By Mary Jo Draper
I’m part of a group trying to raise public interest in the preservation of Westport. The group, calling itself Help Save Old Westport, is currently conducting a GoFundMe campaign to pay for a historic survey of approximately 450 parcels of property that make up the area. In light of recent projects and planned development, this is an important time for those interested in history, neighborhood preservation and local ownership to consider whether Westport needs protection to guide its future.
Westport is perhaps the most significant historical resource in Kansas City. It was, of course, a nationally-significant outfitting center for those going west on the Santa Fe and other trails. It was also a town of its own before Kansas City grew and annexed it. And Westport is a place that almost everyone in the Kansas City area, as well as many people coming to visit, recognizes as having a unique local flavor.
But change is coming to Westport.
Last week the Kansas City Business Journal reported on a developer’s preliminary plan “for a pair of 14-story mixed-use towers just north of the Tivoli Cinemas at Manor Square in Westport.” Construction is continuing at the corner of Westport Road and Broadway, where the former building (once a Starbucks) was torn down to construct a chain restaurant/bar. Other projects are currently rumored to be on the drawing board.
I’m among those who fear that the current historical and cultural significance of the buildings that make up Westport’s unique ambience right now could be at risk of disappearing if development continues at this pace.
Its time to slow down and assess exactly what it is that we value about Westport and what could be lost through development.
That’s why I am helping rally support and funding to get a historical survey of Westport done as quickly as possible. The survey will document and photograph each property, its age, architectural style, additions, builder and any historic events that took place in the building. This information, documenting Westport’s unique sense of place and development patterns, is an essential first step in a larger discussion about if and how to guide future development to preserve important history.
It comes as a surprise to many people that Westport does not have any unique historic designation that preserves its significant buildings. There are a number of options for adding more safeguards, and the survey is the starting point for making a decision about which one makes the most sense.
Westport doesn’t just have history, it has layers of history.
There is the early frontier history. As most everyone knows, Westport was a town before Kansas City, founded in the 1830s and thrived through its trade with the Indians and people heading west on the Santa Fe and other trails.
But there isn’t much left of that period, only a handful of buildings and homes. In fact, by the 1930s preservationists were calling for saving some of the old frontier buildings, but they didn’t get much traction and many were lost
There’s also another layer of history…the infrastructure of the early 1900s.
Like much of Midtown Kansas City, this area really developed, or was redeveloped, during this period. The streetscape we know today was for the most part built around a system of transportation, the streetcar, that made it important for people to be able to get off a streetcar at a major street, stop at a grocery store or hardware store, and walk the rest of the way home.
Over and over, one of the biggest challenges facing Midtown in general is how we incorporate new types of housing and new businesses into what we have now…this streetscape developed before 1930.
That also has a lot to do with the scale of development we see in Westport and across Midtown…a different type of streetscape than you see in newer parts of Kansas City or in the suburbs.
Now one issue we see when a national developer comes in is that the developer has a specific style and scale of building that doesn’t always fit with the scale that’s already here
And one of the questions is how much does that matter?
I think this is a question that many people need to be at the table to discuss: business owners; homeowners and renters; neighborhoods; churches; day care centers; schools; preservationists. In short, everyone who has a stake in the future of this important area of town.
Westport History Posts
Previous Midtown KC Post profiles of various Westport blocks offer a glimpse into the history that is part of this area of town.