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Midtown buildings threatened by demolition win historic landmark protections from Kansas City

A three-story brick building in various stages of disrepair sits at an intersection where some traffic is waiting at a stoplight.
Carlos Moreno
KCUR 89.3
The buildings at 31st and Main Street remain behind fencing and barriers as construction on the streetcar extension continues along Main Street. The owner has told neighborhood residents he plans to demolish the buildings rather than restore or remodel them.

Kansas City Council unanimously passed an ordinance giving the buildings at 31st and Main Street historic designation status and prevent them from being torn down for three years.

A block of buildings at the corner of 31st and Main streets has been granted historic landmark status — and with that, greater protection from demolition — following a city council committee meeting on Wednesday.

The committee voted Wednesday to advance an ordinance that would put the group of buildings at 3037 Main Street on the Kansas City Register of Historic Places. The full council unanimously approved the measure on Thursday.

The cluster of midtown buildings is more than a century old and includes the Jeserich Building, built in 1888, and the Ward Building, built in 1905. Their empty storefronts and Victorian architecture face a busy thoroughfare that will include the streetcar extension in about four years.

The ordinance's passage means that the buildings cannot be demolished for three years. The historic designation also imposes restrictions and standards on how the buildings can be used.

Councilwoman Katheryn Shields, in whose 4th District the buildings are located, told fellow council members that the corner on 31st and Main boasts one of the oldest standing buildings in Kansas City.

“That's really what we're asking you to do, is to delay the demolition for three years by designating this an historic structure so that we have time to work with the developer or perhaps a subsequent developer to find an alternative use and way forward that does preserve these buildings,” Shields said at the committee meeting.

It’s rare for city council members to apply for historic designation; normally it’s building owners who make that request. The last time that occurred was when city officials moved to preserve Union Station about three decades ago.

4th District Coucilman Eric Bunch acknowledged that he and Shields were taking a novel approach.

“Once a historic building is gone, it's gone for good,” he said. “There's no getting that back.”

Vincent Gauthier, president of AuthenticityCity and Urban Realty Interests, testified that the historic buildings were “easily rehabable.”

“I believe that if these are permanently removed, these structures that help define the corridor line, you're going to be going against the absolute principle of why the streetcar line was put in in the first place,” Gauthier said.

Shields and Bunch first applied for historic designation in May after the property owner moved to demolish the buildings. That bought about six months where nothing could be done to the structures.

The application for historic designation previously received support and approval from the Historic Preservation Commission and the City Planning Commission.

Part of the push for historic designation stems from preservationists' concerns over the current owner's plans for the buildings.

The buildings are owned by Doug Price of Price Brothers Management Co. and his development group, 31 Main, which bought them five years ago. In a presentation before the City Planning Commission, Price put forth a plan for a 12-story residential project that replicates the appearance of the Jeserich Building.

Price and his attorney, Christine Bushyhead, told the council the buildings weren't salvageable.

“It isn't part of sustainable development to preserve them,” Bushyhead told the committee on Wednesday.

On Tuesday night, Price attended a Union Hill Neighborhood Association meeting to answer questions about the buildings' future.

Randi Mixdorf, vice president of the neighborhood association, said Price told residents that he still does not have any plans for the buildings and will allow them to remain vacant.

“Somebody asked, ‘What is your plan B if the historic preservation designation does go through?' And he flat out said he's just gonna let it sit for three years and let it decay and then he'll tear it down,” Mixdorf said. “So there was no hiding that fact and I think that's what frustrated everyone the most.”

Mixdorf said residents also asked if Price would be willing to work with a developer to rehab the buildings, or if he would consider selling the properties. She said Price answered no to both questions.

“I think people were just trying to get something out of him that would kind of ease their concerns, and no response we got made anybody feel better,” she said.

Price could not be reached for comment.

In 2016, Price tore down apartments that had been built by prominent Kansas City architect Nelle Peters, despite objections from historic preservationists. On Walnut Street, just behind the buildings on 31st and Main, Price demolished another building this summer.

Zach Perez contributed reporting to this story.

Updated: October 13, 2022 at 4:39 PM CDT
This story was updated after the Kansas City Council unanimously approved the ordinance.
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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