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Kansas City Council members take ‘extraordinary measure’ to save historic Midtown buildings

Blurring cars move past a three-story, brick building located at the intersection of 31st and Main Streets in Kansas City, Missouri.
Carlos Moreno
KCUR 89.3
4th District Council members Katheryn Shields and Eric Bunch have applied to have these buildings on the corner of 31st and Main streets designated as a historic landmark to save them from pending demolition.

After the buildings on the corner of 31st and Main streets were threatened with demolition, 4th District council members moved to give those properties historic designation.

The cluster of buildings on the corner of 31st and Main streets in midtown Kansas City is more than a century old. Their empty storefronts and brick and limestone exteriors face a bustling thoroughfare, and brightly painted murals cover their walls.

Earlier this month, a development company said it planned to demolish the buildings, stirring a backlash among some Kansas City and midtown residents.

“When the news came of the demolition, the neighborhood association really came together and said, ‘What can we do to try to preserve what's there, or at least as much of what's there as possible?’” said Stacy Garrett, president of the Union Hill Neighborhood Association.

It took swift action from 4th District Council members Eric Bunch and Katheryn Shields, whose district includes midtown, to halt the proposed demolition. Last week, the two applied to put the buildings on the Kansas City Register of Historic Places, creating six months of breathing room during which nothing can be done to the structures. If the buildings secure historic landmark status, they become eligible for historic tax credits.

Normally, such requests for historic designation are filed by the building owners. Bunch said the last time a similar action was taken was when officials acted to preserve Union Station around three decades ago.

“I realize that it's a fairly extraordinary measure in order to save this building,” Bunch said. “But we felt that this was important enough, historic enough, to move forward with a way to save it.”

The historic landmark application will be reviewed by the Kansas City Historic Preservation Commission and requires City Council approval.

The buildings are owned by Price Management Co., a property manager based in Overland Park. Flatland reported last week that Price plans to raze the buildings. Price said it doesn’t plan to redevelop the site until after the completion of the streetcar extension.

“That does not instill confidence that the developer's going to preserve the historic feel of that corner, or even take the gateway into Union Hill into account in the development plan,” Garrett said.

Price did not respond to requests for comment.

Bustling business

In the years between 1880 and 1890, the buildings, located along Kansas City’s old streetcar route, were places of commerce and business during a period when Kansas City experienced a population boom and rapid economic growth.

The businesses they housed included hardware stores, a saddlery, an investment company, a shoe repair store and other companies. The name of a former business, Lufti’s Fish Fry, can still be seen etched on a bright orange sign in front.

The Jeserich Building, which dates to 1888 and is the oldest building in the cluster, boasts Victorian architectural features. Garrett said the Union Hill neighborhood has homes with similar features.

“If you look at the intersection of 31st and Main, that specific corner is the last remaining corner of any architectural interest,” Garrett said. “... We view 31st and Main as one of our main entry points into the neighborhood.”

A low-angle photo of the corner building located at 31st and Main Street shows architectural detail.
Carlos Moreno
KCUR 89.3
The turret on the front of the Jeserich Building can be found in other older homes in midtown's Union Hill neighborhood.

Preserving local history

Because they are some of the oldest structures still standing on Main Street, it’s all the more important to preserve them, Bunch said.

“This would've been a huge loss. We already have a lot of missing teeth on Main Street, and this would've been just another awful pockmark,” Bunch said.

He noted the city has already lost much of its historic building stock.

“We’re never gonna get that back,” he said. “What I would like to see is, instead of tearing down more historic buildings with no plan in place …, I would rather see people reuse the buildings, the historic buildings that are there as much as possible, and start with filling in those empty lots and empty, dusty, gravelly parking lots instead and add some density back into midtown.”

Kevin Klinkenberg, president of Midtown KC Now, said his group supports a plan that reuses and preserves the buildings.

“With the council action, perhaps that buys a little time for people to dive deeper into it and see if there's a way to make something work that is feasible for the developer and save some of the historic structures,” he said.

As KCUR’s Missouri politics and government reporter, it’s my job to show how government touches every aspect of our lives. I break down political jargon so people can easily understand policies and how it affects them. My work is people-forward and centered on civic engagement and democracy. I hold political leaders and public officials accountable for the decisions they make and their impact on our communities. Follow me on Twitter @celisa_mia or email me at celisa@kcur.org.
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