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the entertainment center experiment

kansas City's restored Union Station may have a tough time passing muster as a true urban entertainment center. NikeTown, Restoration Hardware and Virgin Megastore are nowhere to be found. There's no megaplex theater, no Wolfgang Puck. In fact, of the building's 750,000 sq. ft., only 57,000 sq. ft. is set aside for retail- 30,000 sq. ft. for restaurants and the remainder for shops.

Then again, Union Station exhibits the free-form nature that characterizes entertainment centers, boasting an attraction unlike any other in the country: a science museum as its anchor.

Called Science City, this ticketed, hands-on, educational and family-oriented entertainment experience includes a live-performance stage, a planetarium and an Iwerks Extreme Screen. The 272,000 sq. ft. venue is an addition to the renovated Union Station train terminal.

Local civic leaders expect the $250 million renovation project, which opened in November 1999, to attract 1 million visitors per year.

"The whole thing in essence is an urban entertainment center that's built around Science City," explains David Ucko, president of Science City. "It's really what we view as a new form of recreational learning that draws from science centers, theme parks and theaters to create a unique attraction in which visitors explore a city. And in exploring the city they discover things that are fun."

On the other hand, some visitors may see the building itself as the anchor. Originally opened in 1914 as a train terminal, Union Station was designed by Chicago architect Jarvis Hunt in the classical Beaux-Arts architectural style. Much of the building, restored to its original design, remains public space.

"There are a lot of people who are going to come to see the building itself; the architecture is pretty majestic," says Mike Kemper, general manager of retail at Union Station for Atlanta-based Jones Lang LaSalle. "We expect the restaurant and retail uses to flourish off that traffic and the traffic generated by Science City. It never was designed to be like a mall or a shopping destination."

Instead, the intent of Kansas City civic and business leaders was to make Union Station an educational laboratory during the day and an adult playground at night. But city leaders also want the station to create a link between areas to its south and north, thus fashioning a larger entertainment and cultural district. They've also been touting a future transportation hub at the station to serve buses, taxis, cross-country trains and, if the infrastructure is ever built, commuter trains and light rail.

"Those kinds of future components that someday may be done are all an attempt to bring people together and make connections in this urban setting," says Andy Scott, president of Union Station Assistance Corp. (USAC), which owns Union Station. "We're pleased we can be a part of implementing many of those goals as they pertain to this area."

Restoring a focal point In its heyday, more than 200 trains stopped at Union Station each day, and half of all U.S. military personnel passed through the station during World War II. But as airplanes began to replace trains as the preferred mode of travel after the war, business at Union Station dwindled.

In 1985, Amtrak left. A restaurant, the lone operator in the station, left in 1989, and maintenance of the structure ceased. A lawsuit was filed by the city in 1988 against Canadian-based Trizec Corp., which owned the station. Six years later, a settlement was reached that put the historic edifice in the hands ofUSAC, a nonprofit organization.

More than $100 million in private gifts and federal and state funds, along with $118 million to be raised through a precedent-setting, voter-approved sales tax that crossed Kansas and Missouri state lines, finally sparked revitalization of the national landmark beginning in 1997.

Dozens of firms teamed up to renovate the building. Hines Interests of Houston and M.A. Mortenson of Minneapolis managed the project. Ehrenkrantz Eckstut & Kuhn of New York oversaw historic preservation, while design of Science City and other adaptive reuses of Union Station were the responsibility of Keyes Condon Florance of Washington, D.C. Locally, J.E. Dunn Construction Co. and Malco Steel Inc. joined forces to become general contractor of the endeavor.

Today, visitors who enter the Grand Hall - a room 242 feet long and 95 feet high - will see the room much as it looked when the station opened some 85 years ago. Workers scrubbed the smoke-blackened and chalk-stained stone walls to reveal the original beige tone. They painted the massive arched window trim Pullman green to match the original color, and they restored three massive iron and brass chandeliers that weigh 3,500 pounds each.

To the north stands the former main waiting room, now known as Festival Plaza, which is 334 feet long and 86 feet wide. Most of this area sits beyond the ticket gates and will feature exhibits that change throughout the year. The station also is making Festival Plaza available for private parties. The Adventure Store, a gift shop owned by Science City, is nearby and accessible without buying a ticket for Science City. Beyond the gates is the entrance to Science City, which sits below street level where passengers used to get on and off trains. This major addition juts out of the station's west wall under an enormous glass and steel structure.

Inside Science City, more than 50 "environments" await young visitors who, among other activities, can report a breaking news story on television, train for the next space shuttle mission, explore a re-created Cretaceous landscape from 70 million years ago, take part in surgery, or walk underground among plant roots and ants. Plans call for Science City to expand to the west in the coming years, and Union Station officials intend to change the offerings to keep the museum fresh.

