Government & Politics

Advocates want to save 1940s Plaza church from becoming a mixed-use high rise

Legacy Development plans to build a 12-story mixed-use tower at The Seventh Church of Christ, Scientist site

Legacy Development plans to build a new mixed-use space at the site of The Seventh Church of Christ, Scientist site at the Country Club Plaza.
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Legacy Development plans to build a new mixed-use space at the site of The Seventh Church of Christ, Scientist site at the Country Club Plaza.

Plans for a 12-story tower to replace a 1940s-era church amid the Country Club Plaza’s signature Spanish-style buildings has rekindled a fight over what kind of new construction belongs in the famed shopping district.

Legacy Development filed with the city Nov. 19 to build a modern mix of office, retail, dining and apartments along with a new space for the Seventh Church of Christ, Scientist, at the northwest corner of 47th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue.

But the idea of tearing down the Romanesque-style church, which opened in 1942, has mobilized two groups, Historic Kansas City and the Friends of the Plaza, to fight the project.

In a Wednesday Facebook post, Historic Kansas City said it was working with Friends of the Plaza to mount “an aggressive campaign to save the Plaza from new high-rise development.” Historic Kansas City filed a motion to nominate the church as a historic landmark on Nov. 9.

“The Plaza’s historic nature is immediately threatened by the demolition of the 7th Church of Christ Scientist,” the post says. The group declined to comment further.

The church, however, says it doesn’t need rescuing.

A letter from the church’s executive board, filed with the city’s Historic Preservation Committee in response to the nomination, said that while members treasure the existing structure, they don’t consider it historic and don’t support the proposed designation.

The letter went on to say the nomination had been “abruptly and secretly presented, and (they) believe with probable ill intent.”

“It is curious that despite several meetings over the past two years with city staff, councilpersons and members representing themselves as connected with Historic Kansas City, there has never been mention of our church property being designated as such,” the church said.

A hearing on the historic nomination was postponed until January. Historic Kansas City’s post said that was “to allow (the organization) time to talk with affected parties.”

A staff report compiled for the committee recommends the church be given landmark status.

Critics of the proposed tower also argue it violates the area plan approved by residents establishing guidelines for building height, density and usage.

The area plan calls for the Plaza to follow a “bowl concept,” keeping its famous three-story Spanish-style buildings in the center and surrounding them with larger buildings on the perimeter. It recommends nothing taller than three stories be built on the land where the church is now.

But the area plan is not law. The land’s zoning doesn’t set a maximum height, said Joe Rexwinkle, division manager for the city’s planning department.

In a statement, Legacy, too, noted the area plan is not binding.

“We believe that the architectural design of the proposed building, though preliminary, is appropriate for the Plaza and the uses — adding residential, retail and restaurant space — are entirely in keeping with the spirit of the Plaza,” the company said. “The proposed project meets the needs of the Plaza neighborhood, the patrons of the Country Club Plaza and, equally as important, the church.”

According to the statement, the church wants to remain in its location and expand its congregation, but the “condition and suitability of the current structure inhibit these plans for growth.”

“Church leaders believe that more modern solutions such as those the Church of Christ Scientist have implemented in other locations are more appropriate for their future needs,” it says.

In a statement, the church said it was committed to being part of the plaza at is present location, noting it’s been on the plaza for 70 years.

“It has witnessed the dramatic evolution of the Country Club Plaza from being a neighborhood-oriented shopping center with groceries, a bowling alley and a gas station, to a (world-renowned) shopping center with destination regional and national retailers, restaurants and hotels,” the statement says.

Dave Claflin, a spokesman for Legacy, said in an email it was premature to answer some questions, including the cost and timeline for regulatory approvals and groundbreaking. But he said the company does not intend to ask for tax incentives.

As of now, the church owns the land.

Councilwoman Katheryn Shields, who represents the 4th District at-large, said she would not support the development because it’s not in keeping with the area plan and it would change the character of the plaza.

The Plaza has been the setting for similar fights in recent years.

In August 2016 a divided Kansas City Council rejected two proposals over concerns about density, height and compliance with the Plaza area plan.

It voted down Block Real Estate’s proposed $38 million, 188-unit apartment complex at 44th and Washington Streets, and a $30 million plan from NorthPoint Development to convert a former medical office building at 4620 J.C. Nichols Parkway to an 84-unit assisted-living facility.