Q&A With Jon Stephens

President and CEO of Port KC, Jon Stephens.

Ingram's speaks with the president and CEO of Port KC, Jon Stephens about the progress of the Berkely Riverfront development, its challenges and its impact on the Kansas City community. 

Posted January 30, 2024

"From vision to reality, that has been our biggest focus. Looking into how we gain momentum to make sure Kansas City has the best places that make us the most appealing city of choice to stay and move to."

Q: The Berkely Riverfront development began as far back as 2014, how has the development changed over the years?

A: It started under Mayor Cleaver when the Port Authority cleaned up the riverfront. My predecessors cleaned it and put the first 14 acres of the Berkley Riverfront Park in, making it ready for development. Then the development languished for several years, however, we are a stride now and fulfilling a real niche in the city.

Q: The whole river strip down to Interstate 35 is quite the undertaking, has the development always encompassed such a large area?

A: No, we worked hard to assemble the full 55 acres. It was all cleared industrial and environmentally remediated land. Then we worked to assemble the full fifty-five including the park and put in the roadways and infrastructure to make it a significant development parcel that we thought would be the type of area that could become a great walkable and dynamic riverfront for Kansas City.

Q: Additions to the development like the Kansas City Current CPKC Stadium and the KC Streetcar extension have made headlines for the area. What is it like working with those partners and how does Port KC juggle multiple major developments at the same time?

A: As a public agency Port KC is always focused on being the steward and master developer of the riverfront. So, our mission for Berkley Riverfront is to bring great partners into the riverfront for development and work with them to fulfill an integrated mission for the land and to see the development happen in an optimal timeframe. That is the path we are working on. 

We started with a fun project with Bar K and that was a successful dog park. Then the Union brought the first 500, or so, citizens to live on the riverfront. Now, moving forward we have almost 1,500 living on the riverfront currently, we are gearing up to open the Kansas City Current stadium which is exciting. The streetcar construction has begun and is prepping to have the formal groundbreaking soon. We’ve also continued to invest in the park as well, beach volleyball courts, a fitness center and continue to expand our walking trails, working to connect more recreation with the riverfront.

We’ve recently broken ground on a new beer garden that will be open this summer in addition to the Origin Hotel, which is under construction and will open in time for summer too. Now we are turning our attention to the rest of the main development. 

What’s Next

The best has yet to come; we are pursuing more work with our partners and have provided tentative approval for an additional $800 million-plus walkable development on the riverfront, which over the next several years will — in essence — complete the initial vision of the riverfront. It will include restaurants, shops, new streets, new multi-family units, office spaces and more attractions in the park. Implementing all those makes us truly excited to see this whole thing come together because the riverfront will be home to more than 5,000 KC residents and draw in more than two million visitors to the area. The total investment will equate to more than $1.5 billion. We will have gone from a forgotten riverfront to a premiere riverfront in the nation.

Q: Has there been hurdles to overcome as a result of the state of the industry? Construction costs are high and workforce levels are low, have you met these challenges and what’s your strategy for when they arise?

A: Construction continues to be challenging because of the success of Kansas City and its growth as well as a lot of people retiring and exciting their skilled trades. We have experienced some workforce concerns too, but the way we overcome those is twofold. Port KC works to be a best in class, as far as pay and how we encourage positive development areas for our workers on the ground. Secondly, we continue to invest in the full employment council and other organizations around the city to make sure more people have the opportunity to go into the construction trades that we need for the future of Kansas City.

I don’t believe we are in a crisis but I certainly see the challenges in our workforce, but positive aspects create a lot of that and the fact is there are multiple projects in the pipeline. That shows growth.

Q: Recently a contract for an apartment complex with a developer fell through, however, another developer swooped in to spearhead the project. What does Port KC look for when generating a contract and are axed contracts avoidable or an unfortunate industry circumstance?

A: Port KC works hard with the due diligence of making certain our private development partners live up to their obligations to the community. We have had almost unparalleled success in ensuring certain projects are delivered on time and in the way they were promised toward benefiting the community. It is a fact of real estate that sometimes developments don’t happen. Any example of an area where we are quickly able to take land we’re developing and identify other developers to step in is an example of success. We have a vision for what that land should be and we put the right legal and real estate protection into place to make sure that Port KC retains ownership and rights of that land until such time that the project is certain. So, while we may roll out a project and unintended things may happen, Port KC is in a position to find another developer.

Q: When the project found a new developer the density of the projects lowered, what was the decision-making process for that?

A: We wanted that project to become an iconic site, however, that land has some soil issues as far as the stability of the subsurface so we couldn’t build as high as we initially wanted. However, we believe we have maximized the site and it will accommodate retail locations and the walking trail. At the same time, we plan for the rest of the riverfront to reflect that density too. As it develops, the Berkeley Riverfront has many moving parts in ensuring we meet our desired density while also making sure it’s consistent to make a good environment for the public.

Q: You were appointed CEO of Port KC in October 2018. When you took your new role at the time did you always plan on fulfilling your predecessors’ vision for Berkery Riverfront to a tee or was there a need for change?

A: My predecessors laid the foundation for development in Kansas City and when I was recruited, I looked at that vision and said, ‘How do we take this foundation and accelerate it?’ It was built off of an existing plan but some of the noticeable changes were looking to the far east side of the development by the Bond Bridge and targeting the fact that we needed a vibrant bookend to the development area. It just so turned out that through partnerships and local ownership by Chris and Angee Long, we were able to bring in the KC Current into this new vision.

Q: When complete, how will the Berkely Riverfront impact Kansas City?

A: From vision to reality, that has been our biggest focus. Looking into how we gain momentum to make sure Kansas City has the best places that make us the most appealing city of choice to stay and move to. Communities around the country are competitive.

I envision the riverfront within the next decade being a vibrant urban neighborhood in Kansas City, for all of Kansas City. The development, and I mean this sincerely, will truly a world-class riverfront destination that the city has never seen before. I think we deserve an amazing central location.