July 3, 2014

Sale of West High School is bittersweet for Westside Housing Organization

The housing agency has worked for years trying to put together a development plan for the vacant complex, which the Kansas City school board has agreed to sell to Foutch Brothers.

This is supposed to be a happy occasion.

The crumbling West High School complex that long has been sucking life out of its neighborhood’s resurgence has an approved buyer with a plan to turn the eyesore into a community jewel.

Gosh knows the Westside Housing Organization has been working on this project for decades.

But here’s the catch for the housing agency’s leaders: It’s not their plan.

Instead of selling the set of school buildings to Westside Housing and its latest partners, the Kansas City Public Schools administration recommended — and its board unanimously approved — selling to the Foutch Brothers real estate firm. The sale price was not disclosed.

“Maybe it will be something wonderful,” said Westside executive director Gloria Fisher. “I really hope it is because I love this community.”

But excuse her and others in the community action organization if they feel a bit like Moses being left outside the Promised Land after doing so much work to get there.

Foutch has become a major player in bids to buy and restore vacant Kansas City public properties. It has designs on Kemper Arena, which would become the centerpiece of an amateur sports complex.

The school district administration also recommended selling the Westport High School building in midtown to Foutch, though the school board balked on that sale and is holding it under consideration.

At West, Foutch is proposing mixed uses for the site at 20th and Summit streets with a plan that the district said gained the most community support in a faceoff between two popular plans.

“It was a choice between two very strong proposals,” board president Jon Hile said. “Both had significant community support.”

Westside Housing was developing its plan with Dalmark Development Group and BNIM.

Both plans call for preserving and rehabilitating the historic structures. Both propose mixed uses with community access to the restored gymnasiums, auditorium, library and other amenities.

Considering that the high school closed more than three decades ago and hasn’t been used by the district for any purpose for more than 10 years, a rebirth — if it finally happens — has been a long time coming.

“I’m so excited I can’t see straight,” said Lynda Callon, director of the Westside Community Action Network.

“After 40 years of intentional blight on buildings that have great meaning to this community … two full blocks are going to be refurbished,” she said. “They will contribute to the well-being and beauty of the neighborhood.”

The district’s maintenance of the site has varied over the years. Today the buildings’ windows and doors are mostly boarded, though some plywood facings are warped, and some graffiti on West’s third-floor windows show that people are gaining entry.

Trees and shrubs clog basement window wells and sprout here and there from the tops of roofs and canopies. Ceiling damage has exposed the deteriorating insides of the schools to weather.

It’s by no means a simple restoration.

Callon supported Foutch’s proposal. The main difference, she said, was that Foutch planned for fewer residential units — less than 90, compared with more than 250 in the other plan.

She was concerned about the amount of vehicle traffic in the larger plan.

The Westside Housing/Dalmark/BNIM proposal included more new construction along with the restoration.

Foutch convinced the school district’s repurposing office that the company has the financial means to make the plan work. Part of the role of the district office is to screen out potential buyers who may not have the ability to carry out plans.

The Foutch plan also gives some 40,000 square feet to be leased to cultural arts groups, though just who that would be is still in flux.

“Multiple (arts) groups have been looking at the space, but there were no signed deals,” Steve Foutch said. Now that the school board has approved the sale, “I can remarket it to everybody.”

The planning, he said, “is like a multisided Rubik’s Cube.”

The buildings in the complex — West, Switzer Elementary School and the Switzer Annex — sit in the heart of a neighborhood that has been bursting with new vitality for several years.

Fine restaurants and Garcia Elementary School at the top of the hill along 17th Street lead down Summit and Madison streets past a community garden to a new public library and the sparkling red and green roofs of the Tony Aguirre Community Center across West Pennway.

The sale still needs to close, but Foutch hopes to see construction underway before the end of the year.

The planning will involve the neighborhood, he said, and will be careful to find uses that complement programs at the community center and library.

“We’re not going to compete with anyone,” Foutchhe said. “We’ll find uses that do not cannibalize or steal from other groups.”

He said he also has reached out to Westside Housing with hopes of gathering its input as well.

“We’re not adversaries,” Foutch said.

The Westside Housing leaders can’t help but worry.

The organization had been pressuring the school district to do something with the crumbling property for years. When the district agreed to market it for sale, Westside Housing aggressively sought out potential developers to make it happen.

The housing agency thought it was close two years ago to launching a development plan with McCormack Baron Salazar that had won the school district’s approval.

But their proposal relied on low-income housing tax credits that were denied by the Missouri Housing Development Commission.

“We’ve been working with the community for quite some time,” said Westside Housing’s board chair, Dana Gibson.

Their current partnership gathered input from several community meetings and sought approval letters from the city planning offices and county executive offices.

Fisher worries about whether arts groups will indeed come and whether Foutch can make the project financially feasible with the lower number of residential units.

The school district’s sale contract will include a contingency that gives it the ability to take a property back under its control if the buyer fails to produce its plan.

The community wants no more setbacks, said Westside activist Ezekiel Amador III, who supports the Foutch plan.

He has confidence that the yearned-for makeover will happen this time — though he’s seen enough disappointment to keep his hopes in check.

“It’s going to be great for the area,” he said. “But I won’t be happy until they are actually selling units, people are moving in and I’m making friends with the new neighbors.”

To reach Joe Robertson, call 816-234-4789 or send email to jrobertson@kcstar.com.

Building scorecard

For three years, Kansas City Public Schools’ repurposing program has been charged with working with the community to establish new uses for 30 vacant properties.

Sold (7): Douglass, Graceland, Longan, Pinkerton, Seven Oaks, Swinney, Westport Middle

Sale pending (2): West/Switzer, Switzer Annex

Leased (1): Moore

Retained for district use (1): Northeast Middle

To be demolished (2): Chick, McCoy

Still for sale or under review (17): Ashland, Askew, Bingham, Blenheim, Bryant, Dunbar, Fairview, Franklin, Greenwood, Ladd, Marlborough, Meservey, Pershing, Thacher, West Rock Creek, Westport High, Willard

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