Development

Attempts to revive old KC schools carry some hard lessons

Updated: 2013-07-16T18:52:29Z

By JOE ROBERTSON

The Kansas City Star

Somewhere out there, jackhammers rattled and workers in hardhats were raising dust in what may be the busiest summer yet in the reclamation of vacant Kansas City schools.

But here sat Alfredo Parra with one of the worst views in the city: Old West High School.

For every building under renovation (currently five) and every site with proposals on the table (at least seven), there are just as many buildings like West — deteriorating and draining away neighborhood vitality.

West High, at 20th and Summit streets, is particularly frustrating because plans for the building complex that had been developing since 2007 came undone earlier this year.

So Parra keeps looking out his front porch at the east face of an aching three-story expanse of brick and stone, with 27 plywood facings on broken windows and doors, and dry weeds overwhelming what is left of the asphalt.

At least the latest round of graffiti was gone, as well as the young trees swarming out of the window wells. The district on Friday, started another round of tours of the complex for prospective buyers, so the requisite cleanup provided a measure of relief.

“I think something will happen,” Parra said. “Maybe they can do something we always wanted — mixed use, something commercial, some senior housing, something creative with the gymnasiums, the swimming pool and the auditorium … a martial-arts studio …”

But Parra wishes the district had sold the building long ago. West closed as a high school three decades ago and has been vacant of any other uses for more than 10 years.

The district had 30 properties on its plate when it began an intensive repurposing effort more than two years ago. West High School and its accompanying buildings have some advantages but also particular challenges, said Shannon Jaax, the head of the district’s repurposing office.

The buildings are in a great location, surrounded by new development near a burgeoning commercial corridor in a West Side neighborhood that is eager to remove this remaining blight.

But the groups of potential developers that toured the school Friday saw anew the immense challenges. Worsening roof damage has allowed weather to damage many walls and warp many floors that are strewn with crumbling tiles and glass.

The Westside Housing Organization and developer partners had a contract with the district, years in the works, to create a residential complex. But the developers thought they needed low-income housing tax credits for the massive project to be financially feasible, and their bid was denied last year by the Missouri Housing Development Commission.

Westside could have tried again to get the tax credits, but the school district decided that Westside and its developer would have to forfeit their $25,000 deposit if the commission denied them again this fall. So Westside dropped its bid.

The commission, in denying the 2012 bid, had expressed concern over the $4.5 million gap Westside still had to fill in gathering the $22 million it needed to go forward, said Gloria Ortiz Fisher, Westside’s executive director.

“It’s very expensive to build and very expensive to demolish,” she said. “It is a two-edged sword. … The partnership saw too many moving parts to put $25,000 down for another run.”

Westside is regrouping and looking at ways it might re-enter the bidding, Fisher said. In any case, the group will continue its heavy involvement in the community process in finding a new use for the buildings.

Other projects, including some in what had been considered location-challenged sites east of Troost Avenue, are well underway.

Masonry workers in construction lifts have been repairing the brick facing on Seven Oaks Elementary School, 3711 Jackson Ave. The school, vacant more than a decade, is being converted into a senior living center.

Work is even further along at Graceland Elementary School, 2803 E. 51st St., which has been vacant since 2005. The nonprofit group Swope Corridor Renaissance expects to reopen the building as the Mary Kelly Community Center this September.

In all, six buildings have been sold, including Longan Elementary, which is already in use as an expansion of Academie Lafayette charter school.

One building, Moore Elementary, has been leased with an option to buy, and Northeast Middle School has been pulled back by the district, likely to be reopened as a middle school.

At least seven properties have proposals pending, including a hotly debated proposal by Wal-Mart Stores Inc. to build a Wal-Mart Neighborhood Market at Bingham Middle School in the Waldo neighborhood.

The district has gathered feedback from stakeholders on a revised Wal-Mart plan and will meet with the school board, then present the district’s recommendation for the site by the end of August, Jaax said.

In two cases — Chick and McCoy elementaries — their communities have determined they would like to see the buildings demolished and turned into parks or other green space for community use.

The district has recommended demolishing Thacher Elementary, 5008 Independence Ave., which was heavily damaged by fire in 2011.

Fire risk, weather damage and vandalism strain the district’s efforts to find developers for its vacant buildings. More than a dozen are awaiting new offers, or even a first offer.

“Every year we wait, they become more broken and more damaged,” Fisher said. “It’s not the people on the school board today or the superintendent today that got us here, but we’re here and time is passing.”

Parra long ago lost his patience. As tired as the buildings look outside his front porch, he can still see them as restored, historic pieces of the community.

“Come on,” he said. “Come save these beautiful landmarks.”

To reach Joe Robertson, call 816-234-4789 or send email to jrobertson@kcstar.com.

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