On Kansas City’s rapidly changing Westside, a new development project raises concerns

·11 min read

Kathy Tinoco and her brother Rafael Cervantes regret not buying the vacant lot themselves.

On the southeast corner of West 29th Street and Belleview Avenue, across the street from their family home of more than five decades, sits a small plot of land filled with trees and shrubbery.

The land they used to play on as kids, making forts and pretending to mountain climb up the hill’s steep face, is now the proposed site of a multi-unit development that’s struck a nerve with some residents in the quiet corner of the Sacred Heart Westside neighborhood, including Tinoco and Cervantes.

While the developer has changed original plans in response to some of the neighbors’ requests, the project sheds light on tension felt by many residents of the historically Hispanic neighborhood as million dollar homes increasingly replace more affordable housing in the little enclave west of downtown.

“I guess I cannot blame people for seeing an opportunity and turning it around for their benefit,” Tinoco, 55, said. “But...they’re benefiting more than the neighborhood.”

If it was up to her, the land would be better suited as a park.

The townhome project hasn’t been as controversial as a nearby 48-unit apartment complex that is underway. Despite widespread neighborhood opposition, the City Council approved plans from developer Paul Nagaoka for an unusual development of small apartments built out of steel shipping containers.

Both projects are evidence of the opportunities developers see in the Westside, which sits in close proximity to downtown, the Crossroads Arts District and Midtown. And both developments have fed into long-simmering fears of longtime residents being pushed out.

Following the Mexican Revolution of 1910, immigrants began fleeing Mexico for economic opportunity across the U.S. border. Many of those who traveled as far north as Kansas City settled in the Westside, where they found work in factories and packing houses.

The area retains much of its cultural identity but has been facing a tidal wave of change as the frenzied real estate market drives up the prices of existing homes, new residents build pricey modern homes overlooking the downtown skyline and developers put more projects on the drawing board.

The area was hit hard in 2019 when Jackson County attempted to make up for years of under-valuing residential properties and exponentially raised property assessments. Some longtime homeowners in the Westside saw their county-assessed property values increase by more than 400%.

Many homeowners were able to protest their skyrocketing assessments, but even those who stayed fear it’s only a matter of time before they are priced out of the area.

The 64108 Zip code, which includes the Westside, parts of Midtown and the Crossroads, has seen home values increase by nearly 40% over the last five years, according to data provided by Zillow. In April, the typical home price for that Zip code topped $270,000.

Census figures show the median family income in the 64108 Zip code is about $51,400 — about three-quarters of the Kansas City metro median income of $66,600.

So when Cervantes, 44, received a notice of the townhome development in the mail in February, he was concerned. He shared it with his sister.

“We were pretty much in a tizzy,” Tinoco said.

‘Our neighborhood is not a novelty’

When the brother and sister found out about the project, they had a lot of questions: How much would the units cost? Who would manage the property? Would taxes in the area go up?

When they didn’t get satisfactory answers, Tinoco took up a grassroots campaign demanding them.

She rallied residents in late February. About 15 community members showed up on the snowy corner of Belleview in front of the project site, gloved hands wrapped around handmade signs.

Our neighborhood is not a novelty.”

“Not for sale.”

“No higher taxes.”

Tinoco and others printed flyers with information on the project, taking them door to door. By April, a petition she created to stop the development had about 300 signatures online, and another 80 written by hand. Many expressed the same urgency.

“I’m a lifelong resident of the WESTSIDE community and I’m very concerned about these developers coming into our community and raising our property taxes,” one person wrote. “We are in a fixed income and cannot afford to get our taxes increased.”

Tinoco heard from Westsiders who, like her brother, are constantly barraged by calls, letters and people knocking on their doors asking to buy their homes, many of which had been in the family for decades.

Cervantes inherited his home on Belleview from his parents, Mexican immigrants who died about a decade ago. He said the home is a family heirloom that he refuses to give up, regardless of asking price.

He described the block as a quiet one, nestled away from the bustle of the surrounding area. But he worries that as soon as one development comes in, more will follow.

As he sat on his porch last week, he eyed a shuttered factory down the street, behind the vacant lot. Though he admits it’s a bit of an eyesore, he’s wary someone will soon try to turn it into apartments.

And as more developments come in, he said, older generations of Westsiders on fixed incomes won’t be able to afford to stay. It’s happened already, he said. As a “brown boy from the Westside,” he’s proud of the neighborhood and worries about further erosion of the area’s historic Hispanic identity.

“We have just been run over by people coming into our neighborhoods wanting to purchase houses,” Tinoco said. “We want them to consider us, and not do things in spite of us.”

‘A community-oriented project’

While the shipping container project was opposed by many neighbors and the Hispanic Economic Development Corporation, that group has been working with Exact Partners to help shape its Westside plans for more than a year.

Exact Partners originally envisioned rental units for its project, but changed course and now plans to sell its nine townhomes, said Bob Mayer, a partner at the architecture and development firm. He’s aware of some of the opposition, but said he’s worked with neighbors to add curbs and sidewalks and ensure that each unit has adequate off-street parking.

