In 2010, Kansas City Public Schools closed nearly 30 schools, mostly because of declining enrollment and a budget deficit. Some of these buildings are still in limbo, and others have been sold, leased, or mothballed for future use.
At the former Westport Middle School at 200 E. 39th Street, classrooms, where students used to work on projects, are now co-working spaces for entrepreneurs.
"A lot of this, the collaborative work environment, I actually discovered [it] by accident in Antarctica," says architect Bob Berkebile, a principal emeritus at BNIM.
In the early 1990s, Berkebile was invited by the National Science Foundation to visit McMurdo Station in Antarctica. The research center had just gotten some tech upgrades. But, with budget constraints, a handful of departments had to consolidate computer labs into one shared space.
"I arrived a year later and there’d been seven major breakthroughs that year, all of which occurred in the computer lab," Berkebile says with a laugh. He adds that it wasn't the computers but the diversity of the people in the labs at the same time.
"So a microbiologist is sitting next to a geologist, next to a physicist, and all of a sudden interesting conversations are taking place," he says, "and breakthroughs are occurring and a lot of those resulted in major shifts."
Berkebile took this lesson to heart. And, over the next 25 years, BNIM designed spaces for collaboration — including ones inside the former Westport Middle School.
On a recent weekday, two 20-somethings were taking a break, playing ping pong near the entrance to the annex. This addition to the original 1923 school was built in 1992. There's a row of small conference rooms, in alternating colors and styles, from more traditional seating to lounge chairs, as well as cafe booths and open desks.
Now called Plexpod Westport Commons, it’s a co-working space for startups, non-profits and freelancers.
"And the space we’re in was a very dark library. All this light you see, we’ve inserted it. So that big wall of glass was not there," describes Berkebile. "Now, it's much more open, not only to the outside but to the rest of the campus. So it creates a much stronger connection."
Kansas City Sustainable Development Partners (SDP), with Berkebile as one of the partners, first presented plans nearly five years ago to develop two vacant schools: Westport Middle and Westport High School.
It was a competitive process, with lots of community input — and the proposal won over the neighbors and the school board. The middle school marks the first phase of the project.
Gerald Smith, founder of CEO of Plexpod, was recruited as a partner shortly after the former middle school was purchased. Smith was looking to replicate the success of his co-working space in Lenexa, Kansas. He says he’s seen a lot of growth in entrepreneurship in Kansas City.
"I see a lot of comparisons with Silicon Valley or Austin or Boulder or these types of places," Smith says, "and that’s great, but the opportunity we have here is really to come into our own."
In the Kansas City metro area, about a dozen co-working spaces now stretch from North Kansas City to Lee’s Summit. Smith says, across the country, there's a changing workforce with more independent, freelance and contract workers.
"But what the data has proven to us," says Smith, "if those startups and entrepreneurs find a place to connect with other entrepreneurs, that’s the secret sauce."
John Fein is setting up his new business, Firebrand Ventures, at Plexpod Westport Commons. It’s an investment fund with a focus on capital for early-stage startups. For now, it's a one-man shop.
He says his goal is to "really trying to redefine what a Midwest investor is, and hopefully, having a positive connotation with that term. Not just accessible, but responsive as well."
Fein managed the TechStars program for the Sprint Accelerator for three years. And he’ll take on a similar role here: creating talks, panels and workshops to bring entrepreneurs together. Fein views this location as a critical step for Kansas City's entrepreneurial community.
"Every successful startup community in this country has one thing in common and that’s a hub," he says. "Density is really important."
On a recent tour, Plexpod's Gerald Smith walks through the 1923 building. "We've kept most of the lockers, just part of the historic vibe," he says.
Many blackboards still line the classroom walls, but the rooms, with tall windows and lots of natural light, have been converted into dedicated workspaces, or meeting rooms and open desks, or commons area.
Smith says they've been careful to preserve historic features, mixed with new amenities.
"It's just the way it was in 1923 - 1924, except for the modern lighting," he says as he looks down a hallway and then points to the staircase. "Check out the Carthage marble, the cast iron railings and wooden balustrades."
He adds, "Lots of history here."
"Someone can walk in, and they know immediately it was a school," says Berkebile. "So it's this juxtaposition of the new use and the new technology inserted into a beautiful historic structure and celebrating that transition."
People have already started working at Plexpod Westport Commons. And, over the next few months, three more floors and a coffee shop will add space and more people to the mix. Smith anticipates as many as 400 to 500 members will set up shop in the former middle school.
Laura Spencer is an arts reporter at KCUR 89.3. You can reach her on Twitter at @lauraspencer.