Robert Altman’s 1996 film Kansas City may have left a sour note at the box office, but on a recent visit to its namesake town, it kept popping up in conversation. Widely panned by critics and all but forgotten in the director’s distinguished oeuvre, the film turns out to have had a positive effect on the city itself. Setting the movie in 1934, Altman returns to the Kansas City of his youth—a burgeoning Art Deco metropolis full of shady dealings and smoldering jazz. In restoring decrepit period locations, like the Beaux Arts Union Station, the Spanish-revival Granada Theater, and the 18th and Vine jazz district, the movie’s production unwittingly spurred on a downtown revival that continues today.
Over the course of the 20th century, Kansas City suffered a fate common among American cities: Minced by imposing highways and strangled by suburban flight, its downtown was left for dead. On a sunny summer day in 2006, however, there are signs of life. Civic development comes in the form of a huge new IRS headquarters (its location selected amid low-rise structures largely for homeland-security reasons) and the soon-to-be-completed 18,500-seat Sprint Center. These large-scale projects are just the tip of the development iceberg. Kansas City’s downtown population has increased—from 13,000 in 2000 to 16,700 in 2005—with the real estate market swiftly following suit. Once-dilapidated high-rises are being snapped up and turned into housing. A quick search of KClofts.com reveals 49 buildings with available units for sale. At the top of the list is 5 Delaware.
Unlike the competition, 5 Delaware is unabashedly contemporary. "When the downtown market started happening, we wanted to do something where we didn’t have the restraints of working in a historic structure," says Chris Sally, a partner in Marketview Properties, the 13-unit building’s developer. For four years, Sally served as downtown development director for the city’s
Economic Development Corporation and was schooled in local real estate dealings. With 5 Delaware, he had a vision for something unique. "We didn’t want to do anything too controversial, but we also didn’t want to do anything safe. We knew we would piss off about 30 percent of the people, but that there would also be 20 percent who’d say, This is what I’ve been waiting for."
Sally and his partner Jim Potter found the perfect architects in El Dorado Inc. "We knew there was this tension between the nostalgic architecture people and the new breed of young professional types who wanted a modern building," says Dan Maginn, one of El Dorado’s founding partners. "We thought we could do something that really paid more homage to historic buildings by way of scale and typology than trying to replicate them."
For the past decade, El Dorado, or "the Eldos" as the firm’s members are known to friends, has been at the heart of Kansas City’s metamorphosis. From an office in the Crossroads Arts District, a once-overlooked neighborhood just south of downtown (at the cusp of gentrification but still largely dominated by Mexican eateries and graduates of Kansas City’s Art Institute), El Dorado has overseen a prolific number of projects both large and small. It is as adept at turning out AIA Award–ready single-family homes and commercial spaces as idiosyncratic installation art (such as the BaDDaSS—an elaborate overscaled bacon-distributing device built for a neighborhood Mardi Gras parade). Part of El Dorado’s unique approach comes from the fact that its members are not only architects but also fabricators—each endeavor informs the other. With 5 Delaware, the Eldo team was able to put all of their talents to work.
The building’s design arose out of the constraints and opportunities offered by the sloping 9,800-square-foot site at the corner of Fifth and Delaware streets in the River Market—a pedestrian-friendly neighborhood cordoned off from the rest of the city by a mind-boggling array of roads (Interstates 70, 35, and 29; Highways 169, 71, and 24) and the Missouri River. "It was a unique lot," says Doug Stockman, an El Dorado partner who was the building’s lead designer on a team that included Maginn and Sean Slattery. "Even though it was infill, it wasn’t cramped in between two buildings. We had a lot of exposure on all the right sides—east, west, and south. So we wanted to make the most of that."
The lot’s downward slope also meant that a slight excavation could create underground parking, which lent itself to a stacked multifloor building as opposed to the cluster of townhouses the developers initially envisioned. Utilizing the maximum footprint allowed by code meant that the team was limited with what they could do on the building’s north side, which abuts another property. But out of this constraint, the building’s plan readily fell into place. The light- and window-deprived north became the obvious place to locate the building’s corridors. "There was a little fear that that would create long narrow spaces in the middle," concedes Stockman, "but you need some of the units to be more affordable, so it seemed like a natural solution."
The building’s first two floors feature units that range from 1,780 to 2,200 square feet. Marketview Properties maintains an office on the first floor—in keeping with the neighborhood’s blend of commercial and residential space. The designers packed five two-story penthouses onto the third floor, all of which feature gracious rooftop decks with panoramic views of downtown.
One of the first buyers was longtime city architect Tom Bean and his wife, Dyanne. "I’ve always liked the character of this street," says Bean. "Dyanne had been wanting to move downtown for a while and said, ‘Let’s go take the urban homes tour.’ They had a tent set up here [at 5 Delaware] with a sign, and I just had a good feeling for it." Bean’s enthusiasm lent a great deal of credence to the project for both the architects and the developers.
River Market’s stalwart traditionalists weren’t as easily convinced, and the building went through a series of design revisions. For El Dorado, working with an exposed concrete frame not only made sense structurally, but also paid homage to the surrounding turn-of-the-century masonry buildings. Because "brick just seemed odd," the team decided to wrap the exterior in Mangaris wood and painted steel. "We picked three basic nonsynthetic materials that made sense," says Stockman. In the meantime, just down the street architecture firm HOK’s ultra-modern sports-division headquarters went up. "They got a lot of heat and took some pressure off us," notes Sally.
To keep costs down—5 Delaware was built for a mere $76 per square foot—and to offer potential buyers the most flexibility, the units were sold as "warm shells," which buyers had to finish out themselves with their own architect and contractors. "Given that," explains Stockman, "the intent of the building was to try and set the tone for what would be done inside. So far, nobody’s come in and done a country kitchen."
Sally and his fiancée, Julie Gibson, moved into their El Dorado–designed second-story unit in the spring of 2006. "The lifestyle of living down here is unbelievable," Sally says. "There’s no yard to clean up. Saturdays and Sundays are free to walk a block to the gym or to the market." But the best part: "It’s 35 steps down to my office—you can’t beat that."
All but three of the Delaware’s units have sold, and Sally is working on two more River Market developments. Meanwhile, El Dorado has fully moved into its new Crossroads office and has a slew of projects on the boards. The trains that rumble through downtown Kansas City may no longer be full of livestock, but the city’s stock is on the rise.
Sam Grawe served as the Editor-in-Chief of Dwell from 2006 to 2011.