Controversial Catholic student housing advances in city council

File Photo. A developer for the Catholic diocese presented a plan for student housing to a packed room in January.

File Photo. A developer for the Catholic diocese presented a plan for student housing to a packed room in January.

Councilman Ed Ford banged his gavel while an angry citizen yelled at him and banged his hand.

So it went Wednesday, as a city council committee approved a controversial proposal for religious student housing on Troost Avenue.

The planning and zoning committee voted 4-1 to recommend approval and send it to the full city council.

Ford, the committee chairman, voted for it but warned the Catholic Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph it has not won yet on a project it has pushed for three years.

He advised that they keep meeting with opponents to try to reach some kind of quick compromise.

“It is far from a sure thing that that this will pass the full city council a week from Thursday,” Ford said.

The action comes after the city plan commission rejected the project three times, citing massive opposition.

Members of the St. Francis Xavier Parish and neighborhood leaders, or sometimes both, oppose the project that would demolish the former St. Francis Xavier School.

The church would remain on the northern edge of the five-acre site at Troost Avenue and 53rd Street.

Councilwoman Jan Marcason, who is not on the committee, testified against the project Wednesday.

It has been among the most contentious in her fourth district, she said, and “I see unwillingness to listen to neighborhood concerns.”

Many wanted the school renovated but the diocese says it would cost too much.

On Wednesday, Father Ken Riley spoke for the diocese, saying the religious apartments are a great way to repurpose the old school site.

Promoting Catholic ministry is a mission, he said and the empty school site between UMKC and Rockhurst universities “is a great place for it.”

Parishioner Diana Spare shot back, “The only reason that building is empty is the diocese told our parish to empty it.”

The church leased it to a charter school until 2009, when it was abandoned under disputed circumstances.

Parking for the 85 apartments was another concern. The project was to take more than 80 parking places from the church, but the committee amended the ordinance Wednesday to restore 55 of those.

It also amended it to require that renters pay for parking as part of rent, to discourage parking on the streets.

Vincent Gauthier, a parishioner, neighbor and developer against the project, said opponents might support religious student housing there but not this project.

Opponent Larry Skogerson said, “It’s the wrong project at the wrong place.”

And he questioned whether it was the best use of diocese resources to minister to about 200 student renters instead of something else that serves about 4,000 Catholics at UMKC.

Eric Wombwell, a UKKC graduate and now faculty member, said “This project offers community for those students” and should be done.

Councilman John Sharp suggested approving a rezoning for the property but not the development plan.

“That makes it clear we feel the project can be improved,” he said, “and certainly relationships can be improved.”

Sharp said there would be a cost to ignoring widespread opposition from neighborhoods and groups like UMKC, Historic Kansas City and the Kansas City Design Center.

“People tend to become discouraged if they feel their voices are not listened to,” he said.

Angry comments did come from the crowd of opponents just before the approval votes: “We will remember you – every one of you,” shouted one, and “table it,” yelled another.

Ford gaveled order, after extensive banging.

Council members Melba Curls and Scott Taylor said they voted for approval of something that must be settled after full council consideration.

Another factor is a legal threat that committee members discussed in closed session with a city lawyer. Mike White, attorney for the diocese, contends they could easily win a lawsuit against the city if it turns down the project.

If the full council debates and votes on it as scheduled July 23, it will be among the last harsh political fights for most members.

Nine new council members start on Aug. 1, out of a council made up of 12 members and the mayor.

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