Once a thriving center of arts and culture, the 18th and Vine Historic District in Kansas City, Missouri, was the birthplace of a distinctive type of American Jazz. Unfortunately, the area has experienced economic struggles in recent decades. Conversely, over the last decade Kansas City as a whole has experienced a surge of investment in arts and culture, despite the economic downturn. City leaders saw this as an opportunity for the District and recognized the potential of restoring the Boone Theater, a significant structure within the District, to provide a new performance space for the arts community and to begin to knit the dispersed public spaces along the corridor back together.
Kansas City, the largest city in Missouri, was founded in the 1830’s as a port along the Missouri River. The metropolitan area spans the Kansas / Missouri border and stretches over 300 square miles. The city is well-known for its cultural tradition of barbeque food with over 100 restaurants and several annual contests. Kansas City is also known as one of the “cradles of jazz” and the development of a distinctive riff-based sound in the 18th and Vine area. Located just east of downtown, the 18th and Vine Historic District was a thriving commercial, residential, and entertainment district in the 1920s. Now a registered historic district, the area is home to many nightclubs and theatres, including the restored Gem Theater, the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum, and the American Jazz Museum. The Boone Theater was originally constructed in 1922 and named in honor of John “Blind” Boone, a renowned African-American concert pianist who bridged folk and ragtime traditions. Today a renaissance of arts and culture is underway in Kansas City, with grass-roots driven growth in the Crossroads Arts District as well as over one billion dollars of recent investment in arts infrastructure, most notably the $400 million Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts and the $200 million Bloch Building expansion for the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art.
Kansas City’s population is just over 460,000 residents, with U.S. Census data indicating a drop in population within the urban core between 2000 and 2012. The 18th and Vine Historic District is a center of African-American life and heritage within the city. The neighborhood is home to nearly 300 private businesses and nonprofit organizations employing more than 6,400 people. The current estimated residential population of approximately 7,000 is nearly 90% African American, compared to 30% citywide. The poverty level in the District is 35% -- more than twice the citywide level of 16%.
The historically significant 18th and Vine Jazz District, a center of arts and culture in the city, has faced ongoing economic and sustainability challenges. The Boone Theater, a contributing structure to the District on both the Kansas City and National Register of Historic Places. After being boarded up in the 1950’s, the theater sat unused and as such was in drastic need of restoration; the roof had nearly collapsed and was causing water damage. City leaders and local residents knew there was little time to save the structure. To increase the livability of the larger District, cultural venues, clubs, restaurants, and public spaces needed to be reconnected. New anchors and points of attraction were needed to further the revitalization of the area and encourage new audiences, partners and venues to the area.
The City of Kansas City purchased the Boone Theater from the Jazz District Redevelopment Corporation (JDRC) to plan for its restoration. Since its creation in 1997 by Mayor (now Congressman) Emanuel Cleaver, JDRC was responsible for overseeing the development of the district, but it was funded with municipal monies that were dwindling. The Downtown Council of Kansas City took the lead and planned to find the right partners to restore the 45,000 square foot theatre with seating for 300, reviving another significant performing arts venue and culture organization to augment and solidify the heart of the district. By activating a cultural center to support new programming and local performers, the restored theatre would contribute to the local economy, increase livability of the District, and attract other venues to the area. At the project outset, leaders envisioned that the theatre would become home to the Folk Alliance International, a non-profit cultural organization currently located outside of the city.
The Downtown Council of Kansas City, a private, non-profit agency active in the redevelopment of Downtown Kansas City for over two decades, took the lead on the project and acted as project manager, fiscal manager, construction manager, and property manager. With the City of Kansas City taking ownership of the property, the Municipal Art Commission would act as government liaison between the project team and the appropriate departments within city government. With strong networks within the local community, the JRDC would lead the community planning and engagement activities for the project. Over the course of the project, the vision shifted somewhat from establishing a home for a single occupant, Folk Alliance International, to the goal of using the Boone Theater as a cultural amenity for the community, either as an adjunct performing arts space for neighborhood organizations or possibly as a home for Kansas City Friends of Alvin Ailey (KCFAA), a non-profit cultural organization with the mission of making dance accessible to all people.
Over the Our Town grant period scheduled from Sept 2011 to August 2012, project leaders divided the Scope of Work into four quarters.
1. Hire consultants and begin preplanning process and community planning,
2. Begin community engagement sessions, hire consultants for design work,
3. Continue community engagement sessions,
4. Conclude studies, present findings.
Led by the Jazz District Redevelopment Corporation, the community planning and engagement process took place over several weeks during the summer of 2013. The community planning process engaged the district’s cultural institutions, residents, and businesses in two major areas: first, on the design and use of the space and second, on how its activities could help achieve existing community goals. A Structural Condition Survey was conducted by Structural Engineering Associates to assess the general conditions, identify structural concerns and durability issues, and provide recommendations on needed repairs. With the historic architectural drawings in hand, the engineers utilized visual inspection techniques along with infrared scanning and mortar analysis. With input from the community on desired uses, preliminary architectural and design drawings were created by Timlis Arketekcher Incorporated and then reviewed by the local community. These design drawings assisted project leaders in more fully understanding the potential uses of the facility. Project leaders reported that the schedule was unrealistic and the project took three times as long as expected, as other civic priorities competed for attention from the city staff and planning partners. Another delay resulted from the time required to reach a consensus on how to proceed with the community engagement process. Even so, the overall project expenses were only one third of the planned budget; some of the expense estimates proved to be too high or unnecessary, due to the uncertainties regarding the condition of the building.
Project leaders report that it is still too soon to fully measure the impacts of the pre-development work that took place as part of the project, including project planning, community engagement, facilities use planning, structural analysis, and design. The project findings indicate the total project costs for all phases of the multi-year restoration are approximately $2.5 million, with the first phase budget estimated at $340,000. A component of these estimated costs, which was higher than project leaders expected, is repair and stabilization of the existing structure, with initial estimates for construction to be just under $1 million. The drawings produced by Timlis Arketekcher, Inc, architectural consultants, have helped project partners to have a more realistic assessment of the theatre’s future use.
The extended project timeline caused an unexpected shift in the future user of the theatre. The Kansas City Friends of Alvin Ailey is moving forward and received a $375,000 planning grant from the Muriel McBrien Kauffman Foundation. To chart the organization’s future, its leaders engaged nationally known arts management consultant Michael Kaiser, who created a five-year strategic plan to position the group as a national model “for bridging racial and cultural differences.” With the support from this grant and the organization’s strong track record and long standing presence in the arts community, they expect to have the capacity to raise the money needed to restore the structure and make it their second home in the City.