Preservationists won a key round Tuesday in a fiercely fought battle over the fate of three quaint but deteriorating Plaza area apartment buildings designed by famed Kansas City architect Nelle Peters.
But the property owner, Price Brothers Development, still insists the buildings — on the Country Club Plaza’s west edge, adjacent to the Bloch Cancer Survivors Park — are not worth saving.
The decision now rests with the Kansas City Council, and a hearing could come in the next three to four weeks.
By a 6-0 vote after three hours of fervent testimony from both sides, the Kansas City Plan Commission endorsed the Historic Kansas City Foundation’s request that the buildings in the 4700 block of Summit Street be included in an existing historic Nelle Peters thematic district. The historic district is just south and east of the Summit Street buildings.
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If the City Council agrees with that advisory group’s recommendation, it could potentially stave off the wrecking ball for up to three years, increasing the chances for possible restoration.
The commission agreed with preservation advocates who said the buildings, which date to 1927 but weren’t previously included in the Peters district, are an essential part of the Plaza’s unique visual fabric and deserve to be saved as examples of one of Kansas City’s premier architects.
Nelle Peters, who died in 1974, had a career that spanned from 1909 to 1965. She was one of Kansas City’s most distinctive and prolific architects, designing hundreds of buildings here as well as many in other states.
“These buildings matter,” Tiffany Moore, president of the Armour Hills Homes Association, told the commission, adding that too many historic structures already have been torn down in the area and can never be replaced.
Historic Kansas City Foundation executive director Amanda Crawley said 600 people have signed an online petition to save the buildings, noting that “they are incredibly important to the character of the Plaza.”
She argued that just as historic tax credits have allowed for the beautiful restoration of another Peters property in the old Northeast neighborhood of Kansas City, these buildings can also be rebuilt in a financially feasible way.
But officials with Price Brothers, which purchased the buildings in 2014, said they are in horrible condition inside, are not historically significant and can’t be restored without exorbitant expense.
Doug Price told the commission that his company has done other high-quality restorations throughout the city and if it were possible in this case, “I would’ve done it.”
But he said these buildings were allowed by the city and the previous owner to sink into a “deplorable” condition over decades and there’s no way they can now be affordably salvaged.
Price also complained to the commission that he specifically checked with the city about whether the buildings were historic before he bought them in August 2014 and was assured they were not.
The buildings were partially occupied when Price Brothers purchased them, but they were vacated earlier this year.
While Price Brothers has not disclosed a detailed plan for the properties, testimony Tuesday suggested the company plans a new multifamily housing development of a scale to complement the Plaza, with parking and modern rental amenities like contemporary kitchens and baths that aren’t available in the Peters buildings.
Attorney Jim Bowers, representing Price Brothers, said people who think the buildings can be restored in an economically feasible way “don’t know what they are talking about.” And he said this amounts to a “taking without compensation” of the Price Brothers’ property.
Bowers and architectural historian Cydney Millstein said there’s a good reason these three buildings, with an original layout of 36 total units, weren’t included in the existing thematic district, designated in 1989. That historic designation depended on the partnership and relationship between Peters and builder Charles Phillips, which doesn’t exist with these three buildings, they said.
But Crawley said they are justifiably historic regardless of who the builder was, and city staff agreed.
Plaza area residents alerted the Historic Kansas City Foundation after Price Brothers pulled a pre-demolition permit for the buildings in May.
The foundation filed an application in June for historic designation for the Tudor revival-style buildings tucked behind a parking garage in the West Plaza neighborhood. That put a temporary hold on any potential demolition.
While advocates believe strongly that the buildings should be saved, they don’t deny that they currently look forlorn and rundown, surrounded by chain link fencing.
The doorways on the Roanoke side are boarded up, and some windows are clearly broken out, exposing the building interiors to the elements. Many of the brown brick walls are covered with dead and dying ivy, and some paint is peeling.
Commission members said they were conflicted. They sympathized with Price Brothers and said they don’t want the buildings to remain in a vacant, deteriorated state. But they were even more disturbed at the thought of further demolition.