Dan Edwards is the nervous one.
He’s the 30-year-old who owns 38 brush-swarmed vacant lots in Kansas City’s Wendell Phillips Neighborhood on the East Side, talking about big plans he knows some residents will fear, doubt or even attack.
An idealistic millennial, he’s the developer with the audacious plan to bring 1,000 “healthy families” into new homes in this long-distressed neighborhood over the next 10 years, starting with his family of three.
He grew up on the East Side, a Lincoln College Prep Grad.
Bo Nelson, however, is his bullish opposite.
Tall. 31. Bearded like a lumberjack. A Crossroads coffee shop entrepreneur. Nelson’s the idealistic millennial who has pledged that his family will be the Edwards family’s next door neighbors when the first homes go up as early as this fall.
They’re feeling the heat — and it’s not just the steamy summer setting in as they stood recently at the top of the block at 25th Street and Michigan Avenue that is the launch point of their dreams.
There are no houses anymore at this end of the block. Stone remnants of crumbled walls and orphaned stairs hide in the weeds and dumped trash.
They know they are wading into a fragile urban psyche, where the residents, mostly black, in long-neglected Kansas City neighborhoods can resent anything smelling of opportunism. Residents worry about being priced out.
But the two have been meeting with residents who remain in houses that still stand not far away, scattered in isolated clusters. And while Edwards, as he says it, may have “the right skin color” to engage more easily with their fears, it’s not easy for him.
He’s still the developer who wants to bring in outsiders.
Edwards and Nelson recalled one of those early meetings with residents at a nearby park last fall, and how Edwards was squirming to ask them, essentially: How do you feel about me?
Nelson, admittedly blunter than Edwards, was the white guy pushing the envelope, asking instead: “How do you feel about me?”
He wanted them to know, he said, that this project is not about people taking over a neighborhood. They’re trying to be senstive, he said, to its history.
“This is not a blank canvas,” John James, the president of the Wendell Phillips Neighborhood Association, told The Star.
Whatever comes, he says, those residents who have survived this long should be able to stay.
Rachel Looney owns a solid, stone-porch home at the opposite end of the block on Michigan Avenue that has been her family’s “homestead” for 40 years, she said. Her son, Floyd Looney, a 27-year-old appliance salesman, lives there now.
The son never saw the neighborhood the way Rachel Looney remembers it, “when the houses went all the way up the top of the street.”
“We know we’re not far from downtown, and now everybody wants to come back,” she said.
Both of them went to that park meeting last fall.
“They talked a good game,” Floyd Looney said. “I just hope they don’t change it up …and try to sell these houses” and push out residents.
They want families to come, Rachel Looney said, and they would embrace diversity.
“We want people who want to be with those of us who live here,” she said.
The Wendell Phillips residents want to believe Edwards when he promises he can keep existing residents in their homes.
They want to take encouragement from Nelson’s sensitivity to racial and economic fault lines and his belief that this is the generation “that can move past it.”
The residents want this to work because “we need rooftops,” James said. “I’m the president of a lot of vacant lots.”
One woman facing Nelson and Edwards in the park that day last fall answered Nelson’s question with her own questions, Nelson said.
“She said, ‘Are you drug dealers? Are you molesters? Do you throw trash?’”
Nelson: “I’m a gardener.”
Then there’s no problem, she said, right?
“Are you ready to be honest?”
The Millennial Generation, coming of age in their 30s and late 20s, doesn’t want to go suburban.
The urge to stay in a vibrant urban core and to seek diversity is spurring infill development and driving a growing public charter school movement as more young couples are trying to shape the communities they imagine for their children.
When Edwards was ready to talk home designs and financing with a few families, he used Facebook to promote what he thought would be a small office meeting for this development idea he named “Movementkc.”
With millennials and social media, word gets around.
After dozens of “likes,” comments and inquiries, Edwards reserved a bigger room, moving it to the Think Big Event Space downtown May 11.
Some 70 people filled the room, not including the dozen-or-so small children scattered about.
“I’ll build you the most diverse community Kansas City has ever seen,” Edwards promised.
And then the questions came…
What about the titles on the properties? James Crump, an attorney living in Mission, Kan., wanted to know. Are the titles clean? What lenders are interested in investing with the families that come?
“My wife saw (the promotion for a new community) on Facebook,” Crump would tell The Star later. They’ve been wanting to build a new house on the Missouri side of the state line. They want this to work. “We are potential neighbors,” he said.
Shaunika Cotton, a poet and writer, came too. She knows the neighborhood. She lives there as a single parent with two daughters, 5 and 7.
She rents an apartment. She wants to own her own home, but can’t right now. What if this development works and her rent goes up?
The thought scares her. But so does the way things are, with vacant houses and the people who hang out with drugs in the park, she says. That scares her daughters.
