In this corner of Kansas City, it’s goodbye bungalows, hello $1 million modern manses

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George Hernandez’s mother, age 100 now, has lived in her home on Mercier Street in the West Plaza neighborhood for 54 years. When Paz Hernandez moved there in 1968, nearly every home around her was just like hers.

A tiny bungalow, two or three bedrooms, many built in the 1920s.

Not anymore. These days, across the West Plaza and nearby neighborhoods, a growing number of 100-year-old bungalows are disappearing, sold for $200,000 to $250,000, then razed. Rising in their place are cubical, multi-level modern homes and mini-mansions, some costing close to $1 million and others more. Their roof-top decks dwarf the bungalow neighbors below.

Hernandez’s mother’s bungalow is 1,100 square feet. Down the block, a 5,000-square-foot home is rising at the corner of Mercier and 48th Street: three stories, ceiling-to-floor windows, seven bedrooms. Sale price: $1.7 million. A 2,400-square-foot home across the street — two stories, three bedrooms, made of corrugated steel, wood, concrete, with a floating staircase and floors with see-through glass panels — was bought last year for $1.15 million.

Two blocks away, a line of six cubical homes that sold for $772,000 to $986,000 stand like a wall along the east side of Liberty Street. A single rental bungalow, flanked by Malibu-style homes, is squeezed between them. To the north, in the 4600 block of Terrace Street, a 3,950-square-foot built in 2020 towers above its bungalow neighbors. Jackson County value: $1.8 million.

It’s not that Hernandez, who drives daily from Overland Park to care for his mother, doesn’t understand the appeal of such striking homes, all within walking distance of the Country Club Plaza. Nor does he resent any of the new neighbors. One is hard-pressed to find anyone who does.

“Delightful,” bungalow owner Kathe Kaul said of one of her new “big house” neighbors, a couple returning to Kansas City from Chicago.

Kaul bought her Liberty Street bungalow in 2017 for about $100,000 at a time when many of the bungalow homes around her were primarily rentals on what she called “one of the more depressed streets in the West Plaza.” She recalled one bungalow being occupied by a hoarder. At another, an ambulance rescued a resident found overdosed on drugs on the front lawn.

“To think about the hovel that used to be in that space and what occupies it now is staggering,” Kaul said.

A two-bedroom, one-bath 1,024-square-foot bungalow built in 1931 is dwarfed by the new construction of a modern 5,000-square-foot home at the corner of 48th and Mercier streets in the West Plaza neighborhood of Kansas City. The new home under construction features three stories, ceiling to floor windows, seven bedrooms and a sales price of $1.7 million.
A two-bedroom, one-bath 1,024-square-foot bungalow built in 1931 is dwarfed by the new construction of a modern 5,000-square-foot home at the corner of 48th and Mercier streets in the West Plaza neighborhood of Kansas City. The new home under construction features three stories, ceiling to floor windows, seven bedrooms and a sales price of $1.7 million.

Just as some long-time residents love both the new houses and new neighbors, others have expressed mounting concerns over the sheer size and scale of what’s replacing the old bungalows.

“What I don’t like about this change,” Hernandez said, “is that they’re just putting up a bunch of things that go straight up in the air.”

Fran and Chris Ryan stared up at the houses on a recent stroll through the West Plaza. They’ve lived in their bungalow on Terrace Street for 27 years. She’s a Ph.D. psychotherapist; he’s a writer.

“It’s just sad to see,” Fran Ryan said. “Beautiful old houses being torn down. These houses are beautiful, too,” she said of the modern homes, “but it’s changing the nature of the neighborhood.”

Chris Ryan predicted that in five to 10 years, “there won’t be a lot of these bungalows left.”

Exploring a solution

Just to the south of the West Plaza is the 72-acre Westwood Park neighborhood of some 300 Revival, Prairie and Craftsman-style homes built mostly between 1916 and 1930. It includes some bungalows. One— Spanish-styled and painted pink — was torn down to erect a 3,300-square-foot, multi-level home that sold for $1.2 million.

The new home, built and bought in 2020, now towers nearly twice the height of the bungalow to its south.

“It just dwarfs the house,” said Margaret Smith, an architect and member of the board of the Westwood Park Homes Association.

Built in 2020, the 3,300-square-foot home near 50th and Wyoming streets replaced a Spanish-style bungalow and sold for $1.2 million. Westwood Park Homes Association is now looking to perhaps control just how how big some homes can be.
Built in 2020, the 3,300-square-foot home near 50th and Wyoming streets replaced a Spanish-style bungalow and sold for $1.2 million. Westwood Park Homes Association is now looking to perhaps control just how how big some homes can be.

Indeed, the scale and number of such houses in the nearby West Plaza — plus a few such homes in its own neighborhood — was enough that, starting last year, the Westwood Park Homes Association began doing research, looking at ways to work with the city to set stricter rules for construction. One possibility, still being examined, would be to designate Westwood Park as a Neighborhood Conservation Overlay District.

