Government & Politics

Community fought St. Francis Xavier School demolition for years. Now there’s a new plan.

A new plan has emerged to save and renovate the St. Francis Xavier School on Troost Avenue and convert most of it into residential units for college students. This replaces a previous, controversial Catholic Diocese plan to demolish and replace the building with a much larger dormitory.
A new plan has emerged to save and renovate the St. Francis Xavier School on Troost Avenue and convert most of it into residential units for college students. This replaces a previous, controversial Catholic Diocese plan to demolish and replace the building with a much larger dormitory. Kansas City Star

Kansas City’s Catholic Diocese is pursuing a plan to try to save the St. Francis Xavier School, replacing a plan to raze the structure that fueled a five-year battle with the parish and surrounding neighborhoods.

Bishop James Vann Johnston of the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph met last month with the St. Francis Xavier parish and community members at the church at 52nd Street and Troost Avenue.

People at the Aug. 14 meeting said the Bishop got strong support for a new plan to renovate the school, creating housing units with about 100 beds for college students. The bishop took to heart the widespread opposition to an earlier plan to demolish the building for a much larger dormitory with at least 237 bedrooms.

This new concept, coupled with a University of Missouri-Kansas City’s program to develop the 5300 and 5400 blocks of Troost Avenue, is heralded as welcome progress for the Troost corridor.

“This is a very transformative time for that area,” said Vincent Gauthier, a developer and parish member who fought the previous dormitory plan for years.

The new plan is possible because the now-closed school, built in 1962, will soon be listed on the National Register of Historic Places, according to Elizabeth Rosin of Rosin Preservation in Kansas City. The school qualifies as an example of mid-century modern architecture. That makes it eligible for historic tax credits for redevelopment.

Foutch Brothers, a Kansas City development company specializing in historic preservation and repurposing, is working with the diocese on the school reuse concept.

“We’re trying to save the historic structure,” Foutch Brothers CEO Steve Foutch told The Star, although he noted that details and financing have yet to be worked out.

Rosin said the Part 1 federal tax credit application for the renovation has been approved, but there’s still a question about state historic tax credits. Foutch acknowledged that challenge too. The state historic tax credit program is under review by Missouri lawmakers and may be sharply reduced in the coming legislative session.

Still, Gauthier is hopeful the plan can work, and he’s on a task force with John Veal and other parish members to push forward.

“I can’t tell you how great it’s been to work with the diocese,” Gauthier said.

Veal, a member of the St. Francis Xavier pastoral council, is also optimistic, and says this is a big change from when Bishop Robert Finn was advocating for the large dormitory, beginning in 2012. While that concept was scaled back somewhat over the years, many in the parish and surrounding neighborhoods continued to complain that the design was too big, would exacerbate existing parking and traffic problems, and would negatively affect the church.

Johnston replaced Finn in November 2015 and spent more than a year listening and considering the options.

“I would say the Bishop rethought the original plan to build a huge dorm on a small lot,” Veal said. “The scale was the big problem. There was a lot of affection for the old building, as well.”

Veal said this plan still provides housing, which is likely to serve primarily Catholic students attending Rockhurst University and UMKC, but would be less intrusive. The former school cafeteria would serve as a parish hall and kitchen, which the church hasn’t had for more than five years.

Veal emphasized the plan is not yet final and said there’s no construction start date. The hope is to be ready for occupancy by the start of the 2018 school year, since students don’t change dorms mid-year.

Ken Spare, Crestwood Homes Association leader, has also followed the debate for years and praised this recent outcome.

Jack Smith, spokesman for the diocese, said the proposal came together following productive meetings between the bishop and members of the parish and community to try to resolve the discord.

While the proposal is not final, Smith said it is “a very scaled down footprint, enabling the diocese to engage in campus ministry outreach for UMKC and Rockhurst.”

Just as the St. Francis Xavier plan may be coming together, UMKC is also pursuing development opportunities on land it owns along Troost Avenue, based on a 2002 master plan.

“It’s been waiting for the right time from an economic standpoint and from a development standpoint,” said Bob Simmons, associate vice chancellor of administration. “It takes property that is not in our core campus but is prime for development. And it bring it into play for us and the community.”

The university issued a request for proposals to develop the 5300 and 5400 blocks of Troost, just south of St. Francis Xavier and north of Mike’s Tavern, which is being rebranded as Brady’s. It’s vacant land except for the old Miller Coach Works auto repair building, which may be repurposed or demolished.

The university received four proposals and has narrowed them to two finalists, both calling for mixed-use commercial and market rate housing projects, not student housing.

One finalist is the Troostworthy group, featuring Yarco and Urban Realty Interests (Vincent Gauthier). Simmons said that group has identified a couple of potential tenants, including possibly a new home for Quixotic and a second location for Renee Kelly’s Harvest restaurant.

The other finalist team is CarrBaierCrandall and EPC. It would also have retail and housing, although potential tenants weren’t yet specified.

Simmons said further evaluation is required and he hopes for a final board of curators decision in December. The goal is to start construction next year, with completion in fall 2019 or spring 2020.

If St. Francis Xavier moves forward, all the better, Simmons said, adding, “We’re very excited about both proposals and anxious to be under way on this.”

Lynn Horsley: 816-226-2058, @LynnHorsley