Kansas City Makes It Right

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November 13, 2013
Kansas City, Missouri, is the home of Make It Right's latest community revitalization project. Though the neighborhood of Manheim Park hasn't been affected by a natural disaster, it's been afflicted with decades worth of decline. Bancroft Elementary, a formerly abandoned school dating from 1904, is the projects locus. Make It Right and local firm BNIM transformed the vacant building into low-income housing for families, veterans, senior citizens, and youths transitioning out of foster care. Architect Tim Duggan, director of Make It Right's Innovations department, spearheaded the effort. We chatted with him about the project, "urban acupuncture," and how this redevelopment plan serves as a model for other cities. "We see this as a model both locally and nationally to identify a catalytic project and revitalize it," Duggan says. "So often conventional development says, it won't pencil out or it won't work unless there are inferior quality materials, or it'll pencil out with less community space or less attention to quality. We didn't want to do that." See what else he has to say in the following slideshow.
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  How did you come to work with Make It Right? About six years ago I was at a firm in Kansas City called BNIM and we were doing disaster recovery projects. I was working in a little rural Kansas town called Greensburg after a Tornado leveled the town. Make It Right asked BNIM to design one of its early first-round houses for New Orleans so I traveled down there a few times. It became apparent that Make It Right could use a bit of landscape architecture and planning insight as they looked to build a sustainable community in the Lower Ninth Ward. I took a year's sabbatical and left the prairie and moved down to the swamps and had an amazing time with Make It Right. That turned into five-plus years of work with the organization. How did Make It Right come to work in Kansas City? As the Make it Right model began to evolve there was an interest to propagate the expertise and resources developed in New Orleans to other communities. There might not be a natural disaster involved—so many urban cores are faced with economic disasters. We started to look to other communities and develop Make It Right's strategic plan. The stars aligned in Kansas City with a political structure wanting to create this area called the "Green Impact Zone" and looking to focus investment in urban revitalization under the umbrella of sustainable redevelopment.

    How did you come to work with Make It Right?

    About six years ago I was at a firm in Kansas City called BNIM and we were doing disaster recovery projects. I was working in a little rural Kansas town called Greensburg after a Tornado leveled the town. Make It Right asked BNIM to design one of its early first-round houses for New Orleans so I traveled down there a few times. It became apparent that Make It Right could use a bit of landscape architecture and planning insight as they looked to build a sustainable community in the Lower Ninth Ward. I took a year's sabbatical and left the prairie and moved down to the swamps and had an amazing time with Make It Right. That turned into five-plus years of work with the organization.

     

    How did Make It Right come to work in Kansas City?

    As the Make it Right model began to evolve there was an interest to propagate the expertise and resources developed in New Orleans to other communities. There might not be a natural disaster involved—so many urban cores are faced with economic disasters. We started to look to other communities and develop Make It Right's strategic plan. The stars aligned in Kansas City with a political structure wanting to create this area called the "Green Impact Zone" and looking to focus investment in urban revitalization under the umbrella of sustainable redevelopment.

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  Can you tell us a little about what the "Green Impact Zone" is?We use a phrase called "urban acupuncture." So many times in urban cores, communities never receive enough resources and when they do receive resources it's deployed in a scattered-sites approach. Congressman Emanuel Cleaver developed a vision to do the opposite of that: to define a boundary in an area that needs revitalization and be strategic in that investment until the area becomes sustainable once again. So there was a defined area, 150 square blocks, and it became apparent where strategic investment would occur. It could be new infrastructure projects in the form of streets or sidewalks, or a smart grid development for the infrastructure, or housing, or funding getting routed to the city services in this area. The idea is to really focus investment in an area and see what can happen when everyone gets the resources they need.We were the first project out of the gate and since that moment, over 110 million dollars of investment has been strategically diverted within a half-mile walkable radius of the project site so that it can become a sustainable neighborhood again. That's the core idea: the project becoming a catalytic force in an urban core.

    Can you tell us a little about what the "Green Impact Zone" is?We use a phrase called "urban acupuncture." So many times in urban cores, communities never receive enough resources and when they do receive resources it's deployed in a scattered-sites approach. Congressman Emanuel Cleaver developed a vision to do the opposite of that: to define a boundary in an area that needs revitalization and be strategic in that investment until the area becomes sustainable once again. So there was a defined area, 150 square blocks, and it became apparent where strategic investment would occur. It could be new infrastructure projects in the form of streets or sidewalks, or a smart grid development for the infrastructure, or housing, or funding getting routed to the city services in this area. The idea is to really focus investment in an area and see what can happen when everyone gets the resources they need.We were the first project out of the gate and since that moment, over 110 million dollars of investment has been strategically diverted within a half-mile walkable radius of the project site so that it can become a sustainable neighborhood again. That's the core idea: the project becoming a catalytic force in an urban core.