An overlay district essentially is an area in the city that, through a special ordinance, is effectively rezoned. It is given a new set of design and construction codes that are different, often stricter, than what the city required before.

They are rare. The Kansas City Planning & Development Department lists only five created since 2015, four of which are in largely commercial areas: the Troost Corridor (designated in 2015), Independence Avenue (2016), the Main Street Corridor (2018) and the Country Club Plaza “bowl” (2019).

Nor are they easy to get passed, requiring just over 50% of property owners in a residential area to sign a petition saying they desire the added rules, which can include whatever the neighborhood agrees on: maximum roof heights, front setbacks, side setbacks, fencing heights, housing construction materials, porches, how much of a front lawn can be taken up by, say, a concrete driveway.

In the West Plaza and in Westwood Park, a number of the newer homes have little to no front lawns, just driveway.

“It’s a balancing act,” Smith said. “You don’t want to be a design police. But, you know, if you’ve moved into and chosen this neighborhood because it’s a good location — you like the way it feels — don’t destroy it by some insensitive, over-sized monster house.”

Another neighborhood’s success

In 2017, the Wornall Homestead neighborhood, located east of Wornall Road between 57th Street and the Brookside shops on 63rd Street, became an overlay district. The initial impetus was a modern home built on the 5700 block of Wornall Road, sometimes known as “the butterfly house,” because of its wing-shaped roof.

The problem wasn’t the modern design, but the fact that the front of the house — although adhering fully to the city’s setback code — jutted out in front of its neighbors who lived in their older J.C. Nichols-built homes. Those homes were built farther back.

“When you drive down the street, you see the old houses. Then you see this new one. It sticks out. The setback of the house shocked some people,” recalled neighborhood association board member Eric Youngberg.

That same year, another homeowner on Huntington Street erected a garage just yards from the sidewalk. It, too, was allowed by existing city code. But it also stuck out, blocking the long view down the tree-lined street.

“Neighbors were furious,” Youngberg said.

Aided by long-time Wornall Homestead residents such as Sandy Eeds, a former architect and principal with Populous, and Larry Stice, a retired planner with the city’s planning department, the residents created an overlay plan for new construction or outside additions. They held a dozen neighborhood meetings for ideas and walked door-to-door gathering petition signatures.

Because the overlay is now an official ordinance, it is up to the city to enforce the codes, not the neighborhood association, relieving neighbors and the association from the sometimes contentious role of policing neighbors’ construction projects.

“People were worried that the HOA would have some undue say,” Stice said. “We released those powers.”

In Wornall Homestead, the overlay ordinance doesn’t dictate design of new construction. Modern and traditional are both welcome.

“We’re not trying to hold back the hands of time,” Stice said.

The overlay is merely trying to keep construction from going haywire, far beyond the neighborhood’s traditional standards, and not fitting in. To that end, its overlay ordinance says that the peaks of houses must remain where they are, at no more than 35 feet. A single lot cannot be bigger than 12,000 square feet, meaning two big lots cannot be combined to create one massive house. No carving out an entire front lawn and concreting it in as a driveway. No metal “cargo” homes. The rules go on.

“We want a consistent inconsistency,” Eeds said. “I mean we like the fact that there’s variety. That’s why we say we kind of wanted to just freeze things in that kind of framework.”

The fact that modern, mini-mansions are allowed to replace or rise next to bungalows in Kansas City may seem surprising. Diane Binckley, deputy director of the Kansas City City Planning & Development Department, says that city zoning allows it.

Residential roof heights, for example, are typically set at no greater than 35 feet. In West Plaza, the issue isn’t that the new buildings are too tall, or take up too much room. It’s that old, tiny bungalows are just smaller than are allowed.

“If we have issued a permit, and they’ve constructed it from the permit and we’ve inspected it, then it’s OK,” Binckley said. “I will tell you. I get it. If you have a small bungalow, then next door they build up to the maximum of what zoning code allows for, well, that small bungalow wasn’t even close to what the code allowed for. It was just the style of architecture at the time.

“Now people are just building to what the maximum is.”

St. Luke’s development

Just west of St. Luke’s Hospital, in the Plaza Heights neighborhood, numerous bungalows and other older homes have been demolished, too — replaced by what soon will be the last of 30 high-end single-family homes that line three blocks between Corbin Terrace and W. 45th Street.

Two of the final three houses still under construction went up in flames on Sunday by a suspected arson. They will be rebuilt. Nearly all 30 have been sold. Price tag for each: $700,000-plus.

Unlike the towering homes in the West Plaza, the three-bedroom, three-bath homes in Plaza Heights are smaller at about 1,900 to 2,000 square feet and were purposely designed to fit into the neighborhood. Their roofs barely rise above existing bungalows.

