August 15, 2014

Forces gather behind new plan to remake slice of KC’s urban core

Don’t go thinking this could be easy.

The pieces in a proposed Kansas City urban renewal plan certainly look as promising as any seen yet by some Warren Buffett-backed consultants who have seen real neighborhood transformation work.

“This is as exciting as they come,” Greg Giornelli told the Kansas City school board this week.

Giornelli, president of the Atlanta-based Purpose Built Communities, is helping Kansas City’s Urban Neighborhood Initiative foster plans to remake the heart of the city’s urban core.

The initiative, one of the “Big 5” ideas in the Greater Kansas City Chamber of Commerce’s 2011 vision for prosperity, has a lot of advantages over other cities’ renewal projects, he said.

You’ve got a school district — Kansas City Public Schools — willing to collaborate on a district-sponsored charter K-8 school.

You have nine neighborhood associations invested and generating ideas.

You have the backing of the chamber.

And you have the agency “quarterback,” the Dianne Cleaver-led Urban Neighborhood Initiative, keeping the ball moving.

But even the best of conditions still bode a 10- to 20-year horizon before you really know whether transformation has taken hold, Giornelli said.

“In the short-run,” he said, “it can be messy.”

Kansas City’s target is a roughly 200-block area between Troost Avenue and U.S. 71, from 22nd Street to 52nd Street.

It’s home to 10,326 people, including 2,122 school-age children, according to the 2010 census. They share 4,093 occupied residential properties.

The area has 1,679 vacant properties — or three vacant properties out of every 10.

The dream of building a safe and healthy neighborhood of mixed-income housing, anchored by a life-changing school rich in social services, is no more daunting than what the Atlanta group faced in 1995.

Georgia real estate mogul and philanthropist Tom Cousins launched the work to help Atlanta’s East Lake community reinvent itself.

It was a neighborhood of 100 percent subsidized housing, where more than 95 percent of the children in the local school qualified for meal assistance.

The employment rate was 13 percent, Giornelli said. Median yearly income was $4,500. Only 5 percent of the graduating fifth-graders in the school were testing proficient. And there were crime problems.

News accounts tracked some of the “messy” turns that followed.

When demolition of the old East Lake housing was set to begin, some residents sued, saying they were mistreated and given poor relocation options, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported.

Crime problems persisted into the early 2000s. And the new Drew Charter School was achieving only incremental gains.

But the school succeeded, Giornelli said. The rebuilt housing helped draw in families with a mix of incomes, while making sure that all the families in the former subsidized housing who wanted to return were provided homes in the renewed community.

The 50-50 mix of market and subsidized housing now enjoys one of the lower crime rates in the city. Prosperity has followed as the employment rate among residents in the public housing has risen to 80 percent.

Drew Charter School, where 60 percent of the children today qualify for meal assistance, is now one of the top performing schools in the state, outperforming most middle-class and affluent schools.

“We erased the achievement gap,” Giornelli said.

Now, big backers led by Buffett and former hedge fund manager Julian Robertson Jr. have joined Cousins in helping Purpose Built Communities take what it learned in Atlanta to help inform similar projects across the nation. They’re helping in New Orleans; Indianapolis; Charlotte, N.C.; Omaha, Neb.; and Birmingham, Ala.

As in those other cities, the consulting they are giving the Kansas City project is free.

Kansas City neighborhood leaders in the boundary area suggested that the Urban Neighborhood Initiative take a look at the Atlanta story, Cleaver said. They saw success built around the same focus of health, safety, housing and education they imagined for their Kansas City project.

Soon, the Urban Neighborhood Initiative was approaching Kansas City Superintendent Steve Green and then-board President Airick Leonard West.

Open to charters

Public school districts and public charter schools haven’t typically gotten along in the U.S.

Turf battles have plagued many cities, including Kansas City, over the years. But Green and the current Kansas City school board have been open to considering charter partnerships.

The district also is proposing a plan with Academie Lafayette charter school to partner in an international high school at Southwest Early College Campus that would be run by the charter school.

In this case, the Urban Neighborhood Initiative is proposing that the school district sponsor the school, giving the district oversight, while allowing the initiative to run the school under a separate board.

“We are in a very competitive market,” Green told the school board, “and Kansas City needs to be a player in the sandbox where choice is an option.

“I’m not about status quo. I’m about change and pushing the envelope.”

From the outset, the Urban Neighborhood Initiative and its board wanted to seek out the school district as its education partner for the renewal project, Cleaver said.

They looked to the district even though it was unaccredited and its future was uncertain when the initial conversations began more than a year ago, said Jim Heeter, president and chief executive officer of the chamber.

Earlier this month, the state granted the district provisional accreditation.

“None of us knew how those issues would unfold,” Heeter said. “We had confidence in what Dr. Green and his team were trying to accomplish, and that confidence was rewarded.”

A long road

Just what the renewal project would look like in Kansas City still needs to be shaped.

The planners have been surveying the area for potential sites for new housing, as well as a home for a charter school, but those choices remain open, Cleaver said.

They did make some assurances in response to school board questions. Whatever new housing is developed would give priority to families already living in the area and guard against gentrification, the planners said. The large number of vacant lots gives plenty of room to expand residential opportunities, they said.

Kansas City district leaders are already imagining what the charter school might look like. A team visited Drew Charter and said it came away impressed.

The school has put together “the pieces” of its children’s “complicated lives,” said Lewis Gowin, Kansas City’s assistant superintendent of curriculum, instruction and professional development.

Like many charter school models, Drew uses a longer school day and a longer school year, with more teacher training and collaboration time built in.

The partnership with Atlanta, Gowin said, is helping Kansas City further explore the kind of school reform the district is already trying to foster in all of its schools — training teachers, engaging the community, providing for family needs and building a proud, rigorous culture.

It took most of a decade of slow gains for Drew to break ahead of the pack, and Kansas City knows something about the long road of recovery.

But Trinity Davis, the Kansas City district’s director of curriculum and instruction, sees the teachers collaborating in Drew, and she sees children rewarding their teachers’ trust in them, working and behaving responsibly.

This is something Kansas City and Atlanta can work on together, she said.

“It’s the same path.”

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

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