“We’ve agreed to listen and try to accommodate. But everybody has their different opinions,” he said. “And I think a lot of it has precipitated because of the storage container project.”

Tyler Asby, an architect working with Exact Partners on the project, said during a recent meeting with neighbors that since its conception in 2016, the project has evolved to address the feedback of residents.

Asby said the plan isn’t as dense as it could be, since they could have added a few more townhouses given the space.

Mayer said he understands the concerns of the neighborhood: his wife’s family grew up on the Westside and has seen it change in recent decades.

“We don’t want this to be harmful to the Westside community. We want it to enhance the community and the easy way to do that is by attracting families.

“We have a completely different approach,” he added. “This is much more of a community oriented project.”

Exact Partners is talking with city officials about gearing the Westside townhomes toward lower-income and possibly first-time homebuyers. Mayer said the firm would work with the Hispanic Economic Development Corporation on program rules, but he hopes to see Hispanic families purchase some units, whether they are seniors who want to stay in the area or younger families buying property for the first time.

“We’re not interested in a bidding war. We’re not interested in high end people coming in there,” he said. “We’re going to work with the city and the HEDC to make sure people that come in are worthy of being in the homes.”

Mayer expects the townhomes to list for about $240,000 each. The company is seeking a 10-year property tax abatement through the Land Clearance for Redevelopment Authority, one of Kansas City’s incentive-granting agencies.

“Those benefits will go to the people that buy these,” he said, “not to us personally.”

‘A persistent poverty neighborhood’

The proposal for the townhomes is set to go before the City Planning Commission on Tuesday. It will then go to the City Council for approval.

During a Zoom meeting last week with Exact Partners and the HEDC, about a dozen people joined the call, peppering the architect with questions through a chat box. While Asby, of Exact Partners, asked primarily for feedback on the design — colors, window and door placement — he was given opinions about anything but.

Questions ranged from concerns about mosquitoes in the stormwater management system to worries about Airbnb rentals to questions about parking on their portion of Belleview Avenue, which is tucked into a corner with Interstate 35 to the north and Southwest Trafficway to the east.

“What consideration is given to the elderly in the area for their property taxes?” one person asked. “This is gentrification designed to drive out long term residents.”

Pedro Zamora, executive director of the Hispanic Economic Development Corp., said simply, “It’s not.”

“Families care about the property. Renters don’t. We want neighbors not strangers,” someone else said.

Zamora said developers are looking to encourage homeowners, not renters.

The HEDC is pushing the city to approve a plan that would grant tax abatements in the neighborhood for homeowners who make repairs on their homes. That aims at both improving the area and keeping current residents in place.

“We know what we saw in 2019 with Jackson County taxes, it was very not fair for the residents of this neighborhood,” he said at the meeting. “We also know that 2022 and 2023 could be potentially hazardous if we don’t get ahead of the curve.”

Zamora said that Jackson County can raise taxes by at least 15% each year. So his organization hopes the abatements could help soften that blow.

Disagreements also arose over the use of the phrase “blighted” in reference to both the vacant land and the surrounding block. A designation of blight is often a prerequisite for development projects seeking tax incentives.

Zamora pointed to census data, which he said marks the area as “a persistent poverty neighborhood.”

“It is defined as a blighted area so let’s not get offended by that,” Zamora said. “I mean we’ve gone way too long by seeing developers come in and claim it blighted and get what they want. If you’re gonna sit here and tell me it’s not a blighted community, let’s talk about the jobs that aren’t around, let’s talk about the availability of public services that aren’t around.”

Some say change is inevitable

The Westside Neighborhood Association Facebook page has curated a recent collection of posts about proposed developments up and down the Westside, but mostly concentrated on the northwest side.

Homes proposed on West 20th Street and Summit Street. West 18th Street and Jefferson Street. West 18th Street and Mercier Place.

For Tinoco, Cervantes and many others, it comes down to a fear of watching the Westside turn from a historically vibrant Hispanic community to a wealthy gentrified community.

At a July 2020 committee meeting where City Council members debated the shipping container project, Councilman Dan Fowler, who represents a Northland district, said he understood the neighborhood didn’t want to see major changes.

“But I’m sorry, if it doesn’t happen now, it will happen next year or in 10 years or in 50 years,” he said. “It’s not going to stay the same. There’s nothing you can do to make it stay the same.”

Two years ago, Charles Lona raised alarms as the county’s property tax increase hit he and his neighbors in the Westside.

“I’ve lived here all my life and it has changed a lot,” he said. “Property values have gone up and we’re being pushed out. It’s kind of a sad story.”

Lona has heard from neighbors who oppose the townhome project and those who support it. He hadn’t made up his mind last week but said he liked the idea of working with the HEDC to find families to purchase the units.

“That sounds like the kind of program we need. They have to be tilted to families,” he said. “Otherwise, it’s just going to be an area for the affluent folks that are coming in. That’s not really what the native people that are here want.”

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