Some Kansas City residents want to halt the sale of the historic Katz Drug Store in midtown
St. Louis-based Lux Living is proposing to turn the historic building into amenities for residents of nearby luxury apartments. The Kansas City Council approved tax abatements for the project last summer.
Six months after the Kansas City Council approved tax breaks for a proposal to turn the former Katz Drug Store in Westport into amenities for nearby luxury apartments, some Kansas City residents are asking the owner of the building to back out of its sale.
Once a space for local artists in Kansas City, the historic building at the corner of Westport Road and Main Street has been owned by the nearby Redeemer Fellowship Church since it purchased the building at auction in 2011. Last year, Lux Living of St. Louis proposed to buy the building and turn it into a space that includes amenities like a fitness center, pool, audio studio and co-working spaces for residents of nearby luxury apartment buildings.
Vic Alston, CEO of Lux Living, said the company is working through the final logistical steps. He declined to disclose how much Lux is paying for the building.
Originally built in 1934, the Katz Drug Store was placed on Historic Kansas City’s most endangered list in 2019. That same year, Redeemer Fellowship put the property back on the market.
Lux Living is proposing to build 192 apartments near the Katz Drug Store. The overall project is opposed by many area residents, including the tenant union KC Tenants.
Dylan Pyles, who used to live in the area, began gathering signatures for a letter to Redeemer in mid-January urging the church not to go through with the sale.
"We’re talking about an entire community and neighborhood on the brink of gentrification," the letter states. "People will be displaced. People will have to leave the neighborhood. Some of them will have nowhere else to go. For a church that has proclaimed the teachings of Christ to perpetrate this level of harm would be hypocritical and contradictory to the example set by Christ in scripture."
The letter has garnered 240 signatures so far, Pyles said.
Pyles, who now lives in Kansas City, Kansas, isn’t opposed to converting the space into housing. But Pyles and other signatories want it turned into affordable housing that meets the needs of people who live in midtown.
"I also could see that building being repurposed to some sort of community center, which would be, I think, a huge asset for that neighborhood and community," Pyles said.
Alston countered that Lux Living is preserving the building.
"The land has been sitting vacant for many years," he said. "So it's not like it was being used for any purpose. It's a vacant retail site that had been sitting empty and under distress, in the sense that it was all boarded up. And there's nothing going on in the site."
To complete the project, which would cost $37.6 million, Lux Living originally asked the city for a 15-year tax abatement: the first 10 years at a 75% abatement and the remaining five years at 50%.
The city council rejected the request in late June after Councilman Eric Bunch, who represents the district that includes midtown, sought to limit the incentive package to a 75% tax abatement over 10 years. Bunch’s amendment also included requirements for affordable units and public parking. His amendment passed by a 7-6 vote.
Redeemer said on its website that it was "disappointed" with the council vote. It then applied with the Kansas City Historic Preservation Commission to demolish the building.
"We do not have plans, hopes, or desires to demolish the Katz Building: we have taken many steps over the years toward its preservation and hope that City Council will work with the buyers to see this project completed,” the church stated in a web post.
After that, the council debated the incentive request a second time, with Bunch dropping his proposed changes. In the end, the council approved an incentive package consisting of a 75% tax abatement over 10 years and, at the suggestion of Councilwoman Katheryn Shields, $600,000 from the Midtown Public Infrastructure Advisory Committee fund, which allocates sales tax dollars for infrastructure projects.
A larger debate
The debate over the building reflects larger conversations about housing and development in Kansas City and concerns over who, exactly, benefits from increased development in areas like midtown and the city’s commercial core.
There’s some indication that the once near-automatic tendency to approve tax incentives for housing developers is beginning to change. Last week, the council sank a $10.5 million tax incentive package for a MAC Properties apartment project along Main Street and Armour Boulevard and instead diverted funds to the city’s Housing Trust Fund.
"This development would continue to push the cost of living up and continue to reshape the neighborhood in a way that makes it safer for wealthy people and more dangerous and precarious for the poor and working class," Pyles said of Lux Living’s project.
Pyles doesn’t agree with arguments that placing luxury apartments near the streetcar line will be a net positive for the neighborhood.
"I think that would be a way to make wealthy people even wealthier," he said. "And to continue to isolate wealth away from the poor and working class into the hands of the few."
For Clay Marcusen, who has lived in midtown for about a decade and also opposes Lux Living’s proposal, the problem is the developer’s request for tax incentives.
"It fits into the opposition that I have, with many others, about the high-end developers from out of town coming in, and either redeveloping or building with tax incentive monies, and not only taxes but with city funding," Marcusen said. "This is big-time stuff."
Marcusen said he was also concerned that high-end developments in the area would put apartments out of people’s price range.
"Many of these people are long-term residents of midtown Kansas City," Marcusen said. "It's such a diverse neighborhood in midtown Kansas City. And that makes it so enjoyable."
Marcusen also would like to see the Katz Drug Store turned into affordable housing whose residents would be able to access the streetcar line.
"By doing that, you create equity within the populations, within the neighborhoods, within the community," he said.