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At 5, Green Impact Zone is still a seedling

Updated: 2014-02-25T14:07:11Z

By RICK MONTGOMERY

The Kansas City Star

Five years after the rollout of a big, eco-friendly idea to revive five crumbling neighborhoods, Kansas City still boasts the Green Impact Zone.

But few motorists are stopping yet to power their electric cars at charging stations sprinkled around Brush Creek. And should they pull into the parking lot at 46th Street and the Paseo, they will discover the Green Impact Zone office has closed.

In January, the city and the Mid-America Regional Council stopped funding the staff that had worked daily to deliver on promises of urban renewal through environmental sustainability projects and public-private partnerships.

That was planned. In a city with many other needs, the zone’s administrative costs were not meant to be covered by taxpayers for more than a few years.

“The goal of urban redevelopment is not to subsidize it forever,” said MARC’s David Warm.

So what now for the zone?

Blight, vacant lots and joblessness — by-products of a half-century of disinvestment — still plague the 150 square blocks that were targeted in 2009 to receive federal stimulus dollars. That money was to get the Green Impact Zone sprouting and branching into what planners hoped would be a national model for renewal.

It may yet happen, they say.

For Pearlie Jackson on 41st Street, some good has already happened. New windows provided through green-zone assistance helped lower her monthly electric bills by $20 or $25 in the summer, “and over the long run that’s huge,” she said.

With many other homes weatherized and wired to a modern “smart grid,” Kansas City Power & Light Co. hopes to keep energy consumption in check across the central city for years to come.

At least one other legacy of the Green Impact Zone might stick, too. And this one wasn’t expected by U.S. Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, nor many others, when the Kansas City Democrat floated his vision in February 2009.

It’s about the people and sense of purpose within the targeted neighborhoods: Ivanhoe, Manheim Park, 49/63, Blue Hills and Town Fork Creek.

“If the Green Impact Zone hadn’t happened, these five neighborhoods would never have worked in concert the way we have for a common good,” said Saundra Hayes, a past president of the Historic Manheim Park Association. “I don’t see any reason for that to fall apart.”

For the first time, volunteer groups formerly at odds with one another were collaborating in a shared mission. Beneath the Green Impact Zone banner, they began meeting every month, encouraging one another and working with business partners and nonprofits to learn how proposals long gathering dust actually get done.

It is the hope of Anita Maltbia, who oversaw the small staff in the Green Impact Zone office, that neighborhood volunteers will keep working together to further the zone’s dreams.

“What we’ve left in our wake, I think, are people and neighborhoods feeling much more empowered to do what still needs to be done,” Maltbia said.

The legacy

From 39th Street south to 51st Street, from Troost Avenue east to Prospect Avenue and southeast along Swope Parkway, the Green Impact Zone was envisioned by Cleaver as becoming “the greenest urban geography in the country.”

And though results so far fall short of that, the zone has benefited from infrastructure improvements and energy efficiencies:

• A $26 million stimulus grant from the U.S. Department of Transportation paved the way for 11 miles of new sidewalks and curbs, street resurfacing, stoplight upgrades and a pedestrian bridge on Troost.

Bus riders also gained a Troost MAX line, offering faster and more frequent service, and new amenities at 18 bus stops.

• In late 2009, the U.S. Energy Department awarded KCP&L a $24 million grant for a pilot program that would upgrade the electrical system and ease customers’ energy bills.

The utility matched the stimulus grant with its own $24 million investment to install 14,000 “smart meters” in and around the zone. Linked with KCP&L by computer, the meters and in-home displays allowed businesses and residents to monitor and regulate their electricity use.

Longtime resident Mike Rentie now uses his smartphone as a remote to adjust energy-eating devices. “From the gym, I’ll turn on my house lights when it gets dark or up the thermostat so it’s warm when I get home.”

For 1,800 residents who enrolled in a KCP&L program to curb energy use in the peak summer hours, the utility tracked savings of as much as 16 percent on electric bills.

•  Funds for job training helped steer young adults into summer employment replacing walkways around homes. In some cases, the walks were so jagged and broken that water drained into basements, organizers said.

A training course in 2011 taught Manheim Park resident Clevell Roper how to deconstruct abandoned buildings. That led to the job he now holds at Trinity Excavating Co.

