No consensus on diocese housing plan for St. Francis Xavier Parish

A mediation attempt has failed to resolve a dispute between Kansas City’s Catholic diocese and St. Francis Xavier parishioners and neighbors over a plan for faith-based student housing at 53rd Street and Troost Avenue.

“It was impossible to come to a final meeting of the minds,” mediator John O’Malley, an attorney and retired Jackson County circuit judge, wrote in his Oct. 15 report to the City Council.

“The participants were much closer than before, but could not ultimately come to an agreement.”

At stake is a plan by the Catholic Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph to demolish the former St. Francis Xavier School and replace it with a dormitory on the west side of Troost Avenue near 53rd Street geared toward Roman Catholic students.

Some neighbors and many St. Francis Xavier parishioners have fought the development for years, saying it is too dense for the space, is not a good design and will exacerbate the area’s serious parking shortage. Some also believe the existing school can be saved and repurposed.

The diocese argues that the school, which opened in 1962 and is now vacant, cannot be affordably rebuilt. Its representatives say the faith-based student housing is the best, most financially viable use for the property, to serve students who attend nearby Rockhurst University and the University of Missouri-Kansas City.

The diocese says it has reduced the building size several times to deal with neighborhood concerns.

The city planning staff has recommended approval, but the City Plan Commission, an advisory group, has rejected the idea three times since 2012 because of community opposition.

In July, a City Council committee endorsed the housing plan, but the full council chose not to vote on it, instead calling for mediation. Then a City Council with nine new members took office Aug. 1, so the issue now falls in their court.

O’Malley held two mediation sessions totaling 13 hours with representatives of the diocese, the parish and surrounding neighborhoods.

He wrote that there was some change in the dormitory plan but the sides remained far apart.

The dispute, he wrote, has “moved from the emergency room to the intensive care unit,” and it appears the city “will have to determine the cure.”

The diocese agreed to reduce the size again from 237 beds to 220 beds but could not meet the neighborhoods’ demand to reduce to 67 beds.

“Those numbers remain today as the parameters of the dispute,” O’Malley wrote.

Though the parish still objects to the dormitory in principal, O’Malley said, it agreed to cooperate with the diocese “if and when the new bishop decides to proceed with the dormitory construction.”

Bishop James V. Johnston Jr. is set to be installed Nov. 4.

Mike White, an attorney representing the diocese, said that conclusion was encouraging. He said the mediator did a good job and there was certainly progress between the diocese and the parish.

But Vincent Gauthier, a longtime parish member and neighbor who participated in the discussions, said they weren’t terribly productive and the diocese was still trying to cram in a development that’s far too large for the site.

A previous plan called for the dormitory to front along Troost, which some neighbors said was like creating a giant wall right along that street. Gauthier said the diocese now proposes to build the housing at the back of the site, but fronted with a surface parking lot that isn’t desirable either and still doesn’t have enough parking spaces.

While the City Council faces a vote, some council members say they still have grave reservations about the plan.

At-large councilwoman Katheryn Shields, whose 4th District includes the parish, said the new plan she had seen, with the parking in front, defied what she had heard about good urban planning, which calls for parking behind buildings.

O’Malley is scheduled to present his report to the council business session Thursday, but any formal council vote isn’t likely to come until Nov. 12 at the earliest.

Lynn Horsley: 816-226-2058, @LynnHorsley