Controversy Over Diocese Housing Plan Continues After Kansas City Council Puts Off Vote | KCUR

Controversy Over Diocese Housing Plan Continues After Kansas City Council Puts Off Vote

Jul 27, 2015

A final Kansas City Council decision regarding a proposed Catholic student housing project located at 53rd and Troost Avenue was expected last week.

But instead, the council deferred the decision, suggesting the groups work more to resolve the conflict through mediation.

The proposed 237-bedroom dorm pits members of the surrounding neighborhoods and St. Francis Xavier Parish against the Catholic Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph. The building would be built just next to the church on the site of a former elementary school that is now vacant, which is owned by the diocese. 

Members of the parish and several neighborhood organizations worry about the proposed high rent of the dorm rooms, and say there are organizations interested in renting the existing school building.

But parking is the biggest issue by far, says Vincent Gauthier, a St. Francis Xavier parish member and an urban planner.

"We would have 75 parking spaces allocated for our church in a church that holds 900 people," says Gauthier.

Gauthier feels the diocese doesn’t care how the proposed building would affect the parish and surrounding neighborhood.

“The planning commission, all three times over the last three years that they’ve seen an iteration of this project, have rejected it unanimously. There is nearly unanimous opposition to this project from civic groups, neighborhood groups and institutions in the area,” Gauthier says.

Rockhurst University and UMKC have stated they do not support the plan, but they have largely stayed out of the conversation.  The building would be student housing, but the project is unaffiliated with either university. Representatives from the universities say they have not heard from students that are interested in living in the dorm.

Sean Kane, a parish member of St. Francis Xavier, graduated from Rockhurst in 2015.  He thinks Rockhurst’s status as a Catholic university makes a separate Catholic dorm unnecessary.

“We don’t need it," says Kane. "Making it another closed off, separate institution, that is saying to the neighborhood, ‘we don’t really want to talk to you because you are not like us.'"

Some Rockhurst students are worried that more conservative students living on campus would choose instead to live in what the diocese is calling "faith-based" housing across the street. Students say that could cut into the money Rockhurst earns from housing, which in turn supports programs at the university.

Parish members are also concerned a change in demographics could change the culture of St. Francis Xavier. 

"For one thing, St. Francis has been the big place for dissenters and people who have been marginalized — like the LGBT community. It has been the one place where we can go to Mass freely and respectfully. It's sort of how, if you want to control voting, you bring in voters who agree with you," says Kane.

Diocese representatives say that the housing plan is the most affordable option available, and they say it’s not financially feasible to renovate the elementary school.

Ferdinand Niemann, an attorney for the diocese, declined a request for an interview, but said in an email that the Kansas City council’s decision not to vote was unexpected. He says the diocese is reviewing next steps and potential actions for the project, which could include mediation.

Vincent Gauthier says he is confident that if the two groups can work together a mutually beneficial agreement can be reached.

“I’ve been with this parish for 18 years. I’ve never seen a bad relationship, necessarily, between the parish and the diocese," says Gauthier. "Does that mean everybody always agrees? Of course not. But there has never been any reason — until this particular project came up — to think there was any issue between the two."

If the two groups can not reach an agreement by the beginning of August, the Kansas City Council (which will have nine new members) will vote on the existing plan sometime later in the month.