Barring a last-minute reprieve, three Nelle Peters apartment buildings in the west Plaza area appear headed to the wrecking ball.
The Kansas City Council’s Planning, Zoning and Economic Development Committee voted 4-1 on Jan. 13 to deny historic district status for the buildings. Historic designation had the potential to delay demolition for up to three years.
The measure goes to the full council today, but it needs nine of 13 votes in favor of historic designation, and that’s looking unlikely given the Jan. 13 vote count.
“It’s a great disappointment,” said Greg Allen, president of the Historic Kansas City Foundation, which had gathered about 800 signatures on an online petition to protect the three apartment buildings, built in 1927 in the 4700 block of Summit Street on the west edge of the Country Club Plaza.
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In testimony, Allen argued the Plaza has already lost too many of its most precious buildings, so the city should save these three buildings as part of the district’s charming and unique character.
Nelle Peters, who died in 1974, had a career that spanned 1909 to 1965. She was one of the most prolific and well known of Kansas City’s early 20th century architects.
Price Brothers bought the quaint but deteriorating buildings in 2014, with the intention of demolishing them and constructing a new multifamily residential project. Historic preservationists were outraged, saying these Tudor revival-style buildings are prime examples of Peters’ work and should be saved.
They were able to temporarily halt the developer last year and won several rounds with the Kansas City Historic Preservation Commission and the City Plan Commission in a battle to further delay demolition. But after more than three hours of testimony, a majority on the council committee determined Wednesday that preserving these buildings was simply not financially feasible.
They were persuaded by Ryan Huffman, chief financial officer with Cohen-Esrey of Kansas City, who testified for Price Brothers as an expert in both real estate development and historic preservation.
Price Brothers paid $3.6 million for the buildings, with the expectation that the buildings could be torn down and the property could be redeveloped as high-quality market-rate housing.
Huffman said given that purchase price, plus an estimated $2.9 million in rehabilitation costs and $1.1 million in financing and legal costs, there’s no way for the developer to get a reasonable return on investment, even with historic tax credits.
He said the buildings have tiny floor plans with no room to expand, no parking, no washer/dryer or other amenities that modern renters demand, and yet the rents would have to be more than $1,200 per month, far above what would be realistic.
Jim Bowers, attorney for Price Brothers, argued that if the council insisted on the delay, it would be considered a financial “taking” without compensation from the developer.
Committee members Lee Barnes and Heather Hall both said they are enthusiastic about historic preservation, but they couldn’t force a developer to hold on to a property that would be a guaranteed money loser. Committee members Scott Taylor and Quinton Lucas also voted against the historic designation.
Katheryn Shields was the lone vote in favor of the historic designation, arguing it “gives protection so we don’t lose pieces out of our historic fabric.”
She said it wouldn’t forever prohibit demolition but would simply allow the developer and the city more time to explore other options.
Doug Price, president of Price Brothers, told the committee that he checked with both the historic preservation office and the city’s development department before he bought the buildings, and he was assured they were not historic and there were not restrictions on demolition.
When the company pulled the pre-demolition permit last summer, alarmed neighbors alerted the Historic Kansas City Foundation, which filed the historic designation application, allowing a temporary stall to the process.
In testimony Jan. 13, Historic Kansas City Foundation executive director Amanda Crawley argued the buildings could feasibly be redeveloped, using historic and affordable housing tax credits. And she said there’s a need for more moderate-rent, workforce housing in the Plaza that these buildings could provide.
But Bowers and Price said they have tried for three months to interest other developers in buying and historically preserving the property. The only purchase offers were for far less money than Price paid.
Price, who lives in the neighborhood, told the committee he doesn’t yet have a final plan for the property, but he won’t build anything higher than the seven-story parking garage to the east. He said whatever is built won’t be a glass and steel monolith.
“It will fit the neighborhood,” he said.