Published March 8th, 2023 at 7:07 AM
The City Plan Commission narrowly endorsed an apartment project that would replace the Cultivate KC urban farm in Midtown despite protests it was breaking an agreement reached with community support in 2015.
Sustainable Development Partners is seeking an amendment to an earlier development plan to build a 100-unit, two-building project southeast of 38th Street and Warwick Boulevard for what it’s calling The Residences at Park 39.
Opponents said the developer’s original agreement when it purchased the property from the Kansas City School District in 2015 called for the renovation of the former Westport junior and high schools, and reserving part of the property for an urban farm.
“We need to stand strong as a community and protect the ecological, health and social investment that is Westport Common Farms,” said Taylor Ford, a community resident and urban agriculture advocate.
“When this developer bid for the school, it promised to give back to the community, counting Cultivate Kansas City as proof.”
But developer Chip Walsh of Sustainable Development Partners said the school district released his firm from that original agreement in 2019, allowing the developer to use the 16-acre property for any use except building another school.
“Cultivate (KC) has a lease entered into with our organization in 2017,” Walsh said. “That lease always allowed us a right to relocate and we are exercising that right … We are obligated under lease to pay for the cost of moving and we will honor that.”
The developer said several other locations have been identified for the approximately 1.25-acre Cultivate KC operation including one that’s about one-quarter mile from the existing site.
“We’re very hopeful that will come to fruition,” he said.
The proposed apartment development calls for a mix of studios, one- and two-bedroom apartments with monthly rents ranging from $1,100- to $2,000. An existing 103-space parking lot would serve the project.
The design of the two, three-story buildings was modified in response to neighborhood concerns and is now employing more brick and other materials to provide a warmer color.
Ami Freeberg, assistant director at Cultivate KC, opposed the apartment plan, noting her agricultural advocacy and education organization has invested time and effort to prepare the land to be productive.
It hosts hundreds of volunteers and students, teaching them about urban agriculture. Freeberg said the program fits well with the Kansas City Regional Climate Action Plan adopted recently by the City Council.
“This case presents an opportunity for the City Plan Commission to align your work with these important plans in our region by voting to support this valuable farm and urban agriculture resource in our city,” she said.
Walsh acknowledged the apartment project is a shift from the original plan for the Westport schools’ property. The overall development has now been rebranded Park 39 and includes the renovation of the former high school into 138 apartments.
The middle school was renovated as flexible office space in 2017 and is now called Plexpod Westport at Park 39. A decline in occupancy prompted by the COVID pandemic prompted the developers to seek a new use for the Cultivate KC property.
“We believe the additional residences will create added vibrancy and interaction and use of the commercial activities already invested,” Walsh said.
Plan commissioners were divided between those who believed the changed use violated the community agreement made in 2015 to redevelop the property, and others who said the school district’s later decision to revoke that plan made it moot.
“This feels like an ultimate bait and switch of using a secured community project and then changing it five years later because the school district is willing to sign off,” said Commissioner Tyler Enders.
“It’s clear that for those who support the farm and utilize the farm that they’re very passionate about the farm,” Walsh responded.
“They see it as a community asset. So do we. That doesn’t change the fact it’s a private lease on private land.”
A motion by Enders to deny the project was turned down 4-2, with Commissioner Bruce Allender joining him in opposition.
Commissioner Forestine Beasley observed: “We’re fighting a battle that’s not ours. We cannot change a decision the school district made. We have documents that show what they made. The community had a time they could have gone to the school board to fight for what they feel should happen.”
Beasley also noted the amendment change, which still must go to the full City Council for consideration, was preliminary and the developer would have to return to the City Plan Commission with final details.
“I don’t see why we hold up this to stop them from working with those involved to see what else they can come with,” she said.
The commission then voted to recommend approval for the project on a 4-2 vote with Beasley joining Commissioner Coby Crowl, Ashley Sadowski and Paul Rojas in the majority.
Flatland contributor Kevin Collison is the founder of CityScene KC, an online source for downtown news and issues.