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Once toxic, this huge riverfront park is ‘potential gem’ Kansas City has largely ignored

Kansas City Star - 6/14/2024

Best place to view Kansas City’s skyline? Landscape architect Terry Berkbuegler tells friends to visit the boat ramp in a large city park downstream that almost no one knows exists, and that the city largely neglects.

“It’s such an amazing view of downtown, and people would say I had no idea it was there and I’ve lived in Kansas City all my life,” Berkbuegler says.

That boat ramp on the south bank of the Missouri River is at Riverfront Park. Not better-known Berkley Riverfront Park, near where the KC Current play their soccer matches and hundreds of apartments have been built in recent years.

The area around 17-acre Berkley park is a happening place. Whereas nothing much is happening at the much older and far larger (955 acres) Riverfront Park, which is to the east of Bally’s Casino and forms the northern rim of Kansas City’s East Bottoms, from Olive Street to the Harry S. Truman railroad bridge beyond I-435.

The more than 3 miles of woods that’s been largely forgotten was once poised to be “one of the major city parks in the nation.”

But that dream was put on hold in the 1980s, when the park was closed to a generation of Kansas Citians. The soil needed to be decontaminated of lead and other harmful chemicals because the site had once been a city dump.

The park reopened in 2003, but in the years since the city has done little to attract visitors by maintaining it or improving access to its densely forested interior.

If an effort was made, Riverfront Park could be someplace very special, says City Councilman Eric Bunch, who represents the district where the park is located. He sees it as a missing link in the city’s system of biking and hiking trails.

“This area hosts so much potential, and I am excited to be an active advocate in ensuring this park reaches that full potential,” he told The Star.

Reports shelved

Berkbuelger calls it “a potential gem,” and he would know.

In 2006, the city’s parks and recreation department hired his firm to develop a master plan to bring the park back to life after environmental remediation had made the soil safe for people to gather once again.

That plan called for adding a marina big enough to park 250 boats, an RV park, two dog runs, as well as multi-purpose paths that would connect to the metro area trail system.

But the parks department tossed the $40,000 report on some shelf, and no one other than maybe Berkbuegler still has a copy of it today. At least the parks department said one couldn’t be found when The Star asked to see it.

More than a decade later, the Kansas City Design Center took up the cause in 2020 free of charge and also issued a report suggesting improvements at Riverfront Park. It emphasized how the park could reconnect Kansas Citians with the waterway that gave rise to the city’s founding nearly two centuries ago.

“I think there is a need to find ways of how we can reconnect to the river,” said Vladimir Krstic, who retired from the design center last year and oversaw publication of the 305-page East Bottoms Vision Study that features Riverfront Park prominently.

Improving the park would further that goal, he said. Because unlike Berkley Riverfront Park, it is not highly manicured and does not sit atop the flood wall. At Riverfront Park there is wilderness all around and you can dip your toes in the river, if that’s your thing.

“I’m unaware of any place (in Kansas City) where you can access the river other than Riverfront Park,” he said.

But once again, the city ignored that 2020 report. It has taken few steps to improve the developed parts of the park or make it easier to access the eastern reaches of the park, unless you arrive by canoe.

The Star asked to discuss this with parks officials, but instead of agreeing to a conversation, the city issued a short written statement in response to a reporter’s questions.

“The status of the park is that it remains a passive greenspace along the Missouri River,” spokesperson Sherae Honeycutt said in that email. “Currently, Parks & Recreation does not have information on future developments.”

Trashy scene

People who love Riverfront Park say more people might go there for that choice view of the skyline or a picnic — if it was better maintained and promoted. Its current condition makes enticing new park goers a tougher sell.

The parks department keeps the clearing around the boat ramp mowed. But a recent morning found the trash cans overflowing and the single blue portable toilet filled…to the rim.

That day, like most, several people dozed in cars filled with their belongings on the road leading to the public ramp, where river rats cast off in canoes and the fire department launches motor boats for water rescues — or to recover bodies caught in the driftwood upstream and downstream from there.

