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After years of setbacks, Beacon Hill project gets traction

Updated: 2013-09-21T05:19:00Z

By LYNN HORSLEY

The Kansas City Star

Dee Evans, a 30-year resident of Kansas City’s Beacon Hill neighborhood, couldn’t help but smile this week as she watched the beehive of residential construction on Troost Avenue south of downtown.

“It’s wonderful,” Evans said.

And a long time coming, she noted, since city officials first announced Beacon Hill in 1998 as one of the nation’s largest urban core neighborhood revitalization projects. In the ensuing 15 years, scandal, legal setbacks and the economic downturn stalled much of the momentum in the area from 22nd to 27th streets, Troost Avenue to the Paseo.

Now it’s finally moving forward in a big way, with visible progress on University of Missouri-Kansas City student housing, upscale houses and an apartment complex. And more is on the drawing boards for the near future, including Truman Medical Center’s grocery store at 27th and Troost and possibly even a boutique hotel.

“I think we’re beyond the tipping point,” said Shawn Hughes, senior project manager with Kansas City’s neighborhoods and housing services department. “It’s finally coming to fruition.”

Everyone seems to agree UMKC’s student housing, on Troost Avenue between 24th and 25th streets, is a milestone. It represents a $30 million university investment –– with no direct city incentives –– to create a residence hall for 245 students, most of them in the Hospital Hill nursing, pharmacy, medical and dental programs.

“These kinds of anchor projects can give a huge economic boost to these types of developments,” said Evans, president of the Beacon Hill-McFeders Community Council, one of the neighborhood’s organizing groups.

To complement the student housing, the city is spending close to $5 million to “completely transform the look of Troost” from 24th to 27th streets, said Stuart Bullington, assistant director of neighborhoods and housing services. The city’s work will replace an 1880s-water main, reduce traffic lanes, widen the sidewalks along Troost and provide a three-block landscaped walkway linking Beacon Hill to Hospital Hill.

UMKC had looked at developing student housing on Hospital Hill land it owns west of Troost, but was persuaded over several years of discussions to build at Beacon Hill, said Hugh Zimmer, manager of Beacon Hill Developers –– a partnership of Zimmer Real Estate Services, Dunn Realty and Taliaferro and Browne Real Estate that has been trying to develop the area for 10 years.

Even though the Hospital Hill parcels would have been easier to build on, the Beacon Hill student housing will have a more profound community impact, Zimmer said.

“I think the commitment of the university to come into Beacon Hill helps to break down that mythical wall that goes down Troost Avenue,” Zimmer said. “Also, it puts 245 young people in the area walking and throwing Frisbees and enlivening the area.”

Construction is on a fast-track schedule, with both the university project and city infrastructure set for completion in summer 2014, before the fall semester.

“We need to crank it,” said Dean of Students Eric Grospitch, adding that students he’s shown the drawings to are excited about the project. “The students tell us they needed it three years ago.”

Along with the student housing, construction will begin soon on a $7 million, 30-unit apartment complex on East 27th Street between Tracy Avenue and West Paseo. Known as the Colonnades, it will restore one three-story historic building and add four more that maintain the area’s historic character. It also will be affordable to provide diversity and a good mix of housing choices, Hughes said.

Meanwhile, 15 single-family lots have been sold and a handful of single-family homes priced in the $300,000 to $400,000 range and even higher are being built east of the student housing. They’re being bought by families with kids, empty nesters and those who work nearby at Hospital Hill or Hallmark.

Buyers are attracted by the stunning views of downtown, not to mention the generous property tax breaks (100 percent for 10 years, then 50 percent for 15). There’s interest from suburbanites who work downtown and “people committed to urban living, who see the benefit of living in a neighborhood as opposed to the middle of downtown,” said John Hoffman, who is building some of the new homes.

“The student housing is a big plus,” Hoffman said. “I’m very encouraged by the traffic that’s come into the area, now that people can see something. It’s typical Missouri show-me.”

Beacon Hill project manager Dan Musser, senior vice president with Zimmer Real Estate, acknowledges he never thought it would take so long for the “show-me” to show up at Beacon Hill. But he says it was never going to be easy to transform a 25-square-block, 90-acre site east of Troost Avenue with more than 400 new and renovated housing units.

The city invested $11 million in federal housing dollars to acquire the property and several million city dollars in new streets and other infrastructure. But in 2004, Beacon Hill became infamous for two Tracy Avenue bungalows that soaked up as much as $600,000 in federal funds.

The city canceled the contract with its housing agency at the time and the redevelopment ground to a halt while a federal receiver and city officials tried to straighten out the financial mess. The economic downturn didn’t help –– a few new Beacon Hill townhomes failed to sell and eventually went rental.

The receivership lasted eight years, but finally ended this spring and city economic development agencies regained control of all the property.

With that logjam lifted, city officials said, Beacon Hill’s momentum has accelerated.

Other pending projects:

•  A health-oriented grocery store: Truman Medical Center has received transfer of property at 27th and Troost and is raising money to start the $11.5 million project. Site planning and store design are underway, but no construction start date is set yet.

•  Ollie Gates development: The barbecue magnate has his eye on the part of Beacon Hill that’s across Bruce Watkins Drive and northeast of the new housing. He proposes building 16 single-family homes, again in the $300,000 to $400,000 range. “We think the location is premier,” attorney Mark Bryant said, adding that they hope to have a development agreement within 30 days.

•  Boutique hotel: A local group has proposed building an 80-room extended stay hotel on a commercial site just north of the student housing, primarily for patients and others using Hospital Hill. The city is seeking more information on their financing, but is optimistic, Bullington said.

Most of the activity is on Beacon Hill’s northwest quadrant, and much remains to be done farther south and east, primarily with in-fill single-family housing and possibly townhomes, Bullington said.

“Half of the area is feeling and seeing development happen,” he said. “The other portions are waiting for funding to come together, waiting for infrastructure.”

The city infrastructure could cost another $5 million and take five more years to build out, he acknowledged, so the development is far from complete. But he and Musser said it’s also more diverse and vibrant than originally envisioned, with the student housing and grocery store.

“It’s reacting to opportunities rather than a lofty plan,” Bullington said. “There seem to be no fears now of crossing Troost and coming into Beacon Hill, and that’s what we’ve accomplished.”

To reach Lynn Horsley, call 816-226-2058 or send email to lhorsley@kcstar.com.

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