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Archive for Monday, November 26, 2001

Union Station seeks expansion to increase revenue

November 26, 2001

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— Leaders of Union Station are proposing changes outside the structure to bring more people to the struggling landmark.

All the proposals are preliminary and face several obstacles. They are based on the theory that having more people living, working and driving around Union Station would increase traffic at the station.

The ideas include building a link with other downtown activity centers; adding an elevated walkway to the west end of the station and a traffic circle at a nearby interstate exit; using part of a nearby park for new housing and increasing office space at the U.S. post office in the neighborhood.

Union Station leaders have shown the ideas to community leaders ranging from Mayor Kay Barnes to Hallmark executives, but there are no written plans or cost estimates.

Ultimately, Union Station leaders hope to convince the public and private sectors to raise tens of millions of dollars for the station's operating endowment. Station leaders also want to be part of a city sales tax election.

"I ask myself, 'How does a university get its endowment up?' " said Turner White, Union Station's chief executive. "It gets there by having a program of work that people believe in.

"If they know a plan's in place, I could make a more viable case to funders for more support to the endowment."

So far, city officials have made no commitments, especially in light of other projects that need city money, such as the police department and expanding Bartle Hall.

"My initial reaction was, 'Interesting,' " said Vicki Noteis, the city's development director. "I know Union Station has been working on plans to make Union Station healthy, and this goes far beyond that."

Barnes told The Kansas City Star: "I think there will be a lot of discussion about how to integrate their concepts with other concepts on the table."

Union Station reopened two years ago after being renovated, partly financed with the nation's first bistate cultural sales tax. The new complex, controlled by a nonprofit corporation, houses Science City, three theaters, two restaurants and several small shops.

Attendance at Science City and its theaters has never approached projections, resulting in multimillion-dollar operating losses beyond what the station's endowment could cover. Local foundations have covered the extra losses but have indicated that they will not keep doing that.

So station leaders have brought in more exhibitions, such as the recent Titanic and dinosaur Sue. And renovations and changes at Science City are under way.

They also have lobbied to be included in the next bistate cultural tax, expected to go before voters next fall. Station leaders also want city officials to consider a city-only sales tax election to beef up the endowment from $28 million to at least $100 million.

"The basic concept here is not a new one linkages and connections," said local architect Mark Viets, who conceived the ideas. Many of the area's activity centers Union Station, 18th and Vine, the Kemper complex, the Freight House District and the future Performing Arts Center are too spread out to reach easily by walking.

The process of making connections, however, faces many obstacles, including politics, land acquisition and money.

Nevertheless, the new urban planning ideas fit with several of the city's own planning goals, from better connections between attractions to a more livable downtown.

"Conceptually, these are good ideas," Noteis said. "We have to concentrate on keeping our investments as closely connected as possible."

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