Reeling in his line at the foot of the ramp, fisherman Jason Cahow shook his head in disgust at the scene around him, and at his poor luck catching something for dinner.

“I’ve lived in Kansas City all my life and this is the trashiest I’ve ever seen it,” he said.

A volunteer group pays for the porta potty because the walls to the park’s pit toilet next to it were washed away in a 2019 flood, and never replaced. The water left the white throne standing, now broken and exposed on its concrete floor daring anyone to use it five years later.

Allen Cessna, a member of Friends of Riverfront Park and Stream Team 2560, says the street lights are also broken, and the gate to the park remains unlocked at closing time many nights, allowing for mischief.

His request last year for funding from the city’s 4th District Public Improvements Advisory Committee to fix the lights was turned down, so he’s hoping for the best this year.

“It’s a special piece of my heart,” Cessna says of the park he’s been coming to since the 1970s.

Bunch said his district received more than $175 million of requests but only had $5.3 million to give out, which led to “tough choices on what projects to fund out of an abundance of needed and innovative projects.”

Big plans along the river

Kansas City has long boasted about its system of parks and boulevards. The 1893 Kessler Plan led to the construction of parkways and parks that overlooked the Missouri and Kansas rivers, but none were envisioned for along those waterways, which were considered nasty and dangerous.

In 1965, the city’s superintendent of parks, Frank Vaydik, sought to correct that by announcing plans for a large park along the Missouri River. At 1,500 feet wide, he envisioned Riverfront Park stretching for several miles along the flood-prone side of the levee from the ASB Bridge on the west to the Blue River on the east.

When fully developed, he said it would encompass 1,500 acres, only a couple of hundred acres fewer than Swope Park, the city’s largest.

The plan was to start small, with 175 acres west of the Chouteau Bridge, and expand from there east and west as money was found for adding roads and trails and facilities that would be accessed from a road along the top of the flood levee to be renamed Riverfront Drive.

“It will,” The Star’s editorial board said of the new park at the time, “take the people back to the river that has played such a dominant role in the history of Kansas City.”

When it opened in 1967, Riverfront Park had two ballfields with backstops and a picnic area. A boat ramp — smaller than the one there now — was added a year later.

There were no formal hiking trails through the trees to the east of Chouteau, but people explored the woods and kicked up dust riding dirt bikes. On the Fourth of July, Kansas Citians gathered at the park to see the fireworks in the 1970s, including the big bicentennial show.

The plan was always to make the park bigger.

Jerry Darter was in charge of the parks department in 1982 when Kansas City and the Missouri Department of Conservation announced an agreement to turn another 450 acres of undeveloped woodland into a wildlife refuge.

“I think it will be heavily used,” Darter, told The Kansas City Times that May. “A lot of people in the urban areas can’t get down to the Ozarks.”

Poisoned park

Little did he know at the time, but someone at City Hall had sent a letter to the Environmental Protection Agency that would upend that plan.

Despite grand ambitions, the wildlife refuge — or other future expansions of Riverfront Park — never came to be. That’s because the park’s dream location on the river overlapped with something that proved much more disastrous than officials at the time anticipated.

Riverfront Park sat atop the western portion of a city landfill that continued to operate for several years after the park opened. Trees sprouted from volunteer saplings and grew tall from the dirt covering the waste decaying underneath.

People burned their trash in barrels back then, and ashes were carted to the dump, which was full of toxic residues from plastics and chemicals that caused itching and other health problems for people who came in contact with it.

Riverfront Landfill, as the EPA refers to it, filled up from west to east. The oldest part “was filled at a time when there were no regulations at all,” Darter said. “And as it worked its way to the east, things became more restrictive.”

Scientists were only beginning to recognize the dangers to the environment that unregulated dumping and burning was doing.

“We played a lot of softball there,” Cessna said. “And then we got to calling it Dioxin Park because, you know, they closed it all down.”

In 1980, Congress passed legislation setting up a funding mechanism to clean up toxic waste sites. The EPA suddenly had the muscle and the money to help communities clean up contamination.

