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This past spring and summer KCUR and The Kansas City Star reported on the role the Missouri River played in the development of the Kansas City and the Northland. Back in April, Steve Paul asked, “Will Kansas City ever truly embrace the waterfront where it was born?” I spoke with Steve. My answer to his question was no because nothing would happen until Harlem and Clay County were included in any riverfront plans. It is at that point the city will embrace a revitalization of its birthplace.
Clay County has 31 miles of riverfront, and the only recent development along the river has been the casinos. Harlem is 50-acres of mostly open space directly across the river from the RiverMarket. Harlem was annexed by Kansas City in 1950. In its current state, Harlem is underutilized and under developed due to the area being isolated from the surrounding areas by the levee, railroad tracks and the Broadway Bridge extension.
Over the years there have been a few proposals briefly discussed for Harlem’s redevelopment. The plans were to dock the USS Missouri at Harlem, de-annexing the area from Kansas City; allowing North Kansas City to have it and in the early 1990’s a group of University of Kansas architecture students suggested a housing development and park.
Harlem becoming a part of North Kansas City has merit. Harlem has always felt more a part of North Kansas City. Kansas City has had 65 years to do something and hasn’t. Harlem is a mile away from the new ‘Crossroads’ and together the two could be to Kansas City what Hoboken, NJ is to New York City. Harlem is also a part of the North Kansas City Special Road District and North Kansas City Levee District. Some property owners would love to see Harlem join North Kansas City and be developed for industrial purposes.
Harlem and the rest of the Clay County riverfront has a lot more to offer than just industrial use and I believe the students from KU had the right idea. Modern midrise condos and apartments could replace the current Harlem apartment complex. The historic Harlem church would remain untouched. Most of the Harlem area could provide space for a wide variety of recreational activities. The levee could be opened as a trail connecting North Kansas City, Chouteau’s Trading Post, Randolph’s Crossing and Cooley Lake. A marina and amphitheater could be used as anchors to bring events to the park.
2022 marks the 200th anniversary of the founding of Clay County. It would be great to help celebrate this occasion with the opening of Clay County’s first riverfront park in Harlem and by making Clay County’s riverfront one of our region’s premier public spaces.