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  Can you tell us about the area around the project? How did it fall into decline? What's the make-up of the community now?Our project sits on a street called Troost Avenue. Starting in the late '50s and early '60s with the removal of the street car, suburban sprawl, and other elements, Troost became the de facto racial dividing line in the city—the other side of the tracks literally. The avenue runs over 90 blocks and has a straight shot in Kansas City and whether it was reality or perception, it's been a significant problem to overcome in Kansas City's current history. Quite a few groups have been lobbying hard for ways to change that perception and ways to figure out how investment can occur in that area. A house once block east of Troost is valued at half the price as what that same house one block west of Troost would be valued. Many cities have Troost avenues. Many cities have a racial dividing line—just 95 blocks of them being a straight line is not always the case.

    Can you tell us about the area around the project? How did it fall into decline? What's the make-up of the community now?Our project sits on a street called Troost Avenue. Starting in the late '50s and early '60s with the removal of the street car, suburban sprawl, and other elements, Troost became the de facto racial dividing line in the city—the other side of the tracks literally. The avenue runs over 90 blocks and has a straight shot in Kansas City and whether it was reality or perception, it's been a significant problem to overcome in Kansas City's current history. Quite a few groups have been lobbying hard for ways to change that perception and ways to figure out how investment can occur in that area. A house once block east of Troost is valued at half the price as what that same house one block west of Troost would be valued. Many cities have Troost avenues. Many cities have a racial dividing line—just 95 blocks of them being a straight line is not always the case.

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  The project's core is near a school that was empty for the past 13 years. Is vacancy an issue in the area as well? How did you select the project site?In the neighborhood, Manheim Park, 30 percent of the area for contains vacant lots or dangerous buildings. One block west of Troost it's much much different—maybe five percent vacant if that.We knew that we wanted it to be adjacent to public transportation nodes, we knew that we wanted it to be of a scale of existing buildings or of new construction, and we knew that we wanted to be part of a community that needed a hand up instead of a hand out. And all of that analysis lead to a couple of different sites in the Green Impact Zone.We went into GIS and mapped buildings over 10,000 square feet and transit nodes and then we overlaid vacant properties and the Bancroft just kind of emerged out of that mapping process. And we said, ok, the Bancroft school is one block away from rapid transit, it's one block from mixed-use retail that could be revitalized. It had the proper zoning, it had the proper access, it had a big enough scale building to be a catalyst and to be a visionary from the start. If we're going to walk out and be the first project in the area, we had to make a loud bang. 

    The project's core is near a school that was empty for the past 13 years. Is vacancy an issue in the area as well? How did you select the project site?In the neighborhood, Manheim Park, 30 percent of the area for contains vacant lots or dangerous buildings. One block west of Troost it's much much different—maybe five percent vacant if that.We knew that we wanted it to be adjacent to public transportation nodes, we knew that we wanted it to be of a scale of existing buildings or of new construction, and we knew that we wanted to be part of a community that needed a hand up instead of a hand out. And all of that analysis lead to a couple of different sites in the Green Impact Zone.We went into GIS and mapped buildings over 10,000 square feet and transit nodes and then we overlaid vacant properties and the Bancroft just kind of emerged out of that mapping process. And we said, ok, the Bancroft school is one block away from rapid transit, it's one block from mixed-use retail that could be revitalized. It had the proper zoning, it had the proper access, it had a big enough scale building to be a catalyst and to be a visionary from the start. If we're going to walk out and be the first project in the area, we had to make a loud bang. 

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  Can you walk us through how you designed the structures? Here at Dwell we're very friendly toward modern buildings but is that something where you received any pushback from the neighborhood?We were fortunate in terms of aesthetics in that we had a historical building and we laid out from the very start if we have to do new construction, our boss is a modernist at heart and we would propose contemporary housing options as opposed to what I'll call "imitation crab meat." We didn't want to try and recreate the beautiful architecture that was completed over 100 years ago because it would always just look fake. That being said, we wanted a contemporary design and looked to the neighborhood for scale, materiality, color palette, and other elements in terms of the architecture and walking the community though the process coupled with the big idea and vision, we didn't get as much resistance as one would have anticipated. But because the process was very transparent it worked out really well. We have this nice contrast of old and new.

