Eight midtown neighborhoods failed in a last-ditch effort to stop or stall development of a large apartment building at Westport Road and Broadway that critics say will change the face of Westport.
The Kansas City Council on Thursday voted 8-2 to approve a redevelopment and rezoning plan for Opus Development to build a 256-unit apartment building that would rise six or seven stories at the prominent corner.
Help Save Westport, a coalition of residents and others who want to preserve the architectural character of “Old Westport,” appealed to council members to rethink the proposal, but they failed to get enough signatures to petition for a delay.
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Neighborhood and historic preservation groups submitted letters this week to council members and the city planning staff. Most asked the city to delay a vote until a long-term strategy for Westport redevelopment is crafted.
“Obviously, we’re disappointed,” said Mary Jo Draper, a leader in the Help Save Westport group. “But this whole discussion has made it clear to everybody that we haven’t done a very good job of planning for the future of Westport. As this project goes forward, I hope the people on the council realize we need to do planning for the future, and I believe that will happen.”
At least three sizable redevelopments are being proposed for the Old Westport area that would require zoning changes from current uses.
Council members Katheryn Shields and Scott Wagner were the only no votes on the project, citing a precedent-setting size for that location. Shields also criticized the development team for not being more responsive to neighborhood concerns.
Shields said that when she looked at Opus Development projects around the country, she saw projects that were often out of scale with the neighborhoods in which they were built and that past history “shows they don’t engage in long-term relationships” with neighbors, but rather build and sell their developments.
The Opus apartment project, including a multilevel parking garage and ground-floor retail, would replace an old building now occupied by a Bank of America branch and surface parking lot.
Joe Downs, vice president of real estate development at Opus Development, said the company was “thrilled that the City Council voted to approve our project in Westport, echoing the positive sentiment we’ve heard from local community members.”
Downs said the company was “excited to bring a new, vibrant residential option to the historical area of Westport.”
Opponents of the Opus apartments said they weren’t against redevelopment at that corner or added residential density in Westport. But they said the Opus proposal was too big for the site and would add to existing parking and traffic problems in the district.
Neighborhoods that recorded opposition to the plan were Heart of Westport, Valentine, West Plaza, Rockhill, Coleman Highlands, Roanoke, Volker and Hyde Park.
They expressed concern that the apartment building would be too massive for the corner, that it will exacerbate existing parking problems and traffic congestion, and that it would exceed the previous zoning limit of a 50-foot height for that site. Opponents also complained that the development team hadn’t responded to community input.
“Westport is about to change,” said Lisa Briscoe, executive director of Historic Kansas City. “When they make this change, they have opened a door for others to follow to have a similar level of intensity, density and height in Westport area. Once the first project is approved, it begins a cycle.”
On the other hand, several Westport business owners and area residents spoke in previous public meetings in favor of the added density. They said they wanted more residents to patronize their businesses and provide foot traffic in the district as a possible deterrent to crime.
No public testimony was taken at the council meeting.
After making some exterior building design adjustments in response to criticism, Opus representatives repeatedly said in previous public meetings that their plan wouldn’t be adjusted further or made smaller.
Councilwoman Jolie Justus was the only council member to speak in favor of the proposal before it received a majority vote. She said it was a tough issue and that she had heard from many opponents and proponents alike.
“No doubt the scale of this project will be a significant change,” Justus said, acknowledging that “this vote is not easy for me.” In the end, though, she said the changes in Westport could be “transformative.”
The development team said investors wouldn’t make an adequate return on investment without the planned number of apartment units and that the proposal on the table was the only one they would submit.
The Help Save Westport group has mounted a $25,000 fundraising drive to pay for a professional building survey of the Westport area to provide a current inventory of buildings and their histories to help determine what is worth preserving.
Joan Adam, president of Historic Kansas City, said the survey is expected to be done this fall. It’s too late to affect the decisions on this project, she said, “but it’s important to document what we have in Westport and what we should preserve.”
The Old Westport area as a whole doesn’t have broad protection as a historic district, so redevelopment decisions are being made case by case.
Opus built a similar apartment project at 51st and Main streets, a few blocks south of the Country Club Plaza.