In the end, it all came down the way it did because the neighborhood liked it better.
In a years-long process to decide what to do with the empty Westport High School building, one of Kansas City’s historic school buildings vacated because of dwindling enrollment, Kansas City Public Schools finally chose a redeveloper.
The winning bid went to KC Sustainable Development Partners, a group that already has redevelopment rights to the former Westport Middle School just across the street from the high school at 315 E. 39th St.
Neighbors had begged the school board to choose the $23 million Sustainable Development Partners plan, which offered a large “Westport Campus” with lots of space for nonprofits, arts groups and artists, literacy groups, health centers and other community activities.
So left out was another longtime bidder, Foutch Brothers, a development company that at one time also enjoyed neighborhood support. The Foutch plans had gone through at least three iterations, and although the final proposal included some public spaces for community activities, it also had more apartments than the winning plan.
The school board decision, made in closed session Sept. 9, was revealed late Monday afternoon, surprising Foutch. Meanwhile, the winning team headed by Kansas City architect Bob Berkebile was elated. It knew it had won and was working out contract details with the district for several days before the public announcement.
“I’ll be forever indebted to those three neighborhoods,” Berkebile said Tuesday. “They’ve been very positive since our first presentation three years ago. I don’t think we would be here if it weren’t for them.”
Kansas City school board president Jon Hile said the board considered “two tremendous proposals, but there was a tremendous amount of community support for Sustainable Development Partners. There was too much community support for that proposal to be ignored.”
Hile said that the community liked the idea of a hub for nonprofit services and that giving strong consideration to community support was a big part of the district’s process to repurpose abandoned schools.
The plan to turn Westport High School into a multiuse “Center for Creativity and Innovation” was proposed by the Berkebile group three years ago, as was the Foutch plan.
The winning plan marries the Sustainable Development Partners proposal to the reuse project already approved for the former Westport Middle School, which also has been vacant. The middle school project is scheduled to begin next month.
Similar to the high school plan, the middle school will be turned into a location for various nonprofits and community arts groups.
As planning proceeds, there could be some realignment of tenants planned for the two buildings, depending on what use fits best where, the planners said.
The four-story high school is an 180,000-square-foot building, parts of which date to 1908. Plans call for it to house an array of community-oriented programs such as a coding school, an entrepreneurship accelerator, a health and wellness center, and an early learning center.
The project, estimated earlier this year to cost about $23 million, requires rezoning and special permit hearings. The plans will be shared in public meetings with the Southmoreland, Old Hyde Park and Hyde Park neighborhood associations on dates still to be specified.
Laura Burkhalter, president of the Southmoreland Neighborhood Association, said her neighbors liked the proposal from Sustainable Development Partners all along, especially after it was clear that Lafayette Academy was no longer considered to be part of the Foutch plan for the building.
“We wrote letters to the school district asking it to reconsider the Sustainable Development Partners,” Burkhalter said. “We are very happy with the district’s decision. We feel now the facility will offer educational, cultural and health resources that will not only serve the Southmoreland neighborhood but other surrounding neighborhoods.”
Shannon Jaax, repurposing coordinator for the closed Kansas City district school buildings, said that while the school board voted to go with Sustainable Development Partners in closed session on Sept. 9, contract details weren’t ironed out for signatures until Monday evening.
Steve Foutch, who headed the competing team, said he didn’t learn that he’d lost the board vote until Monday.
The repurposing deal reflected a shift in community support over time. Foutch Brothers initially had proposed Lafayette Academy, a charter school, as the main tenant for the high school building. The building would have been reopened to add higher grade levels to the academy. That plan fell through when Lafayette was temporarily redirected by the district to the Southwest High School building. That plan later faded from consideration as well.
Foutch returned with a $21 million mixed-use plan for the high school building that included commercial and nonprofit space, a fitness center and market-rate apartments.
While Foutch lost Westport High, the company remains involved in Kansas City school repurposing. The company last week held a groundbreaking for redevelopment of another Kansas City schools complex — the closed West and Switzer schools on the West Side. Foutch nonetheless expressed strong disappointment over the Westport loss and the fact that it wasn’t communicated directly to him after the board vote.
Along with Berkebile, members of the Sustainable Development Partners team are David Brain, Butch Rigby, Louis D. Steele and E.F. Chip Walsh.
The team envisions “co-working,” “accelerator” and “maker” spaces in parts of the building as places that will encourage literacy, work readiness and entrepreneurship. Another part is envisioned as a “futures forum,” an auditorium sponsored by Screenland, one of Rigby’s companies, that can be used for community events.
“It’s a challenging project with a lot of ground to cover on a 17-acre campus,” Rigby said Tuesday about the two school properties, “but we’re so excited about creating a powerful, stabilizing effect on midtown. … It’s a great vision for the arts, nonprofits, innovation, technology and entrepreneurs.”
The development team also envisions spaces in which artists or entrepreneurs could both work and live. The plan marketed earlier this year proposed such tenants as Truman Medical Center, a computer coding school, an early learning center by Spectrum Station, a site for Literacy KC and several other nonprofits.
According to documents submitted to the district earlier this year, Westport High would cost $17.7 million to buy with an additional $5.2 million in soft costs. The estimates were extrapolated from the developers’ known costs for the junior high building and are subject to some change after the high school building is more thoroughly investigated, said co-developer Walsh, who is serving as the partnership manager on the project.
Financial details of that earlier plan included a first mortgage debt of $9.3 million, $2.9 million in federal historic tax credits, $3.8 million in state historic tax credits, $3.2 million in new market tax credits and $3.7 million in owner equity. Walsh said it was unlikely that the broad financing structure would change.
District rules prevent the actual acquisition price from being disclosed publicly until closing on the deal, which is expected in early 2016.
The five equity partners in KC Sustainable Development Partners, former members of the Rockhill Tennis Club, got together several years ago to try to find a new home for the club after it was closed. They initially sought to acquire and redevelop the closed Bryant Elementary School for the club. That effort was unsuccessful, but they continued to work together.
They also teamed with Dalmark Development Group and Straub Construction to repurpose a closed elementary school at 47th and Jarboe streets. That project, which is converting the original school and a new addition to apartments, is nearing completion.
The development team said it was backed by a number of “partners, collaborators and advisors” on the Westport High project. That list included Ryan Weber with KCnext; Maria Meyer with US SourceLink and the UMKC Innovation Center; Matt Condon with the Greater Kansas City Chamber of Commerce’s Big 5 Initiative on Entrepreneurship, who is also on the board of KC Sourcelink and Enterprise KC; Tom Boozer with the Regnier Institute for Entrepreneurship; Alex Altomare with Lean Lab and En:Code; Peter deSilva with UMB; Jo Anne Gabbert with Core Catalysts; Stephen Hardy with MindMixer; Steve Rees with Minddrive; Dan Cooper with Indicia; Michael Foust with the Culinary Institute, and WeWork of New York.
Westport High School, 315 E. 39th St.
▪ Built in 1908 with additions in 1964 and 1992; closed in 2010.
▪ Current repurposing plan first proposed in 2012; approved Sept. 9, 2015, by Kansas City school board.
▪ Redeveloper is KC Sustainable Development Partners for a multiuse community center called Westport Campus, to include the former Westport Middle School.