Their friends and family thought they were insane. Build east of Troost?
To many white Kansas Citians, that coded phrase, “east of Troost” — the unofficial color line of the city’s segregated history — has long implied crime and poverty. To black Kansas Citians, the west side of the avenue signifies as much racial intolerance as it does monied privilege.
So in 2008 when architect Randy Kietzman and his builder wife, Jane, began construction at 24th Street and Forest Avenue of their 3,200-square-foot modernist home — easily able to fetch $750,000, with a koi pond, balconies, polished chef’s kitchen and a floating staircase — the reaction they received was nearly universal.
“I mean, here we were, happy out in the suburbs of Leawood,” said Jane Kietzman, 57, standing inside the architectural award-winning home with a sweeping northwest view of the Kansas City skyline. “People were like, ‘You’re doing what?’ People were convinced we were going to lose our shirts, or get killed. Friends and family were supportive, but they were fearful for us.”
Those fears were unfounded.
Over the last five years, luxury home construction has boomed just east of Troost, in an area once deemed blighted, with more than three dozen contemporary homes — many valued at a half million dollars or more — rising on empty parcels that the earliest buyers got for a relative pittance, often less than $10,000 or $15,000.
The result is an urban architectural renaissance, lauded by many but feared by some as gentrified encroachment. As upset resident George Allen said, “Who can afford these homes? Most likely not people who look like me.”
The center of the building boom is the narrow and historic neighborhood known as Beacon Hill just east of Truman Medical Center with boundaries from Troost to The Paseo and from about 22nd to 27th streets.
On the horizon: an $18 million apartment complex, $14 million hotel, shops and dozens more houses likely to be priced 20 times the value of the neighborhood’s old homes.
“We have people drive by who say, ‘I lived in this area 30 years ago. I cannot believe what is happening,’” said Kim Hammontree, 51, who, with her wife, Rachel Whitney, built a house in 2015 at 24th and Tracy now valued at well over $500,000.
At 2,100 square feet, it has three bedrooms on two floors, plus two more bedrooms in a 900-square-foot basement in the process of being finished, multiple baths, a three-car garage, chef’s kitchen with counter tops made of quartz and, on a side patio, a 12-by-24-foot swimming pool.
Among her neighbors is Jamie Lewis, 49, whose $500,000 home includes a living room floor embedded with clear glass squares, like windows, enabling her to look down to her outdoor sitting area with couch and gas fire pit.
Another neighbor, artist Robert Quackenbush and his wife, Merry, a former head of marketing for J.P. Morgan, moved just this year from their home in south Leawood, having bought two adjacent parcels on West Paseo Boulevard, each costing about $20,000.
On one, the couple built a 1,900-square-foot artist’s studio with a soaring cathedral ceiling and walls of windows for a sweeping view of both downtown and the rising sun. On the other: their 3,000-square-foot home, also with a cathedral ceiling, massive crossbeams and a sculptural wood staircase to the loft bedroom and balcony. The walls are covered in Robert Quackenbush’s modern art.
Quackenbush holds painting classes in his studio. The couple had feared that few of his 16 students from south Johnson County would come, as they were “horrified,” Merry Quackenbush recalled, when told that lessons would now be held three blocks east of Troost. Then the students arrived.
“Just as they were horrified when we told them down in Johnson County that we were moving here,” said Merry Quackenbush, 70, “there was this radiant — it was disbelief — this wonderful joy at this very special space.”
From the outside, drivers cruising by on U.S. 71 might easily mistake the home and studio as a modern church.
“When people ask us where we live … they give me a weird look, like ‘Are you serious?’” Hammontree had said. “Yeah, we’re serious.”
“Us and them”
To longtime residents, mostly African-American, the change in their neighborhood is nothing less than startling — welcome in ways, as they have seen their property values rise, the neighborhood fixed and families return. But it is also concerning.
“I come outside and look at what’s going on around me every day and I shake my head,” said Allen, 63. He represents the third generation of his family to live in the 1,200-square-foot house, bought over 100 years ago, at 26th and Tracy.
“For 50 years, I’ve looked out my window and seen a gravel alley,” said Frances Boyd, 68, who now lives and cares for her mother, 94-year-old Mayola McFeders, in the 1,400-square-foot bungalow on West Paseo Boulevard that the family has called home since 1945. “It’s a little strange to look out now and see white ladies walking their dogs.”
The neighborhood association, called the Beacon Hill-McFeders Community Council, was named in honor of McFeders’ late husband, Theodore McFeders, one of the neighborhood’s most prominent community activists.