Does Edwards and his entourage know how tough it is? Richard Cushon wanted to know. He’s old enough to be the father of millennials. He grew up in the area. Ran for City Council from there in 1994 when Edwards was 7.
“How are you going to alleviate poverty to alleviate the crime?” Cushon asked.
“Heavy question,” Edwards said, “Woo.”
The answer, he says, is in the room. It’s the people — healthy people modeling healthy lives — who will come in strong-enough numbers to build “a stronger culture of people together.”
Naive? Sure. But Edwards has a tell-it-like-it-is architect in his court now to help sharpen idealism into the work that has to be done.
It’s Devan Case, co-founder of the 10-year-old architectural firm Pendulum in the Crossroads. That night in Think Big, Edwards turned the talk over to Case who wanted to get some idea if the people there were open to the kind of creative, ammenities-sharing community that can make new-built, $170,000 homes possible.
“Are you ready to be honest?” Case asked.
Case believes in what’s possible with Edwards’ idea. That’s why he let Edwards nest in their firm earlier this year. And that’s not something Case would do with just anybody.
“Many Daniels have walked through the door” over the 10 years Pendulum has thrived, Case said.
This time, though, Case was soon asking what many have wondered:
Who is this guy?
Straight outta Lincoln
It’s definitely possible, say classmates in Lincoln College Preparatory Academy’s Class of 2005, that Edwards predicted what has come.
“What if we all buy a block? What if we all move back?”
Those might not have been Edwards’ exact words, but they remember him thinking that way in high school, said Henry Tanner.
“We’ve always been fascinated with (the idea of) coming home to the East Side,” Tanner said. “We’ve always talked about it.”
Lincoln, the way it sits on high ground at 22nd Street and Woodland Avenue, gave Edwards and friends vista views of the emptying, vacant-lot-strewn neighborhood to the south.
They knew there were youth out there who weren’t talking about college choices, ACT scores and majors the way this group of Lincoln friends did, Ted Hughes said.
Edwards was on his way toward architectural engineering. Tanner and Hughes would become lawyers.
They talked about how to “create a neighborhood,” Hughes said, where their kids and their neighbors’ kids would have opportunities and be “talking about college.”
Edwards nurtured his development ideas after college while working at J.E. Dunn. The ideas began to soar when he turned them into the promises he made to his wife, Ebony, to hook her in on the prospects of Kansas City and the near East Side revival.
He promised her “the most diverse neighborhood” in the city, he said, with a view of the downtown skyline.
They came out roaring. They were going to build a neighborhood on the jazz legacy of the neighboring 18th and Vine district — creating a community for artists with an international flavor. They’d start by rehabbing the iconic Kansas City Workhouse as a cultural center. The castle-like limestone building and its courtyard had deteriorated like the neighborhood around it.
With great fanfare and publicity, Dan and Ebony married in the feverishly beautified structure in June 2014. Bo Nelson had gone from telling Edwards, “you’re crazy,” to working hard on their plans with his wife alongside them. It seemed the dream was launched.
Reality began to hit, first when the owner of the Kansas City Workhouse decided he wanted $1.5 million for the property that Edwards had expected to get for a tenth of that price.
Then hesitations of potential investors bared concerns over conditions in the neighborhood that visions of a jazz arts community alone could not overcome.
Edwards spent the intervening years sharpening his approach. He began preparing strategies for bulk property acquisitions and rapid housing construction. Density of residents will be the key, he said.
That was the idea shaping on his computer when he walked into Pendulum earlier this year, and again when he and Case stood before the audience at Think Big.
“We want to move into a home as soon as possible,” Edwards told the audience. “And we want neighbors.”
There is strength in numbers, Case said. Together, a community can pool resources. They can collaborate on a home-improvement fund that would enable current residents to spend $5,000 in anti-blight investments to earn property tax abatements through the Land Clearance Redevelopment Authority.
Numbers would give the new community footing to seek infrastructure improvements through the city’s Public Improvements Advisory Committee.
They want bank-approved home buyers who are ready to collaborate with the architects on building plans. It’s time to get going, Case said.
“To silence the naysayers,” he said, “you’ve got to build something.”
Time for grit
Edwards calls it “getting vertical.” It’s time to build houses, he says.
He and Nelson stood at the top of their Michigan Avenue block, with Nelson taking stock of so much work to be done.
“I’m looking out here,” Nelson said, with a sweep of his hand at the vacant jungle, “and I see sumac…dead tree…dead tree…There’s going to be hard work involved. This space calls for some grit.”
“I look down this street,” Edwards said, “and I see thousands.”
What does he mean, thousands?
“Block parties,” Nelson answered, knowing where Edwards’ imagination had gone. “Millennials like block parties.”