First it was Bancroft Elementary School. The 110-year-old building, empty for 13 years, went from boarded-up eyesore to neighborhood centerpiece after its conversion to apartments last year.
Now the Manheim Park neighborhood is hoping to capitalize on that success with an ever-widening ripple of improvements. More retail development. A better-looking Troost Avenue. Quality housing.
To make that happen, neighbors of the former school have done what so many other Kansas City communities have done. They’ve teamed up with design students from the nearby University of Missouri-Kansas City in a year-long project.
End result: A plan that will be used as a guide for making the Manheim Park neighborhood the revitalized gem residents think it can be.
“We’re asking the community what it is they want to be,” said Seft Hunter, president of the Manheim Park Neighborhood Association.
The school remodeling, he said, is “a catalyst to the extent that we can leverage it and elevate the standards of what is possible in the community.”
The project, which has focused the efforts of about 45 students in five classes on one neighborhood, is a win-win for the students and the neighborhood, say UMKC professors involved.
The neighborhood gets an intensive study of its strengths and challenges that goes deeper than most city plans. And of course, the students get the chance to learn their craft and perhaps do some good in the real world.
The Manheim project is hardly the first for the Department of Architecture, Urban Planning and Design, which earlier this month was honored by UMKC with the 2014 Chancellor’s Award for Excellence in Community Engagement.
The school has done more than 50 such projects all over the city. Students have worked in Washington Wheatley, Wendell Philips, Troostwood and Key Coalition neighborhoods, to name a few. They’ve examined the Independence Avenue and Troost Avenue corridors, as well as the area around 18th and Vine.
In 2006, senior planning and design majors even went to New Orleans to help it recover from Hurricane Katrina.
In most cases, the various classes have split up and worked on several neighborhoods, said Jake Wagner, director of urban studies at UMKC. The Manheim project is different in that all the classes have been focusing on one area.
The university’s involvement with Manheim goes back as far as 2009, when U.S. Rep. Emanuel Cleaver secured federal funding for a Green Impact Zone in Kansas City’s urban core. The seniors then in the program researched each of the five neighborhoods in that 150-block area that year, focusing on ideas for energy efficiency similar to what was done in Greensburg, Kan., after a tornado struck, said Wagner.
The survey was an exhaustive look at all the housing stock in the area, and it laid the groundwork for what happened last year, when the Manheim neighborhood association approached the school for help. With the Bancroft project at 43rd Street and Tracy Avenue about done, the neighborhood was looking for the next step.
How could the $14 million investment in the apartment complex shine its light on the surrounding neighborhood?
What followed was months of meetings with small neighborhood groups and extensive research into the history, demographics and a comprehensive plan done by the city in the late 1990s, Wagner said.
Manheim is about 32 blocks bounded by Troost Avenue to the Paseo and 39th Street to Emanuel Cleaver II Boulevard. The area has assets, including a diverse housing stock, an excellent location near UMKC and the Nelson-Atkins Museum if Art, and a walkable topography with old growth trees, he said.
The mix of ethnicities and ages also will make the neighborhood resilient, he said.
However, the neighborhood is dealing with some vacant lots and visual blight, particularly in its southern end, the students found.
The classes came up with a lot of ideas: a design for a community center, perhaps even a hotel some years down the road.
Although there were some 3D architectural mock-ups, the main point of the project was the plan. That document will be what community leaders use when they tell potential developers what is expected of them.
That means modern buildings in harmony with the older structures already there, as well as consistent setbacks, said Hunter of the neighborhood association.
“When the largest structure (Bancroft school) has been remodeled to the highest standards, it’s difficult at this point to say it would be OK to build a tract house here,” he said.
Karie Kneller, a senior planning and design major from Kansas City, said the students envision commercial development spreading out from the spines of Troost and perhaps a few east-west streets.
Another student, Sean Partain, senior in urban planning and design from Lenexa, said he hopes the plan will make it possible for the neighborhood to develop while remaining diverse.
“It’s important as a city to make an effort to improve and try to bring people to the neighborhood without pushing out the population that is already there,” he said.
“They (neighbors) wanted to see development of good quality and good materials made to last. I feel like we’ve supplied them with a good foundation.”
Hunter is optimistic about what the plan can do to help his neighborhood. “We can embrace a new standard with respect to what is possible in the urban community,” he said.
“It’s been a great time to be in Manheim.”