Boarded-up school buildings often become black holes of decay that suck the life out of the surrounding neighborhood.
For 13 years, Bancroft Elementary was one such hulk in Manheim Park on Kansas City’s near east side. Cracked pavement, broken windows, walls stained with graffiti.
But no more.
Bancroft lives again with people setting up housekeeping in spacious apartments with 14-foot ceilings, hardwood floors and a community center in the old gymnasium. It’s all thanks to the dedication of residents and a wide assortment of powerful players outside the neighborhood, from city officials to local architect Bob Berkebile to Hollywood leading man Brad Pitt.
Within brick walls where generations of kids once learned to read and write are now 29 airy apartments. An additional 21 housing units have been built on the former school grounds.
Goodbye, eyesore. Hello, neighborhood gem.
But the recently completed renovation and construction project has never been just about one school building or one block.
It’s to prove a point about the best way to rebuild America’s inner cities. Rather than scattering a bunch of smaller projects throughout an urban-core neighborhood where vacant lots outnumber occupied houses on some streets, Bancroft’s developers say the better approach is to concentrate redevelopment dollars. Focus on a single block, and you’ll get more bang for the buck.
This $14 million investment at the corner of 43rd Street and Tracy Avenue, they predict, will lead to improvements on adjacent blocks. It already has inspired people who live in the neighborhood to take better care of their own properties and has led to a double-digit drop in the crime rate.
“It’s really about the regeneration of a neighborhood,” says Jim Nichols of Dalmark Development Group, one of several partners in the project. “The hope is that this can be replicated in other neighborhoods, not just here but also in other cities.”Energy efficiency
Manheim Park is one of 12 neighborhoods that Kansas City officials have recently targeted for redevelopment. Bancroft’s rebirth is key to that effort, said John Wood, who heads the department of neighborhood and housing services.
“It is special because it’s the only thing that in terms of major development is going on (east of Troost),” he said. “It has provided a spark.”
The official ribbon-cutting was in November, but only around Christmastime were the 50 units ready for occupancy. A dozen tenants have moved in so far. Applications for the rest of the apartments and town houses are in the pipeline. Renters have to meet certain income guidelines because of the tax credits used to finance the project.
Nichols expects all one-, two-, and three-bedroom units to be occupied by next month, with most rents ranging from $470 to $695 a month.
Utility bills also will be affordable — the project is built to low-energy-use standards known as LEED Platinum status. Each unit is outfitted with energy-efficient windows and appliances. The 110-year-old school building has more than 400 solar panels mounted atop the roof.
Construction began a little more than a year ago, but the project dates to 2008. That’s when a number of folks began looking at what it would take to push back the decay that had set in on the south end of Manheim Park, whose boundaries are Troost Avenue to the Paseo, 39th Street to Emanuel Cleaver II Boulevard.
In a series of meetings that included residents and volunteers from Berkebile’s architectural firm, BNIM, the participants agreed that Bancroft could be key in the same way that acupuncture stimulates whole areas of the body with a single needle prick.
“Schools are designed and built to be the center of a community, and when they go dark it’s a sign that the neighborhood is in serious decline,” Berkebile said. “Manheim Park, in their collaborative dialogue of discovery identified a perfect place for urban acupuncture.”
It was around this time that U.S. Rep. Emanuel Cleaver announced formation of the Green Impact Zone, an area that became the beneficiary of millions of federal stimulus dollars during the recession.
The emphasis was to be on energy efficiency and other so-called green projects in zone neighborhoods like Manheim Park.
Enter Angelina Jolie’s special someone. Pitt and his Make It Right Foundation had been looking to expand beyond their base in New Orleans, where they’ve built more than 100 energy-efficient homes in an area devastated by the flooding after Hurricane Katrina.
The idea behind the Green Impact Zone appealed to Make It Right’s Tim Duggan.
“We really think this is kind of the first phase,” Duggan said. “We see a bigger opportunity to be a catalyst.”
Among Make It Right’s partners in the project is Lee’s Summit-based Dalmark, which arranged for the low-income and historic tax credits that underwrote the bulk of the project’s cost. Dalmark is the property manager.
Donations covered the rest, including $1.3 million from US Bank, as well as donated paint and other materials, leaving the project virtually debt-free, Nichols said.Next steps
Already, work is beginning on a second phase. Make It Right, Dalmark and the other key Bancroft partner, Neighborhood Housing Services, are coordinating with the city to redo the block facing the school on the east side of Tracy Avenue, between 43rd and 44th streets.
Plans are to build four houses at $160,000 apiece on vacant lots or on lots where the houses need to be torn down because they’ve been declared dangerous. At least one homeowner is getting financial help for improvements, as well.
Plans also call for razing decrepit buildings immediately to the south for a park.
Meanwhile, Manheim Park residents are working with the University of Missouri-Kansas City, the Bancroft partners and others for what comes next.
“The discussion about how the neighborhood is going to go is a big (one),” said Mark Stalsworth, president of Neighborhood Housing Services.
By using more low-income tax credits, a lot of housing can be added quickly, but there’s a tradeoff. The middle-income families the neighborhood association wants to attract aren’t eligible to live in those tax-credit properties.
“The question is how much is that a concentration of poverty,” Stalsworth said.
On the other hand, he said, Manheim Park could have a longer wait before private developers fill up the neighborhood with enough market rate housing to make much an impact.
Seft Hunter doesn’t agree. The acting president of the Manheim Park Neighborhood Association said it’s not an either/or proposition.
“I do think there’s a third way,” said Hunter, an assistant professor at the Kansas City University of Medicine and Biosciences.
Make It Right has shown in New Orleans, he said, that it’s possible to bring together a mix of incomes in that city’s Ninth Ward area.
With the Bancroft project as a draw, he thinks the same thing can happen in Manheim Park.
“We’re right on the cusp for regeneration,” Hunter said. “This is a catalytic project that’s created the sense of what’s possible.”