Chalk one up for historic preservation.
The City Plan Commission’s unanimous decision this week to support protection for three currently forlorn apartment buildings on the Country Club Plaza was a step in the right direction.
The agency approved a proposal to add the three 12-unit buildings to an existing local historic district on the Plaza devoted to Nelle E. Peters, an architect who designed hundreds of Kansas City buildings in the first half of the 20th century.
The Historic Kansas City Foundation earlier this year sprang into action to save the buildings after it learned they’d been slated for demolition by a new owner, Price Brothers Development.
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In the scheme of things, these buildings represent a very small piece of the Plaza’s authentic architectural fabric. But in an age when bigger always seems to be better, and when the shiny-and-new always seems to crowd out the humble and old, the commission’s action struck a blow for history and the human scale in the city’s built environment.
The Tudor revival style buildings, faced in brick and half timbers, contribute to the Plaza’s “sense of place.” And a foundation map showed the loss of 11 smaller-scale buildings on and near the Plaza over the years, a visual left hook that landed convincingly.
The debate over these modest buildings also comes at a time when the overall character of the Plaza has come to the forefront. Just last week the district’s principal owner, Highwoods Properties, announced it was putting its Plaza holdings up for sale. And the city’s new Midtown/Plaza plan was already making Highwoods officials nervous over certain zoning, design and permitting issues.
Kansas Citians rightly embrace the Plaza as a cherished local asset, a one-of-a-kind place that helps distinguish our urban experience from every other one across the nation. The Plaza’s low-lying, pedestrian-scale buildings, its Spanish-style towers, its fountains and its quaint brick apartment buildings named for poets — poets! — create a unique framework and counterpoint to the relentless brand-name consumerism that defines the commercial engine at its core.
The three apartment buildings at 4728-34 Summit St. made Plaza living affordable for its former residents. They have deteriorated in recent years, especially inside, and Price Brothers contended renovation was unfeasible. The Historic Kansas City Foundation’s executive director, Amanda Crawley, countered that state and historic federal tax credits would help a developer restore the buildings with a reasonable return on investment. As evidence, she showed photos of a Nelle Peters apartment building recently restored on Gladstone Boulevard in the city’s northeast district.
The local historic preservation rules only put off demolition for three years. If the City Council goes along with the commission’s recommendation, as it should, Price could still win out anyway and tear the buildings down. Or, perhaps with the foundation’s help, it could find a buyer willing to restore them.
Price Brothers’ attorney, Jim Bowers, complained that the commission’s action was a “taking without compensation.” That lawyer language misses an essential point: His client’s proposed redevelopment is a “taking” of the city’s heritage, a loss of character, spirit and fabric that wouldn’t be replaced by a sleek, 10-story, market-rate apartment tower.