KANSAS CITY, MO (KCTV) -- Details are firming up about a million-dollar renovation of a Kansas City park named after civil right leader Martin Luther King, Jr.
The project is being funded by the 15 and the Mahomies Foundation.
Tuesday night, members of the public weighed in on plans for the accessible playground and ways to honor Dr. King within it.
Each of those two topics were discussed separately by the design team, who laid out ideas based on earlier feedback. Then a member of a prominent civil rights group raised an unexpected concern in which the two collide.
Kevin Woolfolk, the director of membership engagement of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference’s Greater Kansas City Chapter, sent a message in the Zoom chat that read, “Not happy with ropes in the play area. Ropes are a symbol of Jim Crow racism, injustice, and terror…. Might be a good idea to eliminate ropes as a feature of the park.”
A representative of the playground design company was thrown for a loop.
“This is the first time I’ve seen a comment to that effect,” said Kristin Seifried, a representative with KOMPAN playground.
Tuesday night’s Zoom meeting was the third public feedback session on the project.
The space on Swope Parkway just west of 71 Highway was named after Dr. King more than 40 years ago. The KC Parks Department recently installed a new sign, new sidewalks, and a new restroom. Otherwise, it currently features just park benches, tennis courts, and a lot of unused grass on a hill.
“We’re super excited,” KC Parks Deputy Director Roosevelt Lyons said of the new project. “We feel like we’ve got a really good canvas to work with out there.”
The 15 and the Mahomies Foundation approached the city in September with interest in funding a destination accessible playground. When the Parks Board suggested Martin Luther King, Jr. Square Park as a good location, both agreed it should include something more than just play.
The hill above the tennis courts is where an accessible playground will go, but the park will also include a civil rights education component still being ironed out.
One idea involved large, tall block letters, possibly spelling out MLK.
“To serve as an iconic feature, that Instagrammable moment,” explained Carisa McMullen with Landworks Studio, the landscape architecture firm hired for the project.
She also shared some images of different kinds of artwork that could fit into a suggestion for community art.
On the education front, she received positive feedback in chat about a scavenger hunt concept. One idea she presented was to have a main panel with King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, then have shorter quotes from the speech at each play area. For example, set up a xylophone in one spot and incorporate a quote in which King speaks about “a beautiful symphony of brotherhood.” At the slide, a relevant quote would be one that includes the phrase, “justice rolls down like waters.” Alternately, she said, the concept could work with significant dates and relevant facts.
What took some by surprise was a remark about a playground feature involving a multi-tier rope course.
“We have to be careful with symbolism. A rope is a very, very bad symbol for a lot of African Americans,” Woolfolk said during open comment.
“We thought it was kind of like a mountain and that symbolized Martin Luther King Jr.’s speech,” said Seifried.
She noted that rope courses are a common feature in destination parks and work well as something that is accessible and inclusive for all physical abilities, with different heights for different ability levels.
“It’s hard to get something with a wow factor and inclusivity without using rope play of some sort,” she noted. “If you don’t use ropes, you end up with just a bunch of plastic panels.”
“I’m not here to suggest what they do. I’m just giving my comment,” said Woolfolk, after hearing Seifried’s response.
Jason Parson, the CEO of Parson + Associates, the PR firm hired for the project, expressed thanks for the insight but made no promises.
“If there is something that we have overlooked or something that we haven’t considered, your speaking up and saying that may shed light on something for us to maybe pivot. Maybe not. But at least it’s something that gives us something to think about,” said Parson.
Several people asked if the tennis courts will remain. They will. Others asked about a splash park. Lyons said that was not part of the plan.
Other concerns raised included how to prevent vandalism, who will pay for upkeep and whether barriers will be built to keep kids from falling down the somewhat steep hill.
Project leaders discussed lighting components to address vandalism, an endowment to pay for upkeep, and the intention of leveling the hill to a less steep grade for kids’ safety.
Ground breaks on March 15th, with hopes of opening in the fall. Lyons said they are remaining flexible with a lot of the components in order to incorporate the feedback.
Thursday night the Parks Department will hold a separate feedback session on how to honor Dr. King throughout the city, not specific to that park.