Restoring Power & Light: Iconic beacon beams with new life

The Power & Light Building came online at a time of optimism.
The building, the tallest in Missouri when it opened in 1931, symbolized a city on the rise. Its Art Deco design combined strength and style. Topping it off, a beacon marked this metropolis on the Great Plains that would give the world the powerful brushstrokes of Thomas Hart Benton, the bare-knuckled politics of Tom Pendergast and the imagination of Kansas City jazz.
As time passed, the tower also stood watch as a highway split Downtown in half, as clubs and stores gave way to shuttered buildings and haunted houses. Its namesake tenant, Kansas City Power & Light Co., moved out in the early 1990s, and renovation plans stacked up and gathered dust for lack of interest in an aging structure with outdated floorplates. Even as Downtown mounted a comeback, the tower’s name was appropriated for a new entertainment district that sprung up blocks away.
But Downtown’s renaissance eventually extended to the Power & Light Building. New restaurants and clubs caught the eyes of visitors as Sprint Center and the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts brought pulses of life back to the city’s core. People again looked to Downtown as a place to live.
“In my mind, it’s a very symbolic accomplishment — a symbol of the residential renaissance Downtown,” said Bill Dietrich, CEO of the Downtown Council of Kansas City.
The idea of converting the Power & Light Building from office to residential isn’t new. Ideas ranged from condos to apartments, from simple to luxury to strange.
Gailoyd Enterprises Corp., which bought the building in 1965, fought off the threat of having the building forcibly sold in the 1990s as part of the late Stan Durwood’s original Power & Light District plan.
In 2005, Steve Brettell of Alsation Land Co. LLC was promoting a plan to build a 15-story tower just west of the Power & Light Building. The plan called for changing the name of the P&L Building to the Edison Building, with the new structure to be called the Tesla Building.
Among the features of the Tesla Building would be solar panels that pulled power into a Tesla coil to create lightning bolts.
In 2007, Gailoyd had plans — and city bonds — to turn the Power & Light Building into condos. At the same time, Gailoyd was in court battles with The Cordish Cos., the developer selected by the city to develop a multiblock entertainment district. Gailoyd sought to block Cordish from using the “Power & Light” name, and Cordish claimed it had the right to manage any ground-floor retail in the Power & Light Building.
The frustrations of the Gailoyd era ended in 2014, when NorthPoint Development closed on its purchase of the building. Its $70 million plan involved converting the building to apartments and building a smaller building to its north with a parking garage wrapped by more apartments and retail space.
NorthPoint’s timing was right, said Christina Boveri, owner of Boveri Realty Group. The longtime downtown residential broker said the building hits the market at a time when Downtown is a prime target of renters and developers. And it offers a high-end product — upward of $2 a square foot — after One Light proved the market and before Two Light presents more competition.
“There are people attracted to the Power & Light Building because of its history,” Boveri said. “It is an iconic building.”
Dietrich sees the reuse of the building as part of Downtown’s resurgence. Downtown’s comeback, he said, was led by new entertainment and cultural options, including Sprint Center, the Kauffman Center and the Kansas City Power & Light District. That has fueled interest in living in Downtown, he said, where young people are attracted to a lifestyle not centered on the automobile.
The opening of Power & Light Apartments, Dietrich said, is pivotal in extending the general excitement for downtown residential to Baltimore Avenue. He noted the renewal of the old Kansas City Club building at 1228 Baltimore Ave. as The Brass on Baltimore, with apartments and event spaces, and plans to renovate the Mark Twain and Brookfield buildings at 11th Street and Baltimore.
As Downtown continues to add residents, retailers and other commercial development will follow, Dietrich said.
Greg Allen hopes that’s the case. Allen, president of Allen Financial Corp. and past president of Historic Kansas City, said he’s glad to see to the Power & Light Building preserved, albeit with a new purpose. He is, however, concerned that converting so many office towers to residential will rob Downtown of its role as a job center.
“I think if that’s how we save them, so be it,” he said. “But we have to be concerned at some point that we haven’t created a bedroom community Downtown.”
Boveri said she, too, is nervous at the prospect of 6,000 downtown residential units in the works. The key, she said, is continuing to market Downtown as a place for people to live and work.
“I’m an optimist,” Boveri said.

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