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Safdie Sets Sights on Kansas City Skyline
Despite setbacks, two major projects are adding density and culture to the Missouri city's central district
Safdie's partially-completed West Edge project has seen its share of recession-related setbacks.
Courtesy Safdie Architects

Two of the four cranes on the skyline in Kansas City are for major Moshe Safdie projects. The developments—the West Edge, a $80 million mixed-use complex, and the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts (KCPA), a 285,000-square-foot, $413 million project that will house the Kansas City Symphony, Lyric Opera, and Kansas City Ballet—are not proceeding with equal ease.

On September 25, the KCPA held its one-year to completion party, but backers of the West Edge development, a 203,000-square-foot, nine-story project, are singing a different tune. On August 28, the half-completed project sold at auction for $10 million. That bid, as has been the history of this project, fell apart on October 12, and the second bid from the previous owner and original proponent of a mixed-use development secured the property for $9.5 million.

A casualty of the recession, the West Edge development has been hampered by delays, cost overruns, and the bankruptcy filing of its initial developer. Its new owner, Cecil Van Tuyl, has yet to confirm if the hotel, office, and retail complex will be completed with the same composition or the same architect. "This was a custom-designed office building like a made-to-measure suit. It is unfortunate that those who the building was designed for are not going to be benefiting from the fruits of their labor," Safdie told AN.

The West Edge massing has been tailored with a complex series of step-downs, cut-outs, and atria to fit into the neighborhood context.

In the 1990s, Cecil Van Tuyl proposed a massive redevelopment at the location of the West Edge project only to be rebuffed by community opposition. When Bob Bernstein of Bernstein-Rein Advertising created Trilogy Development to develop a custom-made office complex for his firm, he learned from this earlier attempt. Through an international competition that required and sought significant community input, the Moshe Safdie project easily navigated the approval process. With its curb cuts limited to a private drive through the center of the site, glass atriums stepping down toward Brush Creek, and the tapering of building heights from high to lower density areas going east to west and north to south, the project was designed to fit into the character of the neighborhood.

Yet down the road and only a few miles to the north, the KCPA has a very different relationship with the city. Shortly after winning the competition for West Edge, Safdie was invited back to Kansas City by Julia Kauffman, daughter of Ewing Kauffman of the Kauffman Foundation and Marion Laboratories, to assist the design of the nascent civic project, whose total budget includes $326 million devoted to the performing arts center itself, plus a $40 million endowment and a $47 million, 1,000-car underground parking garage funded by the city. Safdie said, "The relationship cemented itself fairly quickly, and within a few weeks I was working on my designs." Instead of forcing the programming into one multi-purpose event hall, the project contains two venues tailored specifically to its users. The two large shells mark the emergence of each venue from a grand foyer and lobby that faces south toward the city.

The Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts will contain two performance halls and a grand, glazed foyer gesturing toward the city.

Somewhat shielded to the north from Kansas City's downtown skyline, the second primary entrance is an extension of Central Avenue, which becomes the cavern between the two performance halls and provides access from the Bartle Hall Convention Center directly to the north. "I hope this building will change the self-image of the city," said Safdie. "It is very iconic because it is memorable, it is talked about, and it elicits, I hope, affection."

Gunnar Hand