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Rebirth Of Former West High School Inches Toward Reality

The Kansas City Public Schools (KCPS) is moving toward a final agreement with a developer to transform a decades-long Westside eyesore: the decaying former West High School, Switzer Elementary School and Switzer Annex buildings.

Officials with KCPS expect to finalize the agreement with Kansas City-based Foutch Brothers by the end of the year according to Shannon Jaax, the district’s director of repurposing. “The developer is in the midst of its due diligence period, which includes doing initial inspections of the buildings,” Jaax said.

Foutch Brothers submitted a proposal to the district on Dec. 9. It proposes that the renovated property – estimated to cost $16 million – would have 87 market-rate apartments: 49 two-bedroom units, 36 one-bedroom units and two studio apartments. Rents would range from $1.18 a square foot to $1.50 a square foot, and apartments would range from 400 square feet to 1,000 square feet.

That translates to rents in an estimated range of about $450 a month to about $1,000 a month, Steve Foutch, managing director of Foutch Brothers, told Hispanic News. The developer will seek the standard state and federal historic tax credits, whose value could total about $7 million, Foutch said.

Plans also call for at least 40,000 square feet of space for a cultural arts group, no building demolition and at least 140 off-street parking spaces.

Foutch hopes to start the project by year’s end and open it by the end of 2015, “if everything falls into place.”

Before it submits a request to the city for rezoning for the project, Foutch Brothers must hold two public meetings to discuss the project with neighborhood residents. Foutch said he was working on details of setting up those meetings and probably will hold one in August and the other in September or October.

The district won’t disclose the properties’ sale price until a contract has been signed, Jaax said.

Gloria Ortiz Fisher, executive director of Westside Housing Organization Inc., has worked with three different developers since 2008 in efforts to secure a signed contract for some sort of redevelopment of the properties. Fisher talked with developer Gary Hassenflu four or five years ago about the project, but Hassenflu couldn’t secure financing, she said.

Then she worked with McCormack Baron Salazar and, most recently, with the team of The Dalmark Group and architecture firm BNIM. Both developers failed to secure state tax credits for their redevelopment proposals.

After the state denied McCormack’s request for tax credits, the developer sought another opportunity to secure them. The district then required the developer to risk forfeiting its $25,000 earnest money in escrow if it were to fail a second time to secure state tax credits. The McCormack-Westside Housing team chose to terminate the contract.

“With McCormack Baron, they wanted to go another year (to try to secure state tax credits), and we needed some assurance that it would be a workable project,” Jaax said of the potentially nonrefundable earnest money. “It’s a pretty standard practice.”

Fisher said she was surprised that neither the district nor Foutch had asked her and Westside Housing to formally take part in the development process.

“For me to be one of the front-runners in the development (and not be involved in the process), it’s baffling,” she said.

Foutch said he had talked with Westside Housing but didn’t plan to invite the organization to join his development team.

“I’m still going to work with them just like with any other neighborhood group,” he said.

Fisher said she and Westside Housing had envisioned for the project to provide “first of all, workforce housing whose prices are affordable for working people who make $32,000 to $45,000. … We also were looking for a tax overlay, because we knew the taxes would go up once the redevelopment is done,” she said. “An overlay would allow the houses in the area around the building to have taxes stay the same for 10 years, if they’d been in the houses at least 10 years. The school district rejected that idea.”

Fisher and Westside Housing also are interested in a mixed-use element – businesses among residences – and a pool and gym for the community. William Jewell College was interested in having a satellite presence at the development and tutoring children, she said.

“I think the beauty of our neighborhood is mixed income, the touch of authentic Hispanic culture,” Fisher said. “I am not about accelerating gentrification. I want everybody coming to the table and being community. It’s not about being exclusive. I feel like the children lost. But it’s not a done deal.”

Foutch said that the project would be designed to look, feel and function like an integrated part of the neighborhood.

“That school has always been part of that community,” he said. “So our proposal is to leave it like it is, same density, so people will be happy to see the good look instead of the overgrown jungle.”

Alfredo Parra lives across the street from the West High School-Switzer complex and has watched that jungle grow over the years.

“I’m glad something is finally happening,” Parra said. “There were two different developers, and it was going to be quite dense. This one will be smaller, less density. With both groups I was concerned about parking. Dalmark is out. Foutch is talking about 87 units and parking for about 150 vehicles. If they’re going to have at least 174 parking spaces, two per unit, that allows for visitors. If not, I’m afraid they’re going to take a lot of parking on Summit and 18th Street.”

Parra likes the idea of a mixed-used element to the project.

“Mixed use would be wonderful … if they’re going to do something that will tie in that with something the community can embrace,” he said. “Let the neighborhood be part of the process. I’ve said for years we need a grocery. An art program or project – they haven’t revealed much to the community. We’re in the dark.”

Parra expressed disappoint-ment with the KCPS board regarding the decaying former school buildings.

“The school board has not been a friend of the community, especially the old school board,” he said. “They let that building decay so much. It’s still salvageable.”

The estimated range of rent prices might not salvage much attraction for current Westside residents, Parra said.

“I’m retired and my partner’s retired,” he said. “We could pool our incomes together. We could live there, but it’s pricey for the average person.”

Westside resident Colleen Driver bought her house three months ago. She has a lot of friends who live in the area. She’d been looking to buy in the neighborhood for more than a year, regardless of the former West High School’s fate.

“I think (having arts programs in the development) is a good idea,” Driver said. “I hope it’s successful. I hope they can maintain the buildings.”
Lynda Callon, director of the Westside Community Action Network, maintains that the Foutch proposal is the best that’s been offered.

“I think that, after a lot of due diligence, the Kansas City Public Schools board felt this was the best plan,” Callon said.

She praised the Westside as a neighborhood with unique characteristics.

“No other neighborhood in Kansas City has the amenities of this neighborhood,” she said. “It has five parks, a library, a community center – and it’s within walking distance of the nationally recognized Crossroads, the performing arts center and the planned presence of UMKC’s music conservatory. It’s a neighborhood of choice. It’s going to attract lots of people. Change is inevitable. If we’re not changing, we’re dead.”