After years of fierce neighborhood opposition and legal battles, neighbors of the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art have reached an accord with museum officials concerning its immediate expansion plans.
The biggest takeaway is that the Kirkwood residence — a house built by museum founder William Rockhill Nelson for his daughter — will be sold and maintained as a historically protected private home in the Rockhill neighborhood.
The accord also says that four other Nelson-owned houses, directly north of the museum on 45th Street, will not be razed and will be protected according to historic preservation standards.
The vacant Kirkwood house, formerly home to the Rockhill Tennis Club, is located immediately east of the museum across Rockhill Road. It had been targeted for possible museum expansion, an idea tenaciously fought for years by some neighbors and preservationists.
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“We pushed the reset button,” museum director Julián Zugazagoitia told The Star in describing months of private meetings with neighborhood representatives. “Our conversations became more honest. We were back to building trust. … When we heard opposition, we had to listen.”
Zugazagoitia said a new memorandum of understanding with the Rockhill and Southmoreland neighborhoods is an “extraordinary agreement (that) is both respectful of the historic neighborhoods and open to an exciting future for the Nelson-Atkins.”
Galen Mussman, a Rockhill resident involved in the extensive negotiations, said, “The whole process has been nothing short of transformational. It’s been a complete shift in the way people from the neighborhoods get along with representatives from the museum. We not only trust each other. We like each other.”
The agreement was reached in connection with an amendment to the museum’s Master Planned Development proposal. That amended plan is to be filed Wednesday at City Hall.
The pact stipulates that most of the rest of the Kirkwood property — except for the Kirkwood house and its 3/4 -acre yard — will remain in the Nelson’s hands.
The property’s northern end, currently occupied by tennis courts, is to become a pedestrian-friendly sculpture garden. Removal of the tennis courts would begin within nine months after the City Council approves the new development agreement.
The Kirkwood property’s southern end, now a parking lot, would be landscaped and maintained for limited use by museum staff on specific overflow crowd days until it is to be removed by the end of 2020.
Museum officials said potential buyers have expressed interest in the more-than 5,000-square-foot Kirkwood house, but much work remains to establish a value, verify its condition and know its historic preservation requirements.
Neighborhood representatives met with museum officials in hundreds of hours of closed meetings, designed to allow the museum to proceed with some phased-in expansion plans without changing the historic character of adjacent properties. Participants say the agreement puts years of litigation, stymied action and distrust behind them.
The memorandum of understanding speaks directly to preserving the Kirkwood and four 45th Street houses, two of which currently are occupied as duplex residences. A third 45th Street house on the west corner, dubbed the “Bishop’s House,” already is used as museum offices. The fourth house, the easternmost and vacant “Feingold House,” would be the next spot for offices if needed.
“We’ve agreed to use the Bishop and Feingold houses in the near term of 12 to 16 months,” said Greg Maday, a Kansas City businessman and Nelson trustee who serves as chairman of the board’s campus and community committee. “We’d use the other two houses as needed, if needed. They may never need to be used.”
Eviction dates for the current tenants will be delayed, and may not be necessary.
The Nelson seeks more office space to be able to return gallery space — now occupied by staff offices — to showcase more of its 39,000-piece-and-growing art collection. Currently, some of the museum’s 298-person staff — also expected to grow — have squeezed out art for desk space.
The museum last year shared its aim to add 15,000 square feet of gallery space beyond its current 73,000 square feet. It also wants 15,000 more square feet of art storage space, 4,000 more square feet of art conservation laboratory space, 9,000 more square feet of office space, 4,000 more square feet of education space and 14,000 more square feet of featured exhibition space.
It has an “aspirational” goal of becoming a 786,000-square-foot institution, compared to its current total of 400,000 square feet. Or, to put it on par with museums it considers to be in its peer group, it aims to have 531,000 square feet.
The new pact references but doesn’t request a possible new office building. That new construction likely would be on a parking lot on the north side of 45th Street, immediately east of the four houses. That new building — for which there currently is no fundraising or detailed plan — would have height and architectural review limits to fit in with the 45th Street houses.
The Kansas City Plan Commission, asked in November to consider a rezoning proposal by the Nelson, heard more than two hours of testimony before voting to continue the case.
Mussman, with the Rockhill neighborhood group, said the commission deserves praise for sending the museum and the neighbors back to the table with instructions to hammer out disagreements before returning to request master plan approval.
Suspicions that the houses might be demolished had dominated public discussions ever since the Nelson introduced a revised master plan last year. Critics called it a “plan without a plan” because it lacked specificity about long-term use of the museum-owned houses.
“It is a plan with a plan,” Zugazagoitia said of the revised submission.
The amended plan is to appear on the Plan Commission’s May 16 agenda. If the commission approves it, it goes for final approval from the City Council.
Under the new plan, the four 45th Street houses would be protected subject to historic preservation standards for their exteriors and parts of their interiors so that they may be returned to residential use.
“We were concerned about possible demolition of those properties,” said Laura Burkhalter, a Southmoreland representative in the negotiations. “The conclusion is that they will not be razed. It’s about preservation of a historic neighborhood, and we’re very happy about it.”
The new accord includes formation of a “stewardship committee” to monitor future use of the houses.
Neighborhood spokesmen said they hope the Nelson will focus expansion on the possible 45th Street office building and on the primary museum block that houses the original gallery, the Bloch addition and the Hall sculpture park.
The memorandum acknowledges growing parking needs for the museum, which has seen its annual attendance jump from 350,000 a year to nearly 550,000. Especially on busy festival or event days, there is spillover parking into the neighborhoods.
The museum had entered public discussions in the fall of 2014 about its long-term expansion plans for a cultural district around the museum. Many of the early ideas were jettisoned in the face of neighborhood opposition.