“(We) were trying to create a product that kept the character of the neighborhood and didn’t fight with what’s in front of you,” Matthew Hanson, director of real estate for the St. Luke’s Health System, said on a recent tour of the neighborhood.

St. Luke’s has been developing the area over many years. In 1998, Country Club Plaza developer Miller Nichols gifted the nonprofit St. Luke’s Foundation with 93 properties north of the Plaza through the Miller Nichols Charitable Trust Foundation and The Miller Nichols Living Trust.

The hospital foundation formed Westport Today, LLC., a for-profit subsidiary, and over the next 20 years, renovated, sold and developed the properties. Construction on the 30 single-family homes began in 2018, after what were sometimes heated talks with existing neighbors.

Judy Perry, a longtime resident on Corbin Terrace in the Plaza Heights neighborhood, is unhappy with the constant construction on her block. Perry favors rehabbing the older homes.
Judy Perry, a longtime resident on Corbin Terrace in the Plaza Heights neighborhood, is unhappy with the constant construction on her block. Perry favors rehabbing the older homes.

Judy Perry, the former executive director of Harvesters, the community food bank, has lived in a home on Corbin Terrace with her husband for 42 years.

“We’re unhappy,” she said. “We fought it for years. We fought it. ... We lost some neighbors. Good neighbors. I just hate to see the history of this area torn down.”

Many of the bungalows, Perry said, were rentals, run by St. Luke’s and, in her opinion, allowed to deteriorate so the homes could be razed and redeveloped. She wishes St. Luke’s had renovated some of the old houses instead, and put in smaller, more affordable houses in place of those that could not be renovated.

“Have you seen the houses on that street?” she asked, pointing north to 44th Street. “They’re all bungalows for all practical purposes. I hear they’re all going to be torn down, too.”

Jim Glasgow, meantime, is a fan of the new homes. Soon to turn 85, he’s lived on Corbin for 42 years. His is one of the only bungalows left.

“They’re better than they were before,” he said of the new houses. His only worry is the likelihood that his taxes will rise.

‘Neighborhoods change’

David Sine and his wife, Edie, moved into one of the new West Plaza homes, bought for $842,000, in 2019.

“The coolest thing about this block is the neighborhood,” said Sine, who came from Chicago to chair the Department of Biomedical Ethics at Kansas City University. Two new modern homes have already risen since they moved in, he said.

“What I think is going to happen in the next 10 years is what’s going to happen in the next 10 years to all neighborhoods,” he said. “It’s going to evolve. All neighborhoods are organic and they change over time. That’s just the way things evolve.”

But he does not think all the smaller homes in his neighborhood will necessarily go away.

“Some houses will. Some houses won’t,” he said. “Neighborhoods change.”

Traditional bungalows built in 1915, center, and 1903, right, are being torn down in the West Plaza neighborhood and replaced with large, multi-story modern homes.
Traditional bungalows built in 1915, center, and 1903, right, are being torn down in the West Plaza neighborhood and replaced with large, multi-story modern homes.

Adriana Stroh and her physician husband, Brandon, who got an offer at Children’s Mercy Hospital, bought their home on Liberty Street in 2019 as it was being built and COVID-19 was burgeoning.

Cost: $825,000. They came from Branson, and Houston before that. He has since taken a job in Oregon. Adriana Stroh was in the midst of packing up the house.

“We’re going to put the house up on Airbnb,” she said, “but we’re still going to keep it as ours, because we come back often.”

Neighbors, she said, have been friendly and welcoming, except for an initial message on social media decrying what someone called her “big box” house.

“I would love to see a lot of the older, original homes still here, the ones that look great, and mix it up with newer homes,” she said of the neighborhood’s future. “I’d love to see different sizes of homes. I wouldn’t want them all to be three stories, two stories. Keep the old and bring in the new. Both can happen.”

Mike Duff, president of Truog Real Estate, which owns multiple rental properties in the West Plaza area, has, at least at this point, no intention of selling to developers looking to tear down in order to raise giant homes.

“I hope they do not disappear,” Duff said of the smaller homes. “I’d prefer to sell to an owner-occupier than to a developer because I don’t want them to disappear.”

Over on Mercier Street, Mark Reichter, who moved into his modern home in September — third owner since it was built in 2016; price $1.15 million — has a different sense of the future. A 20-year Kansas City resident, he’s a mortgage broker.

“I wanted a modern home. I wanted to be close the Plaza, close to work. It really worked out great,” he said. “It’s got a great rooftop view. It overlooks the Plaza.”

His crystal ball prediction for the coming decade:

“Most of them will be torn down and modern,” he said of the smaller homes. “I think you’ll see some of the people hold on. Definitely in the next 15 (years), you’ll see it all.”