Fire By Downtown Freeway Latest Flare-up in MoDOT’s Trash Problem

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A fire recently broke out in a homeless encampment located in MoDOT right-of-way along I-35 behind a building owned by developer Ken Wolf. (Image courtesy Ken Wolf)

By Kevin Collison

The Crossroad district’s frustration with MoDOT’s inability to care for its property, including a recent fire, is the latest flashpoint over the agency’s shortcomings maintaining the downtown freeway right-of-way.

“MoDOT is either non-responsive or takes no action,” said Suzie Aron, a past president of of the Crossroads Community Association.

“All of us have to clean up the trash. It’s a constant cost to the neighborhood, both financially and psychologically.”

The latest flare-up occurred when a homeless encampment next to Interstate 35 caught fire behind a building being redeveloped at 1656 Washington St. The fire occurred about a week ago, one of several over the past few months.

Ken Wolf, the property owner, has asked the Missouri Department of Transportation to either repair the fence where people have been trespassing, or allow him to buy the property and maintain it himself.

“I don’t know why they won’t sell it to me, they don’t maintain it,” Wolf said.

Anyone driving on the downtown freeway loop, as well as other state highways in the city, can see the debris and weeds that have accumulated in the rights-of-way, plugging drainage outlets and contributing to blight.

Ken Wolf said he’s been asking MoDOT to repair this fence behind his property since last spring.

Last March, the Downtown Council was so frustrated with MoDOT’s failure to remove piles of trash along the freeway beneath Bartle Hall it did the work itself with the help of eight people working off their community service hours.

MoDOT did provide trucks to haul it away the trash and promised to erect fencing to keep people out from beneath the convention center. So far, that work has not been done.

In an email statement, a MoDOT spokesperson said her agency is not equipped to deal with the debris caused by homeless people.

“MoDOT gets a lot of calls to clean up these camps, and the vandalism and litter caused,” said Brooke L. Rohlfing. “In the downtown urban area alone, it is estimated there are at least 70-80 camps.

“However, MoDOT is not law enforcement so we cannot do anything about the people who deposit the trash. We can’t clean up the litter until camps are vacant. Anything besides trash removal is a law enforcement issue.”

Wolf said when he first complained about the broken fence last spring, he was told the Covid pandemic prevented MoDOT from addressing the issue.

“They no longer have Covid as an excuse,” he said.

The fire that damaged the homeless encampment on MoDOT property was close to the building in the background being redeveloped by Ken Wolf.

Wolf shared an email exchange he had with Ericka Ross, the MoDOT area engineer for Jackson and Cass Counties, over the latest fire and included a video of it.

“I can assure you that we are also concerned with the homeless population moving underneath our structures and around areas of MoDOT right of way,” Ross responded.

“We have been working with a hired contractor to help coordinate cleanups of homeless camp locations within the metro for over 4 months now, and have spent countless hours monitoring locations.

“This location has been on our list to monitor, but it has not risen to the top for a cleanup of the area due to the other needs throughout the metro area.”

In his response, Wolf said MoDOT’s position was unacceptable.

“Did you look at that video? My building could have caught on fire,” he wrote. “You actually don’t seem to be that concerned.

“I emailed you over a year ago complaining about the condition of your property and that your fencing had been destroyed. In over a year, you have done nothing to fix the fencing or monitor the area.”

“I stand by my demand that you repair the fence and properly maintain the area or I will turn the matter over to legal counsel.”

Ken Wolf is building an outdoor patio as part of his plan to convert the building at 17th and Washington into a foodie destination.

In a related matter, Wolf said the existence of the homeless encampment in the right-of-way has been a challenge to his tenants, who say they’ve been harassed, and unsanitary because human feces is sometimes found on the parking lot.

Wolf purchased the property, the former Screenland building at 17th and Washington, in 2021. He plans to redevelop it as a restaurant and market destination with an outdoor patio. He already has a health spa, office tenants and bakery among its tenants.

The environment that MoDOT has allowed to continue behind his property has made his effort to redevelop the property more challenging, he said.

“This fence that’s been torn down is obvious to anyone in our parking lot and the homeless camp looks down on our parking lot,” Wolf said.

“What bothers me is there is a process to acquire MoDOT land. I don’t want to do it for financial gain, I just want to maintain it.”

Aron said the problems are not limited to Wolf, but include the entire Crossroads where it abuts MoDOT highways.

“The experience has been throughout the whole Crossroads,” she said. “All of us have been involved cleaning up areas around MoDOT properties and all are in need of management, this one especially.

“All of have been aware of it. The city is aware of it. All of us have been asking them to take responsibility or sell it to Ken.”

Rohlfing said the issue is larger than MoDOT can address alone.

“This problem cannot be solved simply by cleaning up the camps,” she said.

“It is a much larger, growing societal problem. One that MoDOT employees are not always appropriately trained to handle.

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