(UPDATED Sept. 20: The City Plan Commission voted 5-1 to endorse landmark status for the 31st and Main properties. The proposed designation now goes to the full City Council for final review.)
By Kevin Collison
The owner of the historic Jeserich Building at 31st and Main, which the city wants declared a landmark, launched a charm offensive ahead of next weeks’s City Plan Commission review, but at least this Thursday tour group wasn’t buying.
“If you care about the character of this corner, it could easily be renovated into something that’s consistent to the neighborhood, the city and the streetcar corridor,” said Vicki Noteis, board president of Historic Kansas City.
“There’s no particular purpose he wants to put this to, it’s the oldest building on the street.”
Noteis was part of a group that took up developer Doug Price’s offer to tour the Jeserich Building, which was built in 1888 and its neighboring structures: the Ward Building (1905), 3035-37 Main, and a building at 3039 Main (1990).
The developer purchased the buildings, along with a property around the corner at 6-10 E. 31st St. in an auction sale five years ago, and set the preservation community in action when he announced he planned to demolish them.
The buildings had no local landmark status which would protect them, and in an unusual move, City Council members Katheryn Shields and Eric Bunch introduced an ordinance to have them declared landmarks without Price’s okay.
The only other time a building has been named a landmark without the owner’s cooperation was Union Station. In June, the Historic Preservation Commission endorsed the designation and this Tuesday, the City Plan Commission will review the request.
The Plan Commission’s recommendation will then go to the full City Council for final consideration.
In addition to Noteis, Price invited Lisa Briscoe, Historic KC executive director; Councilwoman Shields; Mary Jo Draper, Historic KC vice president, and several others for a walk through of the old buildings.
“I thought it was the right thing to do so the public could see the buildings,” Price said. “I’m a full disclosure guy.”
The Ward building still had counters remaining from its recent use as the Lufti’s Fried Fish, there even was a sign still posted seeking help. The middle building felt like a tacky 1990s design seminar and the old Jeserich’s three-floor interior had been remodeled for offices.
Throughout all the buildings, there was ample evidence thieves had been busy stealing metal to sell as scrap, even going up to the rooftop to gut the big air conditioners.
None of the tour members however, felt as though the buildings’ condition was beyond saving.
“Based upon being a historic preservationist, architect and planner, I’ve seen much worse,” Briscoe said.
But Price was adamant the old buildings were an obstacle to his grand plan for the corner. He wants to build a 30-story, 350-unit apartment tower that would overlook recreations of the historic buildings.
So why not keep the real things?
“In my opinion, most of the exteriors have been modified with commercial glazing, brick removal and the original limestone is falling down,” he said.
“There’s been enough modifications to the outside that nullifies some of the historic features and the inside has been completely gutted.”
The developer said a successful project at the corner also would have to be setback at least 6- to 8 feet to allow people to easily get on and off at the streetcar station planned for the corner.
Tom Gerend, executive director of the Kansas City Streetcar Authority, said that’s not the case.
“No setback of the building would be required to accommodate the streetcar platform,” he said in a statement. “The platform will extend into what is now street and was designed with existing buildings and setbacks in mind.”
Other problems Price cited was the challenge of removing street art from the buildings, “the soft brick can’t be power washed, it’ll deteriorate,” and the need to establish a new sewer easement.
As to when he would like to begin his proposed high-rise, Price said it would have to wait until the streetcar becomes operational in 2025.
“I have to see it and hear it,” he said.
The developer added he wouldn’t seek tax incentives for his proposal and would set aside at least 20 percent of the units as affordable housing. He was particularly proud his project would not include any parking.
“The amenity is the streetcar,” he said. “Cars are for old people, like Facebook. Cars aren’t on the radar for 23 year-olds. I’m not going after the 55 year-olds.”
As for what he’d do if the buildings are declared landmarks, a designation that would prohibit demolition for at least three years, Price was more reserved.
“I don’t have an answer,” he said.
Don’t miss any downtown news, sign up for our weekly CityScene KC email review here.