The president of the council, Dee Evans, who has lived in her home at 25th and West Paseo for 38 years, said that while the new and former residents are friendly and seem to mix well at this point, she is hearing more and more concerns from longtime residents about the pace and intensity of construction.
Established neighbors, she said, have increasingly begun to speak in “us and them” terms about those who have and those who have less. Evans herself said she has been inundated with fliers and postcards from real estate agents inquiring whether she is interested in selling her property.
While in one sense, the growth and revitalization are positive, Evans said, in another they’re not.
“I would say I’m sitting on a gold mine,” Evans said of her property now, “but it’s scary. It’s scary because I’m an existing resident that I think, one day, will be pushed out. I really do.”
Allen doesn’t just worry about losing his neighborhood. He’s equally concerned that memories of Beacon Hill as a historic place that once housed black lawyers, clergy, Monarchs baseball players and doctors who once practiced at the long-gone and black-owned Wheatley-Provident Hospital will be forgotten.
His pledge is to stay put. He’s gotten offers on his home, too.
“They’re going to want to turn this into what they want it to be,” Allen said of his new rich neighbors, then added about his house. “They’ll never get this one. It’s going to stay black owned.
“I wish all of this would have never come here.”
What’s here is only the beginning.
“A waiting list”
Early next year, construction will begin on a 186-unit apartment complex, with 10,000 square feet of retail space, at the now empty northeast corner of 27th and Troost. At the same time, three blocks north, builders will erect a 93-room La Quinta hotel to cater to the nearby hospitals and downtown tourists.
All along Forest, just north of 27th Street, land has already been cleared and the city is now preparing to improve infrastructure for at least 26 new, single-family homes. The covenants of the Beacon Hill Homeowner’s Association now demand that all new homes be constructed at minimum of 1,800 square feet. Resulting home prices are expected to be at least $300,000 to $400,000.
That doesn’t include the expected $30,000 to $50,000 cost for the empty land parcels, currently held by the Land Clearance for Redevelopment Authority, the city’s contracted urban renewal agency.
As for buyers?
“I’m already keeping a waiting list,” said Dan Musser, the executive managing director for Newmark Grubb Zimmer, the real estate firm managing the land.
City officials are ecstatic.
Beacon Hill redevelopment was never created to keep the neighborhood as it was, they said. Nor was the notion to make it solely a rich haven. It was meant to be mixed — keep existing residents while tapping a new market.
So for them, the new wealth mingling with existing families, fulfills the lofty vision they had in 1998, when, beginning under then Mayor Emanuel Cleaver, the area was deemed blighted and tagged for what was billed as one the largest urban redevelopment projects in the nation.
“I can see the whole thing. I can see it all coming together,” said Stuart Bullington, deputy director of the city’s Department of Neighborhoods & Housing Services, who has watched the project unfold through nearly 20 years of ups, downs, stops and starts. “I think a lot of people who were involved then and are involved now are very proud of it. There is no one who can be negative at this point, in my opinion.”
Beacon Hill, with its view of downtown, had long been a prime target for development. Large brick Victorian homes there mix with smaller, neatly kept wood-framed houses with stone foundations and front porches.
Through the 1980s and into the ’90s, sections of the neighborhood remained strong. Others plunged.
“You would see drug dealing, prostitution, burned-out houses,” Bullington said.
Using $11.2 million in federal and other monies, the city bulldozed sick houses, creating fresh, empty lots for development. It built new infrastructure — curbs, sidewalks, flood control.
Healthy homes were left intact for purchase or restoration. Some were rehabbed. To attract new residents, ready to restore a home or erect a new one, the city offered a sweet 25-year tax incentive for the neighborhood — zero property taxes for the first 10 years of ownership, half-taxes for the next 15 years after that.
But revitalization didn’t come.
For much of the next 15 years, Beacon Hill’s revitalization faltered and faced embarrassment. In October 2004, The Star revealed that some $600,000 had been spent to restore two houses on Tracy Avenue, each of which was only worth a fraction of that cost.
In response, in 2005, the city canceled its contract with its housing agency. Redevelopment ground to a halt as, over the next eight years, a federal receiver worked to straighten out the financial mess. The housing crisis and Great Recession only made matters worse.
But even by then, the Kietzmans — he a Kansas State University trained architect — already had their eyes on Beacon Hill.
“We saw real potential over here,” Jane Kietzman said.
They began buying lots — their first for $40,000. Later, they bought seven more for around $10,000 each when the price was dropped to attract buyers. The Kietzmans were never interested in creating a dull landscape of modest $200,000 cookie cutter homes.
