Mending Our Broken Heart: Code System Hinders Growth, Builders Say

Kansas City officials say they have improved the inspection system in response to developers' complaints. (Photo from "Downtown KC: Mending Our Broken Heart" series courtesy The Kansas City Star

“Downtown KC: Mending Our Broken Heart,” was a groundbreaking series originally published by The Kansas City Star 20 years ago this month.

It was written by former staffers Jeffrey Spivak, Kevin Collison and Steve Paul, with photographs by Rich Suggs. It was edited by former deputy national editor Keith Chrostowski.

CityScene KC thanks The Kansas City Star and Mike Fannin, its president and editor, for granting permission to republish this report.

While The Star retained the text of “Mending Our Broken Heart,” the original photos and graphics were unavailable. Photos of that missing material from a reprint of the series were used as much as possible.

Dana Gibson is addicted to building downtown lofts, delighted to see how they’ve transformed the River Market into an urban village.

But when you ask the gentle bear of a developer about City Hall, particularly building code inspectors, he growls:

“There’s not a get-it-done attitude that’s instilled in people … . It would be so wonderful to have a fully cooperative partnership with the city rather than what appears to be an uphill battle in so many cases.”

A confusing application process, department disagreements that can mean costly changes at job sites and a shortsighted perspective make it a pain to do business with the city, developers say.

They add that more developers – even national developers – would come downtown and build housing if the planning and inspection system were not so burdensome.

“I know people in this city that will not build in Kansas City, Missouri, will not have anything to do with Kansas City, Missouri,” said developer Tom Trabon. “Not because they don’t like the city, it’s because they think it’s too difficult, too much trouble.”

City officials say they’ve gotten the message. A new computerized system lets developers track the process from the time building plans are reviewed to the final occupancy permit, and the city promises speedier responses.

It also has adopted the International Building Code and the Uniform Code for Building Conservation, regulations with a progressive approach to setting standards for the safe renovation of older buildings.

“There was no question we felt there was room for improvement. It’s an ongoing process … people will tell you now it’s better than before,” said Robert Langenkamp, assistant director for economic development.

“The people reviewing plans and enforcing codes have a job to make sure public safety is provided for,” he added.

Developers acknowledge that things have improved but say exasperating problems remain, noting that even the best codes are subject to interpretation. Last-minute objections by finicky inspectors can lead to expensive delays.

They point to some recent horror stories:

Gibson had gone through all the city reviews and was about to open a River Market loft project when, out of the blue, a codes inspector told him to replace all 27 doors on the building.

Matt Abbott’s reward for want-ing to renovate the old Law Building, a downtown eyesore for 20 years, was to be slapped with a city lawsuit that had been brought against the previous owner.

Roger Buford had to buy a one-story structure next to a midrise building he was redeveloping into lofts so he could cut windows in its blank side for tenants.

Why? Because the city code wouldn’t allow the new windows unless the owner next door promised he would never build a taller structure close enough that a fire could spread to it.

The neighboring owner balked at such an onerous pledge and Buford had to buy him out. The code did not allow less expensive solutions, he said.

Brad Nicholson, who has converted into housing several buildings in the Crossroads area, said departments inside City Hall often fail to communicate with one another.

“I can think of five jobs in the last two years where the plans are approved, we’ve built the darn thing and we go to get a certificate of occupancy and somebody says, ‘You know what, this staircase doesn’t work,’ ” he said.

“There’s been 20 inspectors through the building and now our staircase doesn’t work … when you have these kinds of things happening not once, but hundreds of times, that’s a challenge.”

Dana Gibson at Artspace in the River Market, the first building he and Mel Mallin redeveloped in 1984.

Barry Archer, director of codes administration, said it’s not easy to examine a blueprint and anticipate what might not work. “Plans reviewers can’t catch everything. Plans are complex, particularly in an existing building.”

Working with the city is such a hassle that just a few brave developers have been doing housing projects. Odd as it sounds, they would like more company.

“Everybody says you guys are the only guys that have it figured out, you ought to be happy nobody is competing with you,” said developer George Birt.
“But having four or five guys doing everything, in the long run that’s not good. You need to engage more people in building a marketplace.”

Abbott, a newcomer to Kansas City, went where no local developers would go, and now he’s fighting City Hall.

Earlier this year, the 29-year-old entrepreneur came from Illinois and bought the Law Building, an eight-story poster child of urban rot at the corner of 12th Street and Grand Boulevard.

City officials and downtown property owners have long lamented its condition. Its previous owner, Robert A. Lipson of Palm Desert, Calif., had allowed the 1929 landmark to deteriorate for 20 years.

Finally, the city sued Lipson two years ago. The suit apparently prompted Lipson to sell, but then the city sued Abbott for the neglect piled up by his predecessor.

“I was surprised,” Abbott said. “Having to spend money on attorneys was a little bit ridiculous. They should have given us an opportunity or put it off, not named us immediately.”

At a time when he was trying to prepare plans, pursue financing and hire contractors, Abbott also had to satisfy a list of demands from city lawyers to prove he was legitimate.

“The second day we owned the building, the city attorney said this is what you have to do, otherwise we take you to court,” he said.

Downtown developers say you really have to love the work because there are easier ways to make money.

“Let’s say some guy wants to open up the best French bakery in town,” Gibson said. “By the time he goes to the city and talks about what he wants to do there’s no way he’s going to develop.

“He’s so overwhelmed with all the bureaucracy and red tape. And these people are not total neophytes. They’ve developed in other cities.”

Archer said his 25 construction inspectors are required to go through a rigorous certification process. About half have an academic background in engineering or architecture.

Salaries range from $32,400 to $49,200, and Archer said he routinely loses senior staff to other cities.

“These are dedicated people who take their job seriously,” he said.

But at the end of the day, developers say, city employees need to broaden their perspective and understand how vital their work is to the prosperity of the city.

Said Nicholson: “We’ve got vision and we’re willing to stick our neck on the line, but these people maybe have more control about how our city is developed than us.”

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