Thirty years ago, the old Kuhlman Diecasting plant just south of 159th Street and Mission Road was abandoned, gradually becoming a toxic eyesore and a danger to the school children who made it their forbidden playground.
Now, after years of frustration, the plant’s demolition and environmental clean up, local officials are considering making the site a trail hub that would connect bike and nature trails in the area and, they hope, improve the Blue River watershed.
The parks board looked at trail concept plans last week
Johnson County Park and Recreation board members last Wednesday took a first look at some park use concepts for the Kuhlman site in unincorporated Johnson County and adjacent land owned by Overland Park.
The 35.15-acre Kuhlman plant sits near a bend in the Blue River, separated from the water by a levee, but still vulnerable to flooding. It was abandoned in 1990 after the company underwent bankruptcy and it is still privately owned.
In the decades since the bankruptcy, the 74,000-square-foot building deteriorated. Hazardous chemicals used in the die casting remained on the site until the federal Environmental Protection Agency designated it a Superfund project and cleaned it up enough for some passive use. There are still active monitoring wells on the site but the building was demolished earlier this year.
Last Wednesday, SWT Design team members Lance Klein and Will Metcalf presented some ideas for repurposing the land into a nexus of trails.
They presented two concepts, both of which would create internal looping trails on or near the Kuhlman plant. Those trails could also connect to the Camp Branch Streamway trail.
The site and surrounding area would then become part of a system of trails connecting to Wilderness Lake Park and Blue River Streamway Park. The Blue Valley Wilderness Science Center, near Blue Valley Middle School, is also nearby.
The concepts have some differences. One plan, dubbed the Kuhlman site connection plan, would have a higher level of development with more trail loops than the other plan. It would also make use of the levee as a trail and would have restrooms and a small play area. It is the more expensive of the two, at an estimated $10.4 million.
The Overland Park connection plan includes trail loops, mowed paths, a small shelter and open lawn area. Disc golf was also proposed. That concept would cost about $8.2 million to develop.
The site might need more environmental cleanup
The project comes with complications that board members said they needed time to study. For instance the EPA cleanup is to commercial standards, not residential standards. As such, some board members hesitated to allow more intense uses like playgrounds.
The site is also bisected by a railroad tracks with permissions and easements required. Moreover, the county would need to acquire the Kuhlman site.
County Commissioner Charlotte O’Hara, who was instrumental in bringing the site to the public’s attention in 2020, spoke in favor of park development as a private citizen at the board meeting.
“The property is there. What are we going to do as a community to make this problem an asset,” she said, noting that people are already using it for biking and off-roading. The new trails might also take some bicycle traffic off of Mission Road, she said.
Commissioner Becky Fast, also speaking as a private citizen, said developing the trails provides an opportunity to make a healthier watershed area. She said federal and state entities might be available to help with the watershed restoration.
Some park district board members agreed that stewardship of the environment is key, but wondered about the price tag. The Kuhlman connection is not included in any long-range park budget as of yet.
County Commissioner Jeff Meyers, who is a liaison to the park district board, said, “I love the concept. I think it works. But there are some issues I would be very concerned about. The big question is, where’s the money coming from?”
Roxie Hammill is a freelance journalist who reports frequently for the Post and other Kansas City area publications. You can reach her at email@example.com.