“That’s no fun. Seriously,” said Randy Kietzman, now 60.
The pair took a gamble, taking out personal loans to design and build homes whose materials and rich Victorian colors reflected the existing neighborhood.
“We didn’t want to build the same house over and over,” Randy Kietzman said. “This is kind of a life’s dream to be able to do what we’ve done here, to design all these unique houses. Every one is different.”
Of the 20 high-end, contemporary houses on Forest Avenue off 24th Street, the Kietzmans designed and built half, plus designed three others. The block is in many ways their life-sized portfolio.
With parcels purchased, the couple gradually enticed friends, such as Hammontree and Whitney, to move in and build. They persuaded relatives to do the same.
Jane Keitzman’s brother lives on the block, as does her son from a previous marriage.
Other builders quickly followed suit, chief among them John Hoffman, principal developer with UC-B Properties, who initially bought and built on seven lots and has since developed more. The company is developing the planned La Quinta on 24th Street and will be part of a project to put 40 new homes (less expensive at around 1,400 square feet) in a planned developed on the east side of U.S. 71.
The entire area got a boost when, in August 2014, the University of Missouri-Kansas City opened a $30 million, 245-bed contemporary student housing complex stretching a block up Troost to 24th Street.
The new east-siders offer an array of reasons for relocating, often from the suburbs. Common to them all is their already strong desire to embrace city life and the diversity of the neighborhood.
Many caught flak.
“I do have friends who bought me both pink pepper spray and a pink taser,” said Jamie Lewis who moved in from Liberty in 2015. “That wasn’t the house-warming gift I got when I moved into the suburbs.”
A former banker who now works for the Boys and Girls Club of Greater Kansas City, Lewis coaches kids from the club in flag football.
For her, Beacon Hill worked perfectly: designer home, yard for her dog, location at the center of action.
“I wanted a more vibrant community,” Lewis said. “I’m literally 15 minutes from everything.”
The Quackenbushes felt the same.
They had moved from the east side of New York City to south Leawood in 2005 to care for Merry Quackenbush’s aging parents. By the time they died — her mom in 2008, her dad the next year — they had fallen in love with Kansas City.
City folks by nature, they ached to be closer to downtown.
Ultimately, Beacon Hill, with its location, tax break and the $20,000 lots to build a designer house and studio, seemed too attractive to pass up. It had something else they cherished.
“The diversity,” Merry Quackenbush said. “You have oldsters like us. You have young families starting out. You’ve got black, brown and white. You have straight and gay.”
The last thing the Quackenbushes wanted was to feel like interloping opportunists. Important to the couple was the fact that Beacon Hill was created to blend new development into an established community.
“To me ‘gentrification’ is a horrible word,” Merry Quackenbush said. “To me, what it means is affluent white people coming in and basically pushing out everybody and taking over an area.”
They came to join the neighborhood by building on empty lots. It’s that mix that they relish.
“Yes, there are a lot of new-built homes,” Merry Quackenbush said, “but there are also these little gems that the families that own them are putting a lot of blood and sweat and tears and love into them to renovate.”
Many of the newcomers tend to describe Beacon Hill in idealistic terms — as a community with the potential to alter the Troost color line.
“I don’t think you’ll ever erase it … but I do think you can smooth it out,” said Robert Quackenbush.
Kietzman goes further.
“Our goal is really not to just move that line,” he said. “We want to erase it. … We don’t have any intention of coming in here and creating an isolated little enclave.”
But there are even those who are new to the area, like Beth Sieker, who worry that Beacon Hill has already gone down that path.
The Siekers — she is a nurse at Children’s Mercy Hospital; her husband, Kevin, works a corporate job for Chipotle — have a 2-year-old and a baby due in November. Like others, they purchased a $10,000 lot and, in 2015, they moved into a more modest and traditional home, a colonial they built for $325,000.
“It’s worth a lot more than that now,” Beth Sieker said. She clarified.
“We didn’t come here to make a whole bunch of money on our house,” she said. “We came here because we are passionate about living in the city. We have a strong faith and we’re involved in a church that is involved in the city and we want to see change. … I’m not sure we can fix the problems, but at least we can be part of the change that’s coming.”
They are happy in Beacon Hill, she said. They are happy with their neighbors. But she also concedes she is concerned about the pace at which the high-end homes are rising, and what it will come to mean.
“The whole idea of gentrification?” Sieker said. “This is it. It is. I don’t think that’s what we anticipated when we moved in. But that’s what’s happened.”