It’s been scaled back since it was first introduced in 2012, but the plan for a faith-based student housing complex at 52nd Street and Troost Avenue is apparently no less controversial with its neighbors.
About 100 people showed up at a meeting last week to discuss the Catholic Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph’s plan to build student apartments at the former St. Francis Xavier School. There were many pointed questions and references to “trust issues” from past experience with the project. The diocese filed its proposal with the City Plan Commission on Friday.
The neighborhood and the diocese have been at odds over what to do with the roughly 55,000-square- foot elementary school that has been empty since 2009. The faith-based housing project is imagined by its supporters as a haven for students with strong religious beliefs, where a code of conduct would be strictly enforced. Bishop Robert Finn is in favor of the project.
But neighbors questioned whether the management company that eventually runs it will be able to fill it with UMKC students, and what would happen to the building if the project fails financially. Some expressed frustration that the diocese has turned down charter schools that were interested in the building while continuing with the housing project.
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Diocese representatives outlined a proposal that is scaled back to the minimum size it needs to be to be self-sustaining, said Steve Harms, director of pre-construction services for Tri-North Builders.
Harms presented the latest proposal. The Bellarmino Catholic Center at 5220 Troost Ave. would have 85 units of two-, three- and four-bedroom apartments that would house 237 people.
There would be 172 parking spaces, some below the U-shaped building but most in surface lots. The apartments would be a bit smaller than many in that neighborhood, but would come with baths and kitchen space, Harms said. Rent would range from $700 to about $1,200 a month.
The three-to-four-story building project would cost $15 million to $16 million, which would be financed by bonds.
The newest plan, which will be developed by Domus Development, is substantially smaller than the one proposed in 2012. That plan would have been five stories housing 363 people, with 127 parking spaces.
Presenters of the current plan touted the smaller footprint and increased green space and courtyard that would be provided. And there would be something in it for the parish as well, they said.
Under the current plan, contractors would raze the old school, except for the 4,000-square-foot gymnasium. The gym would be converted into a multi-purpose area that would be accessible to the parish. Although parishioners wanted a new parish hall, many questioned the current plan, saying it was too vague as to whether the hall’s features would meet the parish’s needs. They also questioned how accessible it would actually be, since it is considered part of the student housing project.
One of the main points of debate between the diocese and neighbors has been whether there is enough demand to make the project successful.
Although the project is situated just blocks away from Rockhurst University and the University of Missouri-Kansas City, it is independent of both those institutions. The target market will be upperclassmen and graduate students at UMKC.
Faith-based housing has been somewhat of a trend at non-religious universities the past couple of years, with anecdotal evidence that students seek it out to avoid the party atmosphere of some dorms and Greek houses. Faith-based apartments are generally marketed as a place where students can be comfortable with a quieter lifestyle where they feel free to practice their faith.
Exactly how that would work at the Bellarmino Center was also a topic of discussion.
Most of the rules would be quite similar to what the average college dorm requires, said Harms.
The difference would be in the fact that the management company that would run the complex would have a person on site to strictly enforce rules against, for example, drinking and carousing, he said. The complex would have segregated men’s and women’s floors for the most part, though one floor would have both genders.
Federal fair housing rules prohibit discrimination based on gender, age or religious faith, however, so there’s no guarantee the tenants would be religious or even students. However, Harms said most non-students would not choose to live in a complex dominated by students. He also tried to reassure neighbors that marketing studies support the demand for this type of housing.
Patricia Barra, 22, said she would have loved to have had this housing option when she attended UMKC.
“At UMKC if you’re a Catholic you feel alone,” she said. “Having that community would have been wonderful. The interest is there, trust me.”
Others, however, were skeptical. Parishioner Kevin Collison pointed out that students and their parents would be asked to spend $700 a month for a place with no food plan, no guaranteed parking space and strict adherence to a Catholic code of conduct.
“It’s my experience that after your sophomore year you want to get out of the dorm,” he said.
Collison and others wondered about the diocese debt exposure should the project fail, and what would become of the building.
Some also questioned what would happen to the project if Bishop Finn, its main proponent, is no longer around to push for it. Les Cline, president of the 49/63 Neighborhood Coalition, said in an earlier interview that the church’s new Pope Francis has shown an intolerance for church officials who have broken the law. Finn was convicted in 2012 on a misdemeanor charge of failing to report a priest involved in child pornography.
The diocese didn’t return requests for comment.
Ken Spare, board member of the Rockhill Crest and Crestwood homeowner’s associations, also worried that there wouldn’t be adequate parking at Bellarmino Center and that students would be driven to park in a neighborhood so strapped for space that parking is by permit only. He, too, cited trust issues from dealing with the diocese on the 2012 project.
“You can’t expect us to have that much blind faith after all the silliness that has gone before,” he told plan presenters.