Between his morning jogs and evening strolls, Rodney Knott has all 32-square blocks of the Manheim Park neighborhood mapped out in his head.
So ask the former neighborhood association president about the 4200 block of Virginia Street, and Knott summons up his impression like a page from a dog-eared catalogue.
“Geez,” he shudders, “it’s bad.”
On the west side of the street, only four of 12 residential properties have places fit to live on them. The others are boarded up or gutted, with the exception of the one vacant lot. As for the other side, it’s only somewhat better.
Here and across much of Kansas City’s east side, neighborhoods have emptied out over the past half century. Despite untold effort and millions of dollars spent, nothing’s stemmed the slide.
So last week, city and county officials took two important steps in a re-doubled effort to repopulate the urban core.
It all has to do with land trusts and land banks — not the most enticing of subjects, but behind the opaque titles are one of the brightest hopes for the core:
• On Wednesday, Land Trust of Jackson County transferred to city ownership 447 blighted and abandoned properties in and near the so-called Green Impact Zone, which includes all of Manheim and parts of four other neighborhoods.
City Hall is better equipped than land trust to fix up the houses that are worth saving, tear down the rest and turn over the vacant lots to neighboring homeowners or developers who might build new houses and apartments.
• Then on Thursday, the City Council took its first formal step toward establishing the land bank that the Missouri General Assembly authorized last session.
Assuming the proposed ordinance gets final approval in coming weeks, land bank officials will begin the herculean task of putting those 447 properties and, within a year, thousands of others like them back onto the tax rolls. Some might also become community gardens and sites for neighborhood centers.
It’s a hopeful new attempt, neighborhood leaders say, at reversing generations of decline, devastation and despair east of Troost Avenue.
“Unlike a hurricane or a tornado, what we’ve had is a different type of disaster,” Knott said. “Here it’s been more like a slow-moving tornado. The type of devastation we’re dealing with has occurred over decades.”Better marketing
There was a tax sale last week on the steps of the Jackson County Courthouse. Dozens of landlords, speculators and folks just looking to buy and fix up an old house waited for hours in the heat to bid on forfeited real estate. Previous owners had lost the parcels for not paying their taxes.
Many properties changed hands. Those that didn’t sell were added to the ever-growing assets of land trust.
“We’re in the business to sell these parcels,” said Diane Burnette, land trust chairwoman.
Problem is, the agency doesn’t have a great track record of doing that. It sold or donated less than 10 percent of the 700 properties it picked up last year. More than half of its inventory has been on the books for more than a decade.
Reason: Land trust has little to no budget for maintaining land trust properties, much less marketing them aggressively.
So the plan now is to turn the vast majority of land trust properties over to city government, with its far greater resources.
Besides, of the 3,892 properties on land trust’s rolls as of last week, all but 400 were within Kansas City limits. And it’s not like the city is suddenly taking on a great burden. Kansas City taxpayers are already stuck paying the bill (about $1.5 million this year) to cut the weeds on land trust lots and tear down dangerous buildings.
The big difference now will be that the city will have the power to potentially revitalize neighborhoods by selling or giving the properties away to others.
Starting with those 447 mostly vacant lots in the Green Impact Zone.
“It’s an uphill climb when you have had disinvestment for so long,” said zone director Anita Maltbia.Fear of speculators
Born in 2009, the Green Impact Zone is simple strategy. Target one compact area of the city for revitalization, with an emphasis on sustainability and energy efficiency.
Where past urban renewal efforts have been scattershot and minimally successful at turning around entire neighborhoods, the hope is that the Green Impact Zone’s tight focus will have great benefits when money and manpower are brought to bear.
Zone boundaries are 39th to 51st streets, Troost to Prospect avenues, with a dogleg on the southeast that follows Brush Creek to Swope Parkway.
Despite a slow start, those efforts are starting to pay off. One of the more notable projects is a $14 million plan announced in February to build 50 affordable housing units in and around the former Bancroft School at 43rd Street and Tracy Avenue.
Thanks to the involvement of actor Brad Pitt’s Make it Right Foundation, the project has gotten lots of attention, not all of it welcome.
Bancroft “has stirred the pot,” Maltbia said. Fearful that investors would swoop in and buy up land trust properties in the zone, then sit on them, slowing redevelopment, Maltbia asked for a temporary suspension of land trust sales in the zone.
“Unfortunately, (projects like this) have often been targets for speculators,” she said.
That hold ended Wednesday when land trust did what Maltbia had in mind all along, deeding the 447 properties over to the city’s Homesteading Authority, which will eventually morph into the land bank.
Rather than sell them to whoever comes along, the city will take into consideration what effect the sales will have on neighborhood redevelopment.
“We’re going to try to use them to learn what we’re going to be doing (with the land bank),” said David Park, the city’s director of neighborhood community services.Small lots
According to Park, only about 60 of the 447 have structures on them, and some will be torn down.
As for the empty lots, they’re too small for a modern home. Where two or more lots are side by side, the city will try to find someone who wants to take more than one and build on them. Nonprofits like Neighborhood Housing Services have done these kinds of projects for years.
It will be harder to dispose of the many single lots that are less than 6,000 square feet.
Park hopes neighboring property owners will buy them for a bigger yard. And where the purchaser also can prove that he lives in that home, there’ll be no cost other than a $75 recorder’s fee, he said.
It’s the model the city plans to use when those 3,000 other land trust properties are conveyed to the city.
Back to Manheim Park and 4200 block of Virginia. Of those eight vacant properties on the west side of the street, only three were in the land trust.
The rest are privately held, several owned by commercial banks, according to land records. At least one of those, according to a notice on the door, was acquired through foreclosure.
Which means the city and its land bank have a lot of work ahead of them putting deals together that will better this block and many others.