Because of the dangerous chemicals seeping into the soil and groundwater and that letter to the EPA, Riverfront Park became one of the first Superfund sites.

“No expansion of the public park should take place until data is gathered that would allow a complete assessment of the potential for adverse human health effects from the site,” the chief of the Superfund Implementation Group wrote the EPA’s regional office on March 30, 1983.

That order is one of more than 300 documents in an online public database that provides a detailed look at how Riverfront Park was closed to the public entirely in 1985.

It took five years just to work out the plan to make it usable again by removing or containing the contaminated areas with a liner and two to three feet of soil on top.

Not a city priority

Today, the entire park is technically open to the public from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. seven days a week. But Riverfront Drive is chained and posted with “no trespassing” signs east of Chouteau Trafficway, and Cessna does not advise people to hike in because of the number of people who have set up camp in the woods.

“There’s an awful lot of visitors back there,” he said, noting some volatile encounters he’s had.

Under a state conservation program, a limited number of bow hunters are allowed in during hunting season to thin the herds of deer that roam through the thick cover.

In a 2023 report, the Missouri Department Natural Resources said it was assisting the city in developing a master plan for 420 acres of the forested area, which would include creating “a recreational greenspace.”

According to the DNR: “The city characterized all areas of the site and did not find any compounds at levels that would prohibit recreational use.”

But the city denies having any plans in the works.

“Typically, when the City develops parks, the process begins with site analysis, public engagement, and the creation of concept plans,” Honeycutt said. “However, there is currently no funding available for design and site analysis work. When funding is identified for this park, the City would be able to begin the planning process, but at this time, there is no indication of when this could occur.”

Berkbuegler, the landscape architect who fancies the city’s skyline viewed from Riverfront Park, is now a senior principal at the Chicago office of Confluence, a landscape architecture and urban design firm that does a lot of work on Kansas City projects.

He says the plan the parks department paid his team to put together 18 years ago still holds up. After rereading it recently, Berkbuegler said he sees no reason it couldn’t be dusted off and executed with little to no alterations today.

“It’s a good plan. It’s an old plan. But honestly, I think it’s still relevant because nothing significantly has changed in that area since 2006 other than just more activity along the river that’s creeping this way,” he said.

All Riverfront Park needs to become the great park that it could be, he and others said, is for officials with the political will to make it happen.

“Think what Berkley Park was 20 years ago. This is the same thing,” said former parks board member Anita Gorman. “Not every city is blessed with the kind of river that we’ve got.”

Councilman Bunch concurs. Extending the Riverfront Heritage Trail eastward from where it now ends below the Christopher S. Bond Bridge through Riverfront Park should be a city priority, he told The Star.

“My focus and intention is to extend our Riverfront trail to Riverfront Park and farther east, something we have some funding to do,” he said via email. “Riverfront Park is an opportunity to reconnect Kansas City to the Missouri River and truly establish a vibrant riverfront area that many large cities across the country have developed as community assets. It’s time we had something like that, too.”

Roger R. Guibor-McBride, who heads the volunteer group that tries to keep up the park, would love to see Riverfront Park be put to better use.

A proper trail would help, but for now he would be happy if the city invested in basic maintenance and management of the park.

“They could fix the bathroom. They could do the bare-bones minimum,” Guibor-McBride said. “Secure the park at night. Shut the gate. Give us some lights. Three things that will make a huge impact.”

Honeycutt said the city will look into that, but makes no promises.

“Parks will examine the gate, restroom issues, and lighting and develop an estimate to share with the 4th District Council,” she wrote. “There is no date for when this estimate will be completed or what action the Council will take following review.”

She said the parks department is shorthanded but is working to get the park ranger team fully staffed to better look after the city’s 220 parks and 130 miles of greenways.

Rangers are paid from $22.52 to $33.78 an hour, and one of their many duties is to lock the gates at the parks that have them at closing time.

“The more Parks is able to fill their open positions the better it can serve residents,” Honeycutt said.

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