a vision. Our challenge is to figure out how we work collectively to bring out the best in each other’s role and make sure that we preserve and enhance the areas. From a city government perspective, as a planner, you always want to work with people who project what the future is. With areas like the West bottoms and the East Bottoms, there are a number of elements that make you say “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” Let some of that natural momentum move forward and figure out a way to project ourselves and have things go even further. Physical presence, authenticity and people to drive that vision forward.

What are the strengths and weaknesses of the West and East Bottoms?

Williams: Having enough land area in the West Bottoms and distinct districts that will allow for there to be a strong commercial presence and industrial presence with enough room for entertainment venues and for residential development to really all fit and work together. One of the things we are seeing is the shift in commercial development and how people are spending dollars. People are more and more looking for experience, and that’s the great part of the commerce happening in the East and West bottoms is the potential for experience. That’s the type of unique commercial opportunity that will have the area develop and remain distinctive and have a long term potential for success.

McDonald: A good friend of mine said to me once, “The number one rule of real estate is where there was water once, there will be water again.” That really is one of the big issues of the East and West bottoms. I love this idea that you can work and live and play all in the same place. The development of the northeast is going to be a key player and if that develops, that will spill down into the east bottoms. I really don’t know what the East Bottoms should be, but I love it. There’s just something about it. That was all the best land in Kansas City, I kind of like to think that could be part of the future of some of these bottoms areas, it can be reclaimed as some kind of agricultural purpose.

Foutch: The railroad, which is very noisy and not kid-friendly for what I am working on, and the prison. These are a couple of things that are hard for developers to get bankers to understand why we’re in that neighborhood. I think I just need some creativity of what kind of uses can be around those types of issues.

As far as prioritizing things that will catalyze development in the West and East Bottoms, what do you feel is more urgent? 

McDonald: There is some kind of connectivity already, but I think it would be great to connect downtown Kansas city to the West Bottoms. If we want a city, a city has to have density, a city has to have people. You have to say, "I’m going to give up a little for the greater good" because the more people that are living and working and playing downtown, the more vibrant Kansas City will be and the more attractive it will be to the people who want to move here, and I think that’s important. Kansas City suffers from having this great city that we want to be a little town. If we ever really want to be a city, we have to give up some of our comfort zone and I think we are starting to see that happen. We, as developers, need to think long term and build good, quality structures that are going to be there for a long time.

Foutch: We can’t just have one big event a month; It will kill infrastructure and drive everybody away for that one event then the rest of that month everything is vacant. We don’t want to exist just on weekends; We have to exist seven days a week, 365 days a year, with nice, slow, steady traffic. Having a good density and population downtown is going to help us and it’s going attract more people to downtown by providing something good.

Williams: Providing some direction in terms of vision and potential, but at the same time deciding when to be more direct about what should happen. How do you narrate all of these visions together? We are always looking to take plans to the next step. It really is about balancing about what the vision is from the historical perspective as well as the more practical perspective for the city. There’s no point in putting together a plan that is forced from the government’s perspective that people aren’t believing in. Implementation is a big piece and that’s where we know we have to turn it over to the private sector. Clearly, every investment we make in the city, we hope to drive economic benefit out of it as we improve quality of life.