Two weeks after the fire and wall collapse that killed two Kansas City firefighters, the Leawood owner of the two buildings that burned that night hired a contractor to clear the site.
The city issued demolition permits on Oct. 28. Work began, and this past Thursday, records show, a city inspector stopped by to follow up.
Satisfied that all the debris had been hauled off from 2618 Independence Blvd., where the three-story building that was the origin of the fire once stood, inspector Daryl Baker marked the demolition permit completed.
But he could not do the same for the building next door at 2600 Independence, which also was heavily damaged and declared a dangerous building. That’s because the check-cashing operation that occupied the space is fighting to keep it from being torn down.
According to Pendleton Heights Neighborhood Association president Jessica Ray, it’s all about the Benjamins.
“If they can’t keep their location,” Ray said, “they’re out of business.”
Wichita-based Speedy Cash doesn’t own the single-story building at the corner of Independence and Prospect Avenue. It merely rents the space in a building that is in pretty rough shape.
The roof is gone, three of the four masonry walls are braced and only some of the structural steel beams appear to be functional, according to an engineer’s appraisal.
Yet it is Speedy Cash, rather than the building’s owner, that is leading the fight against the city’s order to have it torn down. An attorney representing the company and the building’s owner, Bo Kim LLC, declined to comment, and three of Speedy Cash’s top executives did not respond to requests for comment.
The Oct. 12 arson fire killed John Mesh and Larry Leggio and rendered the occupants of 16 apartments homeless.
It also put Speedy Cash in a bind, due to a 2007 city ordinance aimed at curbing the proliferation of businesses that charge a mostly poor clientele high interest rates for short-term loans.
Pawnshops, payday loan businesses and the like are no longer allowed to cluster because officials think it reflects badly on a neighborhood and leads to blight and crime.
The rules say no two businesses of that sort can be within a mile of each other. Even widely spaced, they must be at least 1,000 feet from liquor stores, schools, churches — and the list goes on.
The burned-out Speedy Cash — the company has three other metro locations and a couple of hundred nationwide — was there before the ordinance was passed, so it was grandfathered. Just two doors east of another payday lender, it is considered a nonconforming structure in the city zoning code.
For Speedy Cash, that’s a very important distinction. Because the city code says that nonconforming structures may not be rebuilt when more than 50 percent of the “volume” of the structure “is accidentally destroyed or damaged.”
Yet another provision says that nonconforming uses cannot continue after a demolition permit is issued.
Peter Hoffman, a Legal Aid of Western Missouri attorney representing the Pendleton Heights Neighborhood Association, says the permit’s issuance is a matter of public record. He thinks more than 50 percent of the structure was destroyed or damaged.
He stressed both points in a letter emailed Nov. 25 to the investigation division of the city’s planning and development department, which was already looking into the matter.
“It has come to my client’s attention that Speedy Cash has approached the city … arguing that its nonconforming use has not been discontinued so that its operations may continue at that location,” Hoffman wrote. “My client fervently opposes Speedy Cash’s position.”
The city agreed and, on Nov. 30, gave the company 30 days to prove that more than 50 percent of the building’s volume survived the fire and respond to the point about the demolition permit.
Karl Phares at the Stinson Leonard Street law firm in Kansas City has been building a case to do just that.
Phares declined comment. But he told the city that the owner of the building should not be forced to tear the building down, and Speedy Cash deserves to keep its nonconforming use status.
“It is our clients’ position that once stabilization of the building is completed,” Phares wrote, “the building is not dangerous, and the city has no authority to order demolition …”
To support his claim, Phares provided letters from a building contractor and a structural engineer who both said the building is worth repairing.
The four walls can all be saved, Alan Clark at Shawnee-based A.B. Bradley Construction Co. said in a letter to Speedy Cash Holdings Corp., and he estimated that 43 percent of the building’s square footage was damaged, not more than 50.
Michael Falbe at BDC Structural Engineers in Kansas City agreed that the building could be repaired despite “substantial damage” to the roof and recommended replacing all the structural steel members in the building.
Hoffman at Legal Aid countered that neither letter addresses the key point of whether more than 50 percent of the building’s volume was unscathed.
An engineer hired by the city issued his preliminary report on that point last week:
“With the loss of the roof, steel framing, and the interior partitions, along with the damage to the east wall, the volume of structure damaged or destroyed exceeds 50%,” Clayton Hess at Apex Engineers Inc. of Kansas City said in a letter dated Dec. 8.
He said that further damage could occur from snow this winter and that its current condition poses a safety hazard.
Even if Speedy Cash were to win on the 50 percent question, the application for the demolition permit is right there in the public record, the $204 fee paid in full.
“We think it’s kind of a losing battle on their end,” Hoffman said.
But Speedy Cash is likely to question whether the demo permit application can be blamed on a misunderstanding by the city when it issued an emergency order to demolish the building where the fire started. Part of that building fell onto the roof of Speedy Cash.
If the city’s director of planning and development rules against the company, Speedy Cash would then have 15 days to appeal to the Board of Zoning Adjustment, after which the case could wind up in circuit court. Any decision there, too, could be appealed.
Months could pass. Years, maybe.
“In the meantime,” Ray says, “we’re left with a blighted building that is a reminder of the neighbors we lost.”
A far more poignant reminder on Thursday afternoon was a bouquet of flowers lying to the east, along the alley where the wall fell on Mesh and Leggio.
The city inspector says he saw it when he stopped by. But the eyes of most anyone else driving by were more likely drawn to the eyesore on the corner.
“If you look at that,” Hoffman said, “it’s scorched.”