Tract blossoming as a green haven ; DST turns unused lot at 18th and Broadway into an innovative community garden.

By Kevin Collison
Credit: The Kansas City Star
Friday, October 8, 2010
Edition: METROPOLITAN, Section: NATIONAL/LOCAL, Page A9

Tom McDonnell, President and CEO of DST Systems, Inc. and Kathy Pemberton, with DST human resources and a garden coordinator,  laugh on Thursday, Oct. 7,  as they talk about the new garden, 18 Broadway, that DST converted from a vacant lot at 18th Street and Broadway. It's a demonstration project for community gardening, storm-water management and other green initiatives.

PHOTO BY: ALLISON LONG
KANSAS CITY STAR 100710

Tom McDonnell of DST Systems, one of the city’s top business leaders, has created an urban oasis at 18th Street and Broadway that showcases the smartest environmental practices.

Only don’t call what’s being dedicated today a park.

Sure, his financial services firm has spent $4 million transforming a vacant downtown block near the new Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts into a tranquil setting of plants, trees, marshland and walking paths.

And if some of those caterpillars imported to the site become black swallowtails, that’s OK, too.

McDonnell admits stopping by with his wife after dining out, sitting on a bench overlooking the site made from lumber salvaged from the Coney Island amusement park and enjoying what’s being called 18Broadway.

But all this serenity camouflages a very busy environmental workshop.

A super-efficient windmill along with a dozen solar panels generate electricity. The moist, grassy swale around the perimeter will absorb thousands of gallons of storm-water runoff from nearby streets. And the 60 wooden boxes loaded with dark earth are a community garden that’s expected to produce more than a ton of produce for the Harvesters community food network.

To McDonnell, the block between Broadway and Central Street, from 18th to 19th streets, is a model for civic improvements as small as turning vacant lots into neighborhood agricultural plots or as big as the $2.5 billion, court-ordered storm-water management project the city is about to embark upon in the coming years.

"If you drive around the city, you can see a lot of places with park department land or city land where you could divert water into it without a lot of investment," McDonnell said. "We’d like the city to get more excited about more of these concepts."

David Warm, executive director of the Mid-America Regional Council, said his organization had recognized 18Broadway as a "sustainable success."

"We think this model is so effective at achieving multiple objectives," he said. "It brings an underutilized space into a community asset."

He added the DST project should also be instructive to the city. The 25-year plan entered into with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to substantially reduce storm-water overflows calls for using rain gardens and other environmentally friendly techniques as much as possible.

"This will be a living laboratory for green solutions to storm-water management," Warm said of the project.

The genesis of 18Broadway began four years ago with an uncharacteristic flop for DST Realty, a development subsidiary. DST had wanted to jointly develop a 17-story luxury condominium building at the site, but the market never materialized, and the plan was eventually shelved.

Stuck with the tract, once the site of an old garage for the U.S. Postal Service, DST decided to get creative.

"With all the vacant office space in the city, there would probably be no commercial use for some time, so we could have just let it set and mow it," McDonnell said.

"Our sense was, there may be ways, while holding the ground, to use it and improve it for people."

DST had experience with a community garden tilled by its workers at 10th Street and Jefferson Avenue. The firm also has a community garden at 51st and Main streets. It also has a long relationship with 360 Architecture, a firm that has designed many of its projects.

So 360 was invited to help design 18Broadway, an environmental testing ground that’s also adding to the aesthetics of the nearby Crossroads Arts District. The bulk of the work -- and the cost -- was associated with the perimeter of the project. New curbs and sidewalks were built, with openings that allow storm water to flow from the street into the adjoining swale.

As water runs off the concrete surfaces, it’s absorbed into the boggy swale around the edge and then flows to tanks capable of storing 40,000 gallons. The grade of the site -- it drops 34 feet from the Broadway side to Central -- helps the drainage. The water can then be pumped to irrigate the boxes and containers used for the community garden.

In addition to the windmill and other environmentally friendly features, McDonnell brought in a device he saw while vacationing in Colorado: a solar-powered trash compactor. It even calls automatically when it needs to be emptied.

Sign boards on the 18th Street side of the property discuss the project’s environmental features. Backers hope school groups and others visit the site, which is open to the public. For now, however, only volunteers from DST and 360 will be getting their hands dirty at the community garden.

Mary McClure, chairwoman of the Harvesters board, said her group welcomed the food being grown at 18Broadway.

"There’s a strong demand for emergency food, probably the most we’ve seen in 30 years," she said.

"To have this as a source of food is great, and it’s such healthy food. DST has been a tremendous partner for almost all of our history."

18Broadway will be open to the public to learn and enjoy for the foreseeable future. But once again, it’s not a park.

Someday, when the commercial real estate market changes, DST envisions building up to a 250,000-square-foot project on the site.

But while the gardens would be displaced, the water-absorbing swales around the perimeter are permanent features that will retain their usefulness however the property is used.

To reach Kevin Collison, call 816-234-4289 or send e-mail to kcollison@kcstar.com.