Westport, one of the most important historic areas in Kansas City, has no official designation as a historic district.
That recent realization by historic preservationists ups the ante as midtown neighbors mount opposition to new apartment developments proposed for an area of the city that dates to the 1830s.
One apartment proposal — scheduled to be presented to the City Plan Commission on Tuesday — would tear down an old building at the southeast corner of Westport Road and Broadway to pave the way for a new 256-unit apartment and retail complex.
“It was an unpleasant surprise that a place as historic as Westport doesn’t have protections in place,” said Greg Allen, an officer with Historic Kansas City.
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“We’d always thought there was,” said Alana Smith, president of the Westport Historical Society. “We find now there wasn’t, and we’re in big trouble.”
A coalition calling itself Help Save Old Westport has mounted a GoFundMe campaign to raise $25,000 to pay for a building inventory, a necessary step to apply for historic overlay district designation, similar to what the downtown Garment District, the River Market and other historic parts of the city have.
Some neighbors also are upset at a proposal to permit closing of a section of Westport Road and Pennsylvania Avenue to vehicle traffic on specified nights, weekends, holidays and special events.
Advocates for the “strategic street vacation,” including Mayor Sly James and members of the Westport Regional Business League, say putting up temporary road barriers is the best way to control late-night access and limit dangers at the popular bar and restaurant crossroads.
The City Planning and Development Department is evaluating the street-closing application, and no public hearing dates have been set for it.
The immediate trouble, in the eyes of those who want to maintain Westport’s current character, is the proposal by Opus Development that would raze the corner building at Westport and Broadway. Parts of the structure, currently occupied by a Bank of America branch, date as far back as 1876.
“The plan to tear that building down brought the issue to the fore,” said Mary Jo Draper, a neighborhood spokeswoman. “Some people say we need density in order for the midtown area to be strong, but there are so many concerns about traffic and parking. My concern is that we don’t destroy the scale or character of Westport.”
Another development company, Pulse Development, also floated plans for two 14-story apartment towers immediately north of Manor Square on Pennsylvania. Density, parking, traffic and architectural criticisms erupted immediately, and developer Drew Hood subsequently said the plan was “preliminary” and that it’s been pulled back for revision.
“This is a new development cycle for Westport, different from in the past,” said Elizabeth Rosin with Rosin Preservation, who works on historic projects.
The proposed apartment renderings, at least preliminarily showing modern facades, picture a size and style far different from the lower-slung, red brick commercial buildings that line the heart of old Westport.
In the past, Rosin said, Westport’s commercial property owners haven’t wanted to create a national or local historic district.
“They wanted the freedom to handle their own properties without anyone telling them what to do,” Rosin said, adding that property owner support will be necessary to create any local or national historic district.
“Owners can do what they want with their buildings, except for a few like Kelly’s” Westport Inn, said Smith, the Westport Historical Society leader.
The Kelly’s building, at Westport and Pennsylvania, dates to 1850 and lays claim to being the oldest building in the city. It is designated a National Historic Landmark.
In Smith’s mind, the six-story Opus apartment development would be “god-awful” for the neighborhood’s character. “I want to say, ‘You can’t do this. You can’t ruin this district,’ ” Smith said. “We want to preserve the historic nature of early Kansas City.”
Allen, with Historic Kansas City, said he’s heartened that neighborhoods are mobilizing — sometimes successfully, sometimes not — to challenge development plans they deem inappropriate.
“I congratulate city staff on insisting that neighborhood input be sought by developers,” Allen said.
Opus officials invited residents of the Valentine, Heart of Westport, Volker, West Plaza and Southmoreland neighborhoods to attend a meeting Thursday night at the Plaza Library.
About three dozen people came to the presentation by officials from Opus Development. In a question and answer session, most of the comments were from residential neighbors who thought the project was “too big.”
Residents asked if the project would be viable if it were reduced to four stories instead of six. The Opus team said no.
Several business owners in the Westport area said they supported the project because it would bring more residents to the neighborhood, and thus more business for them.
Almost everyone expressed concern about parking.
The development team said there was no real historical significance to the bank building. It had been adapted so often over the years that virtually nothing was left from the original.
Opus vice president Joe Downs said in a written statement that the company was “working with neighborhood associations and the city to incorporate the best of Westport into a new mixed-use residential project” with a groundbreaking targeted for later this year.