Published October 19th, 2020 at 11:47 AM
Authors Jane Mobley and Nancy Whitnell Harris called Kansas City “A City Within a Park” in their 1991 book detailing the city’s expansive parks and boulevard system. But underneath this city within a park is an entirely different city of caves and tunnels.
Between Park University’s “academic and commercial undergrounds” and Hunt Midwest’s SubTropolis, subterranean Kansas City has become a hub for storage and a workplace for many people.
Park University began digging into its limestone deposits in 1981. Now almost 40 years later, the Parkville school has developed two branches: 250,000 square feet of commercial leasing space, and a section occupied by Park itself. Park’s section houses the nursing program and the school’s bookstore.
The SubTropolis alone is the world’s largest underground business complex, housing over 55 businesses in 55 million square feet of excavated limestone mines. Overlooking the Missouri River, this industrial park serves as a warehouse for USPS postage stamps, pharmaceutical drugs and the original “Wizard of Oz” movie reels, to name just a few.
But among the 2,500 employees who work in SubTropolis, and 12,000 students, staff and faculty who pass through Park’s underground, is there anyone who does not go home at the end of the day?
That’s what curiousKC reader Chris Fields was curious about. These facilities are almost like subterranean cities within a city, which begs Fields’ question: Do people live down there too?
The short answer? No. According to the manager of marketing services at Hunt Midwest, Eric Ford, SubTropolis is strictly an industrial park and has no residential units available.
“I am not sure if any of the undergrounds in Kansas City allow residential living in their facilities,” Ford said.
We weren’t very sure either. So after some digging, here’s what we found.
In the city of Kansas City, yes. As long as it meets all the building codes.
The city’s zoning code 88-265 deals with the uses for, purpose and requirements of an Underground Space district. According to section 03 of the code, developers can use underground spaces for residential units if they obtain a special use permit. These permits require a case-by-case review to determine whether the property is “compatible with surrounding uses and development patterns.”
“So if the zoning above allows for residential then it appears you could have housing underneath,” Beth Breitenstein, city planning and development spokesperson, said.
Over in Lenexa, however, developers may encounter a few roadblocks, said Director of Community Development Scott McCullough.
“When we developed our ordinances and codes around developing those (subsurface) areas, they were all non-residential by design,” McCullough said.
He said this was mostly developer-driven, as they were trying to make sure their property, typically storage or office space, would be supported in “non-residential uses.” Lenexa is home to Meritex, a 3 million-square-foot industrial park that’s completely underground.
According to their 4-1-B Planned Business Park Subsurface District zoning codes, entities like churches, medical clinics and colleges are also allowed to exist underground as long as they have a special use permit.
McCullough said that anyone looking to develop residential units underground would have to request a rezoning from a subsurface district to a residential district. That request would then go through the Planning Commission for a hearing, and City Council for a final decision.
“Theoretically, it’s possible,” McCullough said.
Theoretically, what would an underground residential development look like?
There would be a lot of headspace, but not a lot of sunlight, said geological consultant Charles Spencer.
“It wouldn’t be too different than living in a basement apartment,” Spencer said.
In addition to publishing the book “Roadside Geology of Missouri” in 2011, Spencer worked as an adjunct geology professor at the University of Missouri-Kansas City for eight years. He said the fairly constant temperatures in these mines would make living quite comfortable.
“Your living space will be about 60 degrees on average,” Spender said. “So you wouldn’t have to cool it in the summer, but you’d have to keep heating in the winter and dehumidifying all year long.”
Because some mines’ rock floors emit a radioactive gas called radon, Spencer said a proper ventilation system is key. This will also help lower carbon monoxide buildup from any car exhaust lingering in the air.
The pillars that hold up the mines are spaced out far enough that each room could be about 1,500 square feet, according to Spencer. Developers can also choose to add drywall and fake ceilings over these pillars and rocks.
But, that comes down to personal preference.
“A lot of it might be an aesthetic thing,” Spencer said. “I mean people have developed houses in caves and live in missile silos.”
Professor Emeritus of Environmental Geology Syed Hasan used to work with Spencer at UMKC. He said people who spend a lot of time underground don’t have any issues with it, citing a psychological study one of his colleagues conducted on underground workers.
“In fact, (the participants) loved it because they don’t have to worry about traffic noise or other disturbances,” Hasan said. “And they were all in an environment which has controlled humidity and temperature.”
But spending long hours and living 24/7 are two different things, said Hasan.
“I think people can live underground, but it’s a matter of how much a person values daylight and being outside,” Hasan said. “It is feasible. But whether it will sell, that is the question.”
Hasan’s former colleague may have an answer to that question.
“What probably has prevented many of these underground developers from converting to residential usage is that they can charge so much more for the commercial occupancy,” Spencer said. “It’s a cost thing.”
For Park University, building out space underground proved more cost effective than starting from the ground up. Park’s Associate Vice President for Engagement Erik Bergrud said this also helps tenants, who get better lease rates than they would have above ground.
“We were able to, for over 35 years, use underground space in a way that was more affordable, which helps keep our tuition low and help the university fulfill its mission,” Bergrud said.
The school charges $3 per square foot rent for the 250,000 square feet currently rented out. In addition, tenants like S.D. Strong Distillery were able to come up with creative ways to generate extra money.
“It’s a popular place in terms of people doing tours, during normal times,” Bergrud said. “They even do occasional concerts in the underground.”
In Lenexa, spaces that are zoned for non-residential use have higher market values than residential spaces. According to the Johnson County Automated Information Mapping System, the median value for commercial property is $862,500, and only $269,600 for all residential properties.
Maintaining properties underground may also run an extra cost than if they were above ground. Although stable underground temperatures can help with heating and cooling bills, underground facilities need to have a fresh-air ventilation system.
“In the caves here in Lenexa, they have these massive air handling machines to turn over the air in the environment,” McCullough said. “Running that constantly is a cost.”
When it comes to real estate, location matters. A developer from Manhattan, Kansas, is trying to make living more affordable for people in San Francisco, California, where housing costs are sky high.
One way to do that? Going underground.
“Land is expensive,” developer Chris Elsey said. “It gives us a more developable area.”
Elsey is looking to develop 219 affordable housing units in San Francisco’s Mission District, and 65 of those will be underground “sleeping pods” in the building’s basement.
“You can only go up 85 feet but you can go down however far you want,” said Elsey, who is looking to charge about $1,000 for rent.
“They’ve obviously got an affordability crisis there and we’re trying to help with that,” Elsey said. “So it’s kind of a win win. I can offer spaces for a cheaper price, and I can make more money.”
According to the city of San Francisco, 8,035 homeless individuals were counted in San Francisco’s 2019 street shelter count. This was up more than 14% from the 2017 count, and was the highest in the Bay Area.
“The rent is high and we like to build stuff where people can just walk places,” Elsey said. “San Francisco would be one of the few places you can do that.”
He expects the project will take a while to get going, but he is hopeful to see it come to fruition one day.
“We have the land bought so we are definitely going to build something there,” Elsey said.
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