    Can you walk us through how you designed the structures? Here at Dwell we're very friendly toward modern buildings but is that something where you received any pushback from the neighborhood?We were fortunate in terms of aesthetics in that we had a historical building and we laid out from the very start if we have to do new construction, our boss is a modernist at heart and we would propose contemporary housing options as opposed to what I'll call "imitation crab meat." We didn't want to try and recreate the beautiful architecture that was completed over 100 years ago because it would always just look fake. That being said, we wanted a contemporary design and looked to the neighborhood for scale, materiality, color palette, and other elements in terms of the architecture and walking the community though the process coupled with the big idea and vision, we didn't get as much resistance as one would have anticipated. But because the process was very transparent it worked out really well. We have this nice contrast of old and new.

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  How do you envision the area in ten years and how will you be able to tell if it's successful?How I envision the project in 10 years really stems from the process that we're instilling today, that this urban acupuncture, this strategic investment. The total costs for the Bancroft are just over 14 million dollars. The financial package that was structured so the project has no permanent debt—it doesn't require a burdensome mortgage payment. That in and of itself is a creative financial tool that will allow us to continually make sustainable investments by using this model and move it from the big idea to the project then to the surrounding neighborhood. The next step is thinking about how to handle housing and it's not a one-stop shop. We have housing that needs rehab and renovation and weatherization. Housing that needs to be deconstructed and recycled, and we have housing that needs to be built with new construction and a new identity. We hope those strategies paired with the strategic approach will help diminish the 30–40 percent vacancy rate. We've already seen a 27–28 percent reduction in crime.  In 10 years, I'd like to see Manheim Park thriving and to have made strides to break down the perception barriers about the Troost Corrodor. That will be easy to notice first-hand when you see kids walking down the street in a safe neighborhood environment, folks using public transportation and neighborhood retail, and innovative housing clustered around this transit oriented development. That's what I hope we see in the next 5-10 years.

    How do you envision the area in ten years and how will you be able to tell if it's successful?How I envision the project in 10 years really stems from the process that we're instilling today, that this urban acupuncture, this strategic investment. The total costs for the Bancroft are just over 14 million dollars. The financial package that was structured so the project has no permanent debt—it doesn't require a burdensome mortgage payment. That in and of itself is a creative financial tool that will allow us to continually make sustainable investments by using this model and move it from the big idea to the project then to the surrounding neighborhood. The next step is thinking about how to handle housing and it's not a one-stop shop. We have housing that needs rehab and renovation and weatherization. Housing that needs to be deconstructed and recycled, and we have housing that needs to be built with new construction and a new identity. We hope those strategies paired with the strategic approach will help diminish the 30–40 percent vacancy rate. We've already seen a 27–28 percent reduction in crime.  In 10 years, I'd like to see Manheim Park thriving and to have made strides to break down the perception barriers about the Troost Corrodor. That will be easy to notice first-hand when you see kids walking down the street in a safe neighborhood environment, folks using public transportation and neighborhood retail, and innovative housing clustered around this transit oriented development. That's what I hope we see in the next 5-10 years.

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  Are you hoping that this is something that would be applied to other downtowns? Have you thought of other areas where this might be especially appropriate?We have thought about the replicability of this both locally and nationally and we're very interested From my standpoint it's a process. If you can create a process that gives a community a voice, that creates a big idea everyone can get their arms around, and moves forward in a manner that is environmentally, socially, and economically healthy, then it's a win-win situation. It's just about the capacity to replicate the process. Each project is going to have it's own spirit of place, each city is going to have its own Bancroft, but the process can be replicated quite easily.

    Are you hoping that this is something that would be applied to other downtowns? Have you thought of other areas where this might be especially appropriate?We have thought about the replicability of this both locally and nationally and we're very interested From my standpoint it's a process. If you can create a process that gives a community a voice, that creates a big idea everyone can get their arms around, and moves forward in a manner that is environmentally, socially, and economically healthy, then it's a win-win situation. It's just about the capacity to replicate the process. Each project is going to have it's own spirit of place, each city is going to have its own Bancroft, but the process can be replicated quite easily.

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