On a chilly morning just days before Christmas, a backhoe prepared to munch into the porch of a dilapidated Brooklyn Avenue home. Next door, a worker prepped the roof and chimney for demolition.
“Get them down before they fall down,” explained Alan Fletcher, supervisor with Industrial Salvage & Wrecking Co.
Within hours, the two eyesore houses at 2837 and 2841 Brooklyn were reduced to rubble, and Kansas City was one step closer to meeting its goal of addressing about 825 vacant and dangerous buildings that are scourges for neighborhoods.
Seven months into Kansas City’s two-year demolition initiative, the city appears to be on schedule to eliminate that backlog by May 2018. It means tearing down or rehabbing more than 400 houses each year, which is a much faster pace than the city has accomplished this decade. A $10 million budget, volunteer help from demolition contractors and more focused attention have kicked the program into high gear.
“I think we’re well on pace,” said John Baccala, spokesman for the city’s Neighborhoods and Housing Services Department, which is overseeing the initiative. “We’re moving from north to south. We’re trying to get the ones in the worst shape down first as we go along.”
In March, the City Council approved spending $10 million over two years, and that money first became available after May 1. The city tore down an old restaurant at 60th Street and Troost Avenue in June, then tackled the former Manchester Elementary School at 6835 E. Truman Road, then began addressing hundreds of houses in August.
As of the third week of December, the city had demolished more than 140 properties, with 41 more ready. More than 322 more are being processed for asbestos abatement and awaiting demolition bids. Meanwhile, 93 were removed from the teardown list and will instead be renovated by private owners.
That leaves about 230 properties that still need to move up the queue in the latter half of 2017 and early part of 2018.
City Manager Troy Schulte said he was pleased with the progress, especially with the 200 or so homes that are the city’s and Land Bank’s responsibility because private owners have relinquished them.
“We’ll have all the publicly owned buildings done probably in early spring,” Schulte said. “Most of them have been bid out. Now we’re starting to chew on the privately owned. ... And we’re having pretty good success getting compliance. Either they’ll fix them or tear them down. We’re coming after them.”
That’s in fact what happened with the two houses on Brooklyn Avenue.
“The owner was cited several times and was unable to comply, and determined at that point just to go ahead and take the properties down,” Baccala said. The owner hired Industrial Salvage & Wrecking for that job.
On four other recent jobs, Industrial Salvage & Wrecking donated its time and saved the city the $8,000 to $10,000 demolition cost. ISW has joined Kissick Construction and more than a dozen other contractors in helping to save the city an estimated $600,000 on 60 donated demolitions that should be completed by next spring.
ISW has done huge jobs for the city for years, including JJ’s restaurant after a gas explosion and currently Metro North Mall. So ISW President Chuck Cacioppo Jr. said he was happy to help out after Jim Kissick first broached the idea in 2015.
“Everyone, once in a while you’ve got to give back,” Cacioppo said of his decision to donate this work to address neighborhood blight.
Kissick, president of Kissick Construction, said he got the idea after reading a Kansas City Star article about the city’s failure to meet its goal of eliminating the vacant building backlog, in part because of a shortage of funds. Kissick said he sympathized with people in well-kept homes, living next to these nuisances.
“Here you are looking out your front porch with a nice-looking place. And there’s nothing you can do about all this junk next door,” Kissick said. “We have the equipment, the wherewithal to make an impact. I called the city about trying to get something done.”
Kissick did an original batch of 10 homes in 2015, then committed to getting 60 taken care of with this latest initiative. He put out the call, and about a dozen other contractors including ISW each volunteered to do a few jobs. All 60 should be done by March.
“The coolest thing about this whole deal,” Kissick said, “is when one of our guys is in the neighborhood tearing down a house, the neighbors often come out, and they’re tearful and so grateful.”
One elated homeowner was Scarritt Renaissance Neighborhood Association president Leslie Caplan, who wrote a letter to city officials thanking them for the teardown at 3221 Roberts St.
In an interview, Caplan said the house on Roberts had been a magnet for crime, trash and squatters for years. The neighborhood had called it in repeatedly for violations, but there was no relief. Kansas City police had advocated for the abandoned building demolition program as one anti-crime strategy, and 3221 Roberts was on their radar.
“Then the demolition program got some fire under it, and that was one of the houses that they spotlighted,” Caplan said. “It has been a much better situation. Obviously, we don’t have the dumping or the squatters.”
Police Maj. Karl Oakman, liaison between the city and the Police Department, agreed there’s been good coordination in recent months, as police forward vacant building addresses that need attention for crime reasons.
Brenda Thomas, president of the Marlborough Community Coalition, also applauded the initiative. But since the city is moving from north to south, her area of south Kansas City is impatient for more attention. Marlborough encompasses five neighborhoods from Gregory Boulevard to 87th Street, from Troost to Prospect avenues.
Some people say demolition is not the answer to neighborhood revitalization, but Thomas said it’s a start.
“The position I’ve heard,” she said, “is that the residents would rather see a vacant lot than a burned-out or dilapidated building.”
The resulting vacant lots, she said, are turned into beautiful gardens or other productive, private use.
The coalition has worked closely with the city on its list of problem properties. Some have been removed, but 40 or 50 more need to come down.
“They’re making progress. I’ll give them credit for this,” Thomas said. “We’re anticipating that 2017 is the year we’re going to have these things torn down.”