Courtey BNIM, photography by Kelly Callewaert, staging by Joshua Nunez

In Kansas City, a Dialogue with the Past

BNIM’s design for the West Bottoms Flats in Kansas City, Missouri, traces the area’s evolution from industry hub to urban haunt.

More than a historic renovation, BNIM’s design for the West Bottoms Flats in Kansas City, Missouri, is an exercise in evolution. On the surface, the project transformed four historic buildings—three of them into a mixed-use development featuring 265 residential units and ground-level commercial space, and a fourth into parking. More broadly, and through thoughtfully executed details, the project is an attempt to breathe new life into a postindustrial area without commodifying its past or diluting its spirit.

The West Bottoms is a low-lying area that sits just west of downtown Kansas City, Missouri. Its location at the confluence of the Kansas and Missouri Rivers attracted French settlers in the early 1800s. Since then its reputation has alternated between energy and eeriness: It was a busy railroad and livestock-trade hub, but it has also been the site of repeated catastrophic floods. More recently, it served as a semi-abandoned playground for graffiti artists and urban explorers.

With 265 residential units, commercial space, and parking, the mixed-use project contains the area’s only significant housing development.

West Bottoms Courtyard
Architects adapted four industrial buildings in the once-abandoned West Bottoms neighborhood, and added a central courtyard flanked by existing murals created by graffiti artists decades ago. Courtesy BNIM, photography by Kelly Callewaert, staging by Joshua Nunez

Just a few blocks from shops, art galleries, speakeasy-style bars, and a handful of haunted houses, the recently completed West Bottoms Flats is now the area’s only significant residential development. To attract residents looking for affordable rents near the city center, the developer requested small apartments, a challenge given the buildings’ massive floor plates. Selective demolition close to the center of each residential building’s floor plan created a series of light courts, which allow daylight and fresh air into interior spaces.

Describing the architectural team’s approach, project designer Elvis Achelpohl says it was important to express the materiality of the buildings while maintaining the “hidden, industrial, overgrown” aesthetic of the area. To complement exposed brick, concrete, and heavy timber throughout, a central courtyard features native plantings and is flanked by existing murals created by street artists over the decades. This light-touch approach is also apparent in the way the project addressed the site’s alleys. In the area’s heyday, railcars would move through alleys and pull into loading docks inside the buildings. In
recent years, as the West Bottoms turned into an industrial wasteland, the alleys—more sheltered and human-scale—became the primary pedestrian walkways through the neighborhood.

West Bottoms Interior
BNIM used a light touch in renovations, leaving facades intact and highlighting industrial architectural elements such as exposed brick, concrete floors, and garage doors. Courtesy BNIM, photography by Kelly Callewaert, staging by Joshua Nunez

Achelpohl says responding to this condition meant not returning alleys to a strictly “back of house” role. Instead, the designers maintained street-facing facades to satisfy historic requirements. His team elevated loading docks and some alleyways with architectural elements such as glass garage doors or by adding entryways and lobbies to those sides of the buildings, a nod to the way the buildings were originally accessed.

The West Bottoms Flats occupies only about half a city block, but in many ways the project reaches beyond its footprint to support a better urban environment. Craig Scranton, project principal, says renovating four buildings at once was one way to seed a neighborhood. The development now sits in the middle of a newly created national historic district, West Bottoms-North, which radiates several blocks out and is intended to spur further development adhering to historic preservation standards.

Perhaps most important, the developer and the city teamed up to create a system that can collect up to 150,000 gallons of stormwater from alleys surrounding the buildings and, during major flood events, slowly release the water into the municipal combined storm and sewer system. Given the history of flooding in the area, this bit of green infrastructure—much like the overall project— is another example of investment that not only appreciates the past but protects it.

Project Credits

  • Design architect, interior architect and landscape architect: BNIM
  • Contractor: Rau Construction
  • Structural engineers: Bob D. Campbell 
  • Civil engineers: Taliaferro & Brown 
  • Code consultant: FP&C
  • Owner: MCM Company, Inc.
  • Photographer: Kelly Callewaert
  • Stager: Joshua Nunez

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