Time is ticking toward the planned July move-in for the new Scuola Vita Nuova, a public charter school near Garfield and Independence avenues. Crews have been hard at work for months, bringing the former Don Bosco charter school back to life in time for the first day of class Aug. 13.
But there’s a small problem. The school wants to put a 6-foot chain link fence around parts of the property — a plan neighbors say violates the historic preservation standards of the Pendleton Heights neighborhood. And they’re appealing a decision by the city’s Historic Preservation Commission that allows it. The commission will review the neighborhood’s request to rehear the case on Friday.
Nearby homeowner Merrie Ford and Jessica Ray, president of the Pendleton Heights Neighborhood Association, say they are happy to see new students coming to occupy what has been an underused building. The Don Bosco charter school closed in 2011 and only limited activities have been there since.
It’s just that chain link fencing has always been a big no-no with the commission when it comes to residents’ home improvement projects, said Ford. Several have been denied over the years.
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“Why even have a commission if you’re not going to follow the rules you set up?” she asked. “If all they are is guidelines and they’re really not enforceable and the Historic Commission has no teeth, then why are we paying them?”
School officials, though, don’t see it that way. Chain link has traditionally been more acceptable in schools than at residential properties, said Peggy McGraw, president of the Scuola Vita Nuova school board. “Security of the school is our ultimate concern.”
Scuola Vita Nuova bought the Don Bosco building because it had outgrown its home at 544 Wabash Ave., McGraw said. The location seemed like a good fit for the about 176 students in grades K-8, she said, because it would keep things in the old Northeast area, where many of the students’ families live. The fact that they would be refurbishing a neighborhood fixture would be an added plus, she said.
But redoing the building has proved expensive.
“When you renovate an existing building you run into all kinds of things,” she said.
The school has blown through its $5 million budget already, so every penny counts, she added.
Ed Carlson, the project architect, told the preservation commission that it would be too expensive to install decorative steel picket fencing all around the building. Instead, the school is asking for a six-foot black vinyl coated chain link fence in some locations — with steel picket fencing elsewhere.
Neighbors, however, say the fence goes counter to standards for the historic area, which does not allow chain link and limits the height to four feet. Eventually, it will keep property values down, Ford said.
“In a few short years it’s going to look shoddy as we continue to renovate homes,” she said.
Instead, Ford said, the entire fence should be the black picket style that is considered acceptable in other parts of the neighborhood.
Ray said the homeowners have objected to the fence since school officials first proposed it shortly after buying the building.
“We’re supportive of the school being there,” she said. But, “we owe our support to the members and residents who have been working on the neighborhood for many years.”
“We don’t feel like we’re being jerks to the school or anything. They’ve known this all along,” she said.
The decision did not prove easy for the commission. Members approved it 4-2 after a couple of hours of discussion, and then only after asking that the fence not go across the front of the 1948 building.
One commissioner cited the chain link fence at Allen Village High School, which was designated as a historic landmark in 2009 but had the fence before that. That commissioner said the fence made that school look uninviting, like a “fortress” according to a tape of the meeting.
McGraw argued for the security, saying, “As a mother I really would want to make sure the children are safe and that would be my utmost concern quite frankly.”
Since the review is pending, commissioners cannot talk further about the case, said commission chairman Erik Heitman.
McGraw said the school is committed to making the black vinyl coated fence as attractive as possible, and maybe even replacing it someday with a different one. But for now, that may have to wait.
Said McGraw, “It’s a great thing we’re doing for this community.”
The Kansas City Historic Preservation Commission will review the neighborhood’s request for a rehearing on Friday. If commissioners decide to rehear the case, members of the public may speak.
Time: Friday, 8:30 a.m.
Place: City Council Chambers, 26th Floor of City Hall, 414 E. 12th St.