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River Walk in Brush Creek

By Alvin L. Groves, P.E.

A waterfall that cascades into Brush Creek was added to the William Volker Memorial Fountain area. Some have criticized the fountain's new site-- within forty feet of Volker Boulevard. Others say the high visibility will increase Kansas City citizens' awareness.

The Kansas City, Missouri Board of Parks and Recreation recently solved a flooding problem-- and developed a showcase river walk-- all within one project. But not without a struggle! Years of strong leadership, creative planning, tenacious resolve and great cooperation were needed to develop this combination flood control and linear park project.

In September 1977, a catastrophic flood on Brush Creek in Kansas City took twenty-five lives and resulted in over $69 million in property damage throughout the prestigious Country Club Plaza area. Immediately, the city first reacted to this tragedy by making certain that a flood prevention plan was implemented with the assurance that no such disaster would occur again.

Immediately following the flood, the Board of Parks and Recreation and the City of Kansas City met together with the United States Army Corps of Engineers (USCOE) to ascertain how any future similar disasters could be prevented. USCOE proposed the traditional plan to deepen and widen the drainage channel along a significant portion of the creek and line it with concrete; this would provide the flood control needed, but would result in a dry concrete channel awaiting its use for the next flood.

Kansas City's tradition of including parks as an important part of its growth has historic precedence dating back to 1891-- when voters amended the City Charter to create a Parks Board with the authority to issue city bonds.

Plans are completed for an amphitheater to be built on the north bank across from the newly constructed William Volker Memorial Fountain. The Missouri Department of Conservation plans to build their nature conservancy and headquarters downstream from the amphitheater. Groundbreaking should begin soon for restaurants, retail stores and offices planned for the Plaza East development which is on the north bank of one of the lakes.

Under this authority, the Parks Board implemented the Master Plan for parks, parkways and boulevards-- which was prepared by George Kessler, renowned Landscape Architect. This plan made significant use of the creek beds and greenways such as Brush Creek, and its implementation has resulted in a park and boulevard system recognized throughout the world.

Now rather famous for their parks, parkways and boulevards, the Parks Board members wanted to explore the possibility that flood control could be accomplished while still maintaining or enhancing the linear park setting of the creek.

Three pumps pull water from Brush Creek and push 15,000 gallons a minute over the cascade. The waterfall also helps aerate the creek water, which is sometimes fouled by sewage during wet weather. Volker Fountain uses fresh water-- not Brush Creek water-- to shoot four clusters of vertical jets in pools on either side of the Milles sculptures.

It was then that the Parks Commission looked to an earlier but similar model with the San Antonio, Texas RiverWalk. The San Antonio commission called on Groves & Associates, Inc.-- who had designed the 1968 RiverWalk extension-- to determine if their experience could provide a concept that would accommodate safe passage of the flood waters, while creating a linear park along the creek.

Immediately north of the memorial, not visible from Volker Boulevard, is a new fountain that at 272 feet becomes the city's largest. It is a roaring cascade of water that spills twenty feet over twin sets of steps on the south bank of Brush Creek.

The Groves team explored the flood area and analyzed its characteristics. From this data, team members developed a conceptional plan, preparing a computerized model which demonstrated the plan's flood control ability. This plan indicated that it was possible to create the park and maintain flood control by utilizing a series of dams, lakes and waterfalls with walks on either side that could be landscaped and lighted. This not only represented an enhancement to the creek area as a park, but also served as an opportunity to connect various areas along the corridor and encourage new economic development.

The Parks Commission led the way to bring together the plan by the Corps and the plan by the Groves group, pressing for additional review and discussion with the USCOE. In order to clearly substantiate the feasibility of the Groves plan, the Corps built a physical model of a major section of Brush Creek at the Waterways Experiment Station in Vicksburg, Mississippi and tested the computer modeling with an actual scale model.

The results of these tests proved to the Corps' satisfaction that the concept was technically acceptable. At this point, USCOE, the Public Works Department, the Parks Commission and the Groves consulting team began working together to develop a plan that addressed both flood control and park development.

Eighteen years later, the basic elements of the river walk are now in place with two dams, three lakes, fountains, lighting, landscaping, over three miles of river walks and a flowing creek with flood control. The creek has become an enhancement to Country Club Plaza and an attractive linear park for hiking, biking and just strolling for area residents.

The Volker Fountain and waterfall is intended to be viewed from the north and provide a backdrop for a natural amphitheater on the north bank.

Terry Dopson, Director of Parks and Recreation points to the history of Kansas City in providing urban adornment. "Since 1891 when the voters approved an amendment to the City Charter to allow creation of a Parks Board with authority to issue city bonds, Kansas City has excelled in creating urban adornment. In the next one hundred years, Brush Creek will be considered a major adornment legacy of the 1990's, just as Swope Park, the boulevards and fountains are now revered as the adornment of the early 1900's."

Convinced that both the public and private partnerships will create a successful river walk, Principal Al Groves indicates that now is the time that people will begin to take notice of the project.

According to Groves, "Kansas City has its own unique potential and its own unique problems. Every river walk we design is different--no two are alike because no city or rivers are alike. Our job is to find what works best for each individual city or setting. But for sure they are long-term projects to build and long-term projects in how they give back to the community."

After experiencing two storms that exceeded the 1977 flood, the design for flood safety has passed the test with no lives lost or property damage. Savings for those two storms alone would account for over $138 million in physical damage and, of course, the incalculable savings of untold lives.

Building on this unique accomplishment of vision, dedication to principle and cooperation has turned one of Kansas City's darkest days into a time of hope and optimism with a safer city, an enhanced park system and a new economic development. LASN

All photos provided courtesy of Groves & Associates, Inc.

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June 18, 2019, 6:47 pm PDT

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