Sleek modern designs will guide new Manheim Park neighborhood housing

A house design for the Manheim neighborhood by BNIM.
A house design for the Manheim neighborhood by BNIM.

In 2013, Kansas City set out to transform the abandoned and decrepit Bancroft Elementary School into beautiful apartments, complemented by ultramodern apartment buildings next door.

Now, the neighborhood is headed to the next level.

Six local architecture firms are teaming up to bring the same revival to a model block in the Historic Manheim Park neighborhood, mixing sleek contemporary new houses with the century-old existing homes across from Bancroft in the 4300 block of Tracy Avenue.

At least a half dozen houses will be built, and possibly as many as 50.

It’s about much more than blending very different architectural styles.

“We have got to find something to elevate these neighborhoods, to make them a place that’s different, that’s unusual,” said Rodney Knott, a neighborhood advocate who is training several men to work on the construction.

That’s exactly the intent, says Tim Duggan, a veteran Kansas City architect who is now director of innovations with Brad Pitt’s New Orleans-based Make It Right Foundation, a major partner on the project. With Bancroft and the adjacent apartments now full with about 90 new residents, the community was determined to build on that success by putting new housing in the vacant lots across the street and near the school.

“We felt that the immediate next step was to look at the surrounding one and two blocks around the school,” Duggan said.

So BNIM Architects, a Kansas City firm that spearheaded the Bancroft School Apartments, reached out to other local firms for innovative designs. BNIM produced its own concept and also partnered with the firms El Dorado, DRAW, Hufft Projects, KEM Studio and Pendulum Studio.

The recently revealed housing prototypes are certainly not cookie cutter and came out of discussions with nearly 100 residents over several months last year, said Jeremy Knoll, project manager with BNIM. The result, he said, was six distinctive designs that nevertheless work well together, will be LEED platinum (meaning they are very energy efficient), and respond to what the residents wanted.

For example, all the designs include front porches, just as the historic housing provides. The homes will have space for gardens, will be built with durable materials, and are designed to the same approximate scale as existing homes.

“The opportunity here is to provide beautiful, high quality and affordable housing that goes beyond the sticker price,” Knoll said. “That goes into a house that you can afford to operate. The utilities will be 50 percent or less than any other home nearby.”

The plan is to build one of each of the six prototypes, beginning in May, with completion in six to eight months. Make It Right is arranging the construction financing, and the homes are expected to sell for about $150,000, although there may be subsidies if needed for income-eligible households.

The goal, Duggan said, is to provide market rate housing, to draw in residents with a variety of incomes.

“Yes, we think there is a market,” Duggan said, adding that he has letters of intent from people interested in buying three of the six models, even before ground is broken.

The plan then is to use these prototypes to build 50 houses on vacant lots in and around Bancroft School Apartments. Manheim has many more vacant lots, but it’s a good start, Duggan said.

Still, these homes will be very different from the existing housing stock, and some might find the juxtaposition of contemporary next to traditional Craftsman-style stone houses jarring. But that wasn’t a significant problem, insists neighborhood association president Seft Hunter.

Although there will always be traditionalists, Hunter said, most residents wanted something unique and liked the mix of modern with historic.

“It’s not feasible for us to pretend that it’s 1900 and we have lots of limestone,” said Hunter, who has lived in the neighborhood for about four years. “We want to contribute to the architectural fabric of the community.”

Saundra Hayes, a former neighborhood president who lives near Bancroft, said it took a while for her to like the design prototypes, but she now appreciates them.

“This is a new day,” she said.

Knott, another former neighborhood association president, agreed these contemporary designs can be a draw for younger, more affluent residents.

“We’ve got to get people who don’t live there now to want to live there,” he said. “The people we are trying to reach out to, their grandparents moved out of these homes. Why will they move back? We aren’t going to change every house, but let’s bring some creativity.”

Knott says he has personally seen how Make It Right helped revitalize parts of New Orleans’ 9th Ward after Hurricane Katrina with innovative architectural plans, and thinks this phase of Manheim’s development can only be positive.

Still, Knott knows that six new houses, and even 50 potential houses, are just a partial solution for the 32-square-block neighborhood that still battles considerable blight from Troost Avenue to the Paseo and from 39th Street to Cleaver Boulevard.

He’s still very involved in the neighborhood through his nonprofit organization, ReEngage, but he and his wife moved out in 2013 because of a home invasion. Although police caught the perpetrator, Knott said his wife just didn’t feel safe living there any longer.

“I’m not disputing that there has been some progress,” he said. “But there’s a long way to go.”

Ironically, another fear is that too many affluent people will be attracted to the neighborhood, driving up rents and forcing out longtime residents.

Knoll said gentrification is a frequent topic of conversation, and everyone wants to avoid displacing existing residents. That’s why there’s a concerted effort to upgrade the existing housing for longtime residents as well as build new infill housing.

Jacob Wagner, associate professor of urban planning at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, said everyone involved in the Bancroft effort is committed to “maintaining the affordability of the area.”

“We’re looking at multiple ways to create multiple kinds of housing opportunities, so that as the neighborhood revitalizes it doesn’t gentrify,” he said.

The Manheim plan has received the stamp of approval from the Urban Neighborhood Initiative, one of the Big Five ideas of the Greater Kansas City Chamber of Commerce.

The six new designs were funded through a $100,000 grant from the Urban Neighborhood Initiative, which is now its own nonprofit organization headed by Dianne Cleaver.

“We were very excited about the plan and the process,” she said.

The six houses will be built with conventional financing by Make It Right, with some additional financing help from City Hall and philanthropic donors, Duggan said. Kansas City is mainly providing some grant funding for renovating several existing homes.

If this phase is successful, Wagner said, the ideal over the next few years is to spread the benefits throughout the entire Manheim neighborhood — and perhaps beyond.

“That work that went on at Bancroft, that focused on one property, is now spreading out into the neighborhood,” he said. “We are going to see a new model for infill single family homes in Kansas City neighborhoods east of Troost. It’s not just for Manheim but for the city as a whole.”

To reach Lynn Horsley, call 816-226-2058 or send email to lhorsley@kcstar.com.