“Before that training, I was cutting grass,” said Roper, 45.

In an interview last week, Cleaver said such measures were important to people living in the zone.

“There’s a lot that people passing through can’t see, including smart-grid meters,” Cleaver said.

But he acknowledged some disappointments.

Federal stimulus funding ended before the area could get all of the $200 million that Cleaver had hoped to receive.

The goal to weatherize all the homes in the zone that needed it — maybe 1,000 or more — hit bureaucratic and structural obstacles. Fewer than 200 homes got the treatment at a total cost of $2.7 million.

In some cases, housing was in such disrepair that inspectors deemed weatherization pointless. New windows, insulation and caulk would do little to boost efficiency in a home with holes in the roof and a bad furnace.

Cleaver said many other residents were disqualified from receiving assistance because their homes had undergone subsidized weatherization sometime after 1994. Rules built into the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act prevented those properties from receiving stimulus funding.

Delays in spending a $4.8 million weatherization grant prompted the state of Missouri to rescind half of it. Those funds were rerouted to similar efforts outside the Green Impact Zone.

Plans for a botanical center to be underwritten by the University of Missouri-Kansas City failed to take shape before deadlines for stimulus spending passed.

“We just couldn’t have all the work done quickly enough,” Cleaver said. “I should have gone to bed with that legislation every night. We left tens of millions of federal dollars on the table.”

To date, the zone has leveraged $166 million in investments from federal and city funds, nonprofits and businesses, officials said.

Moving forward

Dreams and dedication inside the Green Impact Zone go far beyond the ideas laid out five years ago.

“The Green Impact office is closed, but the Green Impact Zone and its mission are not,” Cleaver said.

Consider the recent opening of the former Bancroft Elementary School, a 110-year-old hulk that had been rotting vacant for more than a decade.

Transformed into a budding residential and community center with 400 solar panels on the roof, the Bancroft overhaul received no federal stimulus dollars.

Actor Brad Pitt and his Make It Right Foundation, among others, helped revitalize the building partly because it stood in what was formally known as the “Green Impact Zone of Missouri.” Pitt is a Missouri native.

The repurposed Bancroft complex has motion-sensitive lighting, a refurbished gym and auditorium, computer lab and gardens. With 50 rental units built to state-of-the-art efficiency standards and certified LEED Platinum, occupancy is nearing full just three months after the ribbon-cutting.

“So this is the Green Impact Zone?” said resident Johnnie Mae Jones, who moved in a month ago. “Well, I thank God. … This place is clean, it’s quiet and it smells nice. I feel safe.”

Near the southern edge of the zone, another LEED Platinum project opened last year at 5008 Prospect Ave. as a business incubator for construction contractors. The Blue Hills Business Center features a V-shaped roof that directs rainfall to a 6,500-gallon tank behind the building, where it is used to water an orchard of fruit trees and 41 garden beds.

Though plans had been submitted to the city before the zone had its name, “what the Green Impact Zone did was bring attention and some excitement to this area,” said Joanne Bussinger, executive director of Blue Hills Community Services, the nonprofit development corporation that owns the building. “It created new partnerships and brought new relationships to the table.”

And last fall, it spurred Quentin and Christine Gardner of Raytown, who hadn’t heard of the Green Impact Zone, to move their home-based business, Elite Root Control, into the low-cost, high-efficiency offices of the Blue Hills Business Center.

The Gardners have hired three employees since then and scored a state contract. “We’ve outgrown this office already,” said Quentin Gardner.

On a hill across Bruce Watkins R. Watkins Drive stands the newly opened Mary L. Kelly Community Center — another testament, community organizers say, to a collaboration of neighborhood groups tied together by the Green Impact Zone.

“We stirred possibility thinking,” said Maltbia, the former administrator.

MARC is encouraged by census data that show slight increases in the zone’s home values, employment and average household incomes from 2009 to 2012.

“We know three years don’t make a trend,” Warm said, but at least the area fended off further decline during a tough economy.

It is now up to neighborhood leaders such as Margaret May, of the Ivanhoe Neighborhood Council, to advance the ball.

“I think Congressman Cleaver had a great idea, and it’s still a good idea,” May said.

To reach Rick Montgomery, call 816-234-4410 or send email to rmontgomery@kcstar.com.

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