The main mission of St. Luke’s Hospital is saving lives, but it’s also helping preserve its midtown neighborhood.
A bright new row of townhomes in the 4400 block of Summit Street is the latest sign that a hospital affiliate has an unusual role: residential real estate developer.
Westport Today LLC, a subsidiary of the St. Luke’s Foundation, is building new residences as well as buying property, renovating and reselling old houses in the midtown neighborhood west of St. Luke’s Hospital.
The path that led from medical care to housing began 17 years ago when a foundation and trust associated with Country Club Plaza developer Miller Nichols looked for and found a neighbor — St. Luke’s Hospital — who would care about protecting property values near the Plaza.
The Miller Nichols Charitable Foundation and Miller Nichols Living Trust gave 93 Plaza-area properties to the nonprofit St. Luke’s Foundation, which then founded the for-profit Westport Today.
“Our mission has been to improve the neighborhood west of St. Luke’s Hospital,” said Whitney Kerr Sr., chairman of Westport Today. “We didn’t want it to die. We wanted to stabilize the neighborhood. We didn’t want to think of moving the hospital like you’ve seen many other hospitals do.”
In the last few years, the effort turned to building and marketing new residential construction in addition to improving existing houses, many of them 80-year-old bungalows.
“We don’t want to be a long-term landlord,” said Mark Litzler, executive director of the St. Luke’s Foundation, who juggles real estate matters along with the traditional fundraising role of a foundation director. “We want to help improve the neighborhood through home ownership and then move on.”
Litzler estimated that Westport Today has spent $3 million to acquire and improve existing houses before selling them. The company also spent just shy of $900,000 to upgrade an existing 12-unit apartment building in the 4400 block of Summit Street.
The newest properties to sprout are the Plaza North Townhomes, five single-family attached units, also on Summit’s 4400 block. The two-story townhomes, aimed at relatively high-end buyers, have been listed for between $350,000 and $475,000 each. Two of the units remain available.
Tanner Burns, an insurance broker and risk management consultant, was the first townhome buyer. He told the developers that he was particularly attracted by the location — walkable to both the Plaza and Westport — and to the new construction that was move-in ready.
Other buyers have been snapping up Westport Today’s renovated properties, most of them on Jefferson Street and Pennsylvania Avenue between 43rd and 46th streets.
“They’re basically brand new houses inside old bungalows,” Litzler said. “The outsides are like new, too, with repaired foundations and other improvements.”
Westport Today invested about $125,000 to $130,000 into each bungalow renovation and listed them for sale for between $190,00 and $240,000 each. The company said five houses currently are on the market, listed by Susan Palmer at Reece Nichols Real Estate, who also listed the townhomes.
Touring a remodeled home on Jefferson — complete with granite kitchen counters and appliance upgrades — Litzler pointed out the old-fashioned front porches that stretch down the block, calling it a combination of location and charm that “you can’t beat for the price.”
Litzler said Westport Today at one point had about 130 properties, generally between Southwest Trafficway on the west, Washington Avenue on the east, and 43rd and 46th streets north and south.
“When we started out, there was lots of suspicion and unease in the neighborhood,” Kerr said. “But when we made it clear that we wanted a neighborhood that was a mix of people, of incomes, and that we weren’t going to (raze everything), we got the neighborhood support.”
Some of Westport Today’s work has been demolition. Some houses were torn down when they were deemed too far gone to save, Litzler said. And some of the vacated property nearest the hospital is expected to be used for medical building construction, not housing.
But on the whole, the focus is on sustaining a neighborhood for residents, they said.
When the housing stock is stabilized, Kerr said, the area west of the hospital “can eventually sustain itself because of all the cultural taproots. … If we preserve the institutions, the businesses, the civic anchors, the nearby parks and boulevards, the timbre of the area will stay strong.”