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An overgrown forest in Kansas City's Palestine East could be turned into a community resource

A rusted chain link fence gate leans away from overgrown forest in the corridor.  The area is barely accessible to residents of the Palestine East neighborhood.
Carlos Moreno
KCUR 89.3
The chain link fence gate on the lot near 33rd Street and Myrtle Avenue clings to its posts where the urban forest is being eyed for future development.

Kansas City has more than 5,000 vacant lots. The Heartland Conservation Alliance wants to renovate a 20-acre urban forest in a neighborhood on the east side of the city — but not until they hear what neighbors want.

Located along east 33rd and Myrtle Avenue in Kansas City’s Palestine East neighborhood is a heavily wooded area — about 20 acres of vacant and overgrown trees and shrubs. Opossums and raccoons roam the area and trash is scattered all along the sidewalks around it. The space is barely accessible to nearby residents. But to organizations like Heartland Conservation Alliance, the urban forest is an opportunity.

The Heartland Conservation Alliance and planning firm Vireo want to transform the 20-acre plot, dubbed the Palestine corridor, into a space that benefits the entire neighborhood. The project, still in the very early stages of planning, has initial support from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). But before they trim a single tree, the organizations want input from residents.

“The residents are the ones who are going to be able to access it the most. And then also the construction would be going on in their backyard,” says Heartland Conservation Alliance Project Manager Kristina Williams.

The project is one of dozens the organization would like to take on. Logan Heley, Executive Director of Heartland Conservation Alliance, says the Palestine corridor is one of an estimated 5,000 vacant lots in Kansas City. One of the reasons HCA got involved in restoring vacant lots is to transform lots that were under-resourced, due to the racist practices of redlining, into useful green spaces.

“We certainly take an environmental approach to things, but work with partners to also put that in context to what the neighborhood might need, in terms of housing and other quality of life benefits,” Heley says .

An aging neighborhood

The Palestine neighborhood was first established in 1922, when it was bought for $35,000 by Russell Land Company, according to a Kansas City Star article from that year. Residents of the neighborhood say many of the homes are passed down from generation to generation.

Today, the sidewalks and streets around the forest are broken and overgrown. Signs reading "No illegal dumping" are posted around the area, largely ignored.

An overgrown empty lot sits behind a cyclone fence in the background. In the foreground, two large stone blocks sit with a sign that reads "Smile, you are on camera."
Carlos Moreno
KCUR 89.3
The lot near 33rd Street and Myrtle Avenue is currently blocked off by wires and a crumbling fence along with a warning sign.

Ray Carroll has been tending to a large garden next to the corridor for 40 years and said he’d be ecstatic for the renovation. He says the wildlife that roams around wooded areas eats the crops in his garden.

This forest caught the eye of Heartland Conservation Alliance in 2014, when former HCA executive director Jill Erickson came across the 20-acre corridor in the Palestine East neighborhood.

A 2018 community survey showed the residents deeply cared for environmental issues. But the forest is overgrown. It quickly becomes inaccessible about 20 feet away from the entrance.

An inventory in 2019 revealed that while the trees were healthy, they were a non-native species that are prone to growing out of control.

Community input needed

Urban planner Triveece Penelton, who works with planning firm Vireo, has drafted two different concepts of what the area could look like in the future. One concept will have art, a farmers market, gathering spaces and playgrounds — services that advance the economy of the area. The other is more focused on preserving the ecosystem of the corridor, with things like bee boxes, open green space, compost and a community garden.

"We need to have community buy-in on the concepts before moving forward,” Penelton says.

A 20-member community advisory board, made up of residents, environmentalists and researchers has been tasked with surveying the community to decide which approach to take.

Board member Brett Creason, a bee farmer, is excited to increase the site’s biodiversity. But he is still concerned about what trees are going to be removed. If they are torn down, the trees would not have the same impact as the current ones in the corridor.

“It takes years, if not decades, you know, for trees to get to the size where they are, able to really make a difference,“ Creason says.

Marjorie MacGregor, a teacher at Pembroke Hill School, does not live in the neighborhood but was selected to be a board member. She was chosen because of her experience with scientific research on wildlife and the environment. She’s excited about this project but wants to make sure the intentions are clear to the residents of the neighborhood.

“There's a lot of distrust that the community has not really invested in our east side neighborhoods, “ MacGregor says. “And so people are leery of what the intentions are.”

Part of the challenge is simply spreading the word — MacGregor says that many residents are still unaware of the renovation and its details.

Residents will have a chance this week to provide input. A town hall meeting will be held on August 25 from 5:30-7:30 p.m. at Linwood YMCA, James B. Nutter, Sr. Community Center, 3800 Linwood Blvd, Kansas City, MO 64128.

Rachel Schnelle is an intern for KCUR 89.3. She is an alum of the Missouri School of Journalism.
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