To the west of the Grand Hall, below another former waiting room, is the Theater District. Daytime showings and performances cater to a family audience while nighttime offerings serve adult tastes. For example, during the day, the planetarium, known as the City Dome, uses panoramic video and laser effects to transport viewers throughout the Milky Way. Evening shows in the City Dome concentrate on multimedia events using a high-tech video projection system, lasers and other special effects.

The Iwerks Extreme Screen, also part of the Theater District, made two simultaneous U.S. debuts in November: one at Science City and the other at COSI science center in Columbus, Ohio. Exhibiting educational and entertaining large-format films, the giant five-story screen is enhanced by both two- and three-dimensional projection techniques.

Leasing to local entrepreneurs "To me, this is an amusement park for the mind," says Alan Richman, co-owner of Fitz's Bottling Co. in St. Louis, who is putting a full-service restaurant in the station's Theater District that will feature a root beer microbrewery and bottling operation. "The Science City concept made sense to me. I liked the idea that Union Station wasn't going to be a shopping center but more of an educational and entertainment place."

The decision to operate in Union Station marks Fitz's first restaurant foray out of St. Louis, where the company operates two restaurants. Fitz's is typical of the kind of retail that Union Station officials want: unique and entrepreneurial.

Officials with Jones Lang LaSalle, charged with managing and leasing the retail space, approached some national companies about coming to the station, but they found that smaller local and regional companies understood the concept better and were more willing to make an investment in the project.

As a result, Union Station has enlisted dining spots such as Pierpont's, a seafood restaurant and bar that will span three levels in a former waiting room off the Grand Hall, and Union Cafe, a casual, two-level restaurant located in the middle of the Grand Hall where train ticketing once took place. Despite being indoors, the cafe has a Parisian touch - tables spill out into the main floor of the room, which invites people-watching.

Other restaurants and retailers located throughout the project include Java Time, Westport Soda Fountain and Rocky Mountain Chocolate Factory. Potential tenants at press time were a Chinese food restaurant, pretzel maker, children's bookstore, gift shop, simulator ride and retail arcade.

Another signed tenant is Nature's Critters, an offshoot (and the first one) of The Nature of Things Store, based in Milwaukee. While The Nature of Things sells goods at a wide range of prices, Nature's Critters is a higher-end store that sells clothing, artwork, furniture, jewelry, sculptures, books and other items with an animal motif.

"Because we're so involved in the kind of retail that fits with that kind of use, the Science City concept was easier for us to understand and get excited about," says Deanna Radaj, a consultant for Nature's Critters. "We're on the same wavelength."

Union Station officials hope to increase the number of retailers and restaurants - and even add a few national names - over the coming years. A 150,000 sq. ft. building just west of the station is slated for future commercial development.

"I think there's promise that we'll see some recognizable names in that building," Kemper says. "We think the opening of Union Station will add momentum to that whole process, so we could see it open in two or three years."

Creating a district City leaders hope that Union Station again becomes a focal point for residents in the Kansas City area and throughout the region, and the station is well-situated to fulfill that desire. To the southeast of the station sits Crown Center, Hallmark Cards Inc.'s 84-acre office, retail, residential and convention hotel development. To the north of the station, on the other side of a dozen train tracks, sits the Freight House District, a fledgling commercial area where artists have turned old warehouses into studios, galleries and lofts. With the opening of Union Station, city officials and others see the three separate areas as one district.

"The planning that we've done and will continue to do has been with parties that are involved with Crown Center, the Freight House District, the city and others," says Scott, president of USAC. "We want to keep the district in mind and present a seamless experience as far as how people get around and understand one location and its connection to another location."

Crown Center and USAC are building an overhead walkway of green-tinted glass that will pass over two major roadways to link Union Station to Westin Crown Center hotel, which is connected to a 300,000 sq. ft. shopping center and the rest of Crown Center development. Crown Center recently completed an extensive $8 million facelift and renovation of the shopping center that is becoming a showcase for Hallmark brands, such as the first-ever Crayola Cafe and Store.

At Crown Center, too, the focus has long been on the unique rather than nationwide, which helped forge Union Station's retail strategy (Jones Lang LaSalle's Mike Kemper came from Crown Center). Crown Center also is considering upgrading its open-air pavilion that features ice skating in the winter and concerts in the summer across the street from the shopping center.

"We're just trying to roll everything into one," says Rick Nash, vice president of leasing for Crown Center Redevelopment Corp. "I think everybody agrees that there's a real district here now, and that district feeling is what we want to project."

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