Kansas City’s largest medical school can demolish five buildings in a historic district as part of an ambitious campus expansion, the City Council decided Thursday.
The Council voted 10-2 in favor of the Kansas City University of Medicine and Biosciences’ request for a rezoning and preliminary development plan that includes a $30 million medical and surgical simulation center on the campus’ west side, just east of the Paseo and north of Independence Avenue.
Since that building would be on the site of some current parking, the university wants to create a new parking lot on a site now occupied by the Colonial Court apartment buildings, which the university purchased last year just off Independence Avenue on Maple Avenue. That requires tearing those buildings down.
Council members Katheryn Shields and Jolie Justus were the lone dissenters, siding with some preservation and neighborhood advocates who said the plan sets a dangerous precedent that could undermine future historic preservation reviews.
“There’s a process there,” Shields said, regarding the city’s standard historic overlay reviews. “That process should be allowed to go forward.”
But Councilman Quinton Lucas said the university has been a strong institutional anchor for the Northeast and has worked hard to get buy-in for its plan from the nearby Pendleton Heights and Independence Plaza neighborhoods. He said the plan also represents a significant investment of private dollars, with no tax incentives, in the Northeast area.
Some residents of Scarritt Renaissance and other Northeast neighborhoods farther from the campus continue to oppose the plan.
Historic preservationists argued that because the Colonial Court buildings are in a historic district additional regulatory review is required before they can be demolished. They said bypassing the Historic Preservation Commission, a citizens advisory body, in this instance would bypass the historic preservation review process. If it happens with this project, they warned, it would undermine the preservation commission’s role in future projects as well.
“The proposed Master Plan District by Kansas City University is requesting to be exempt from these area plans and zoning regulations, thus circumventing the established historic overlay district,” Stacey Winfield, interim executive director of the Historic Kansas City Foundation, wrote to council members prior to the vote. “MPDs should not be used to shortcut these important safeguards.”
But Jim Bowers, an attorney representing the medical school, argued the city council has the power to waive these extra regulatory steps, which would unnecessarily delay the development. He said this project provides a greater benefit that justifies the waiver of the zoning code standard.
Bowers warned that the Colonial Court buildings were vacant, in bad shape, and that delay could jeopardize the surgical center project.
Some have suggested that the city could still deny the demolition permit to tear the buildings down, despite the council’s vote. But Bowers said the ordinance authorizes the university to demolish the buildings, and that is expected to occur this summer. Construction of the surgical center is expected to begin next year.