Neighbors get new details on Westport Middle, High School proposals


Judging from a standing-room-only crowd at a public meeting last night, lots of people are interested in the future of Westport High School and Westport Middle School.

Judging from the questions residents asked and the conversations afterwards, there’s also a great deal of confusion and diversity of viewpoints about what could or should happen next.

On one hand, Sustainable Development Partners, a group that is already renovating the former Swinney School in the West Plaza neighborhood, proposes a project it says could become a new collaborative business model not just for Kansas City, but for the whole country. Many see that plan as innovative and exciting, if somewhat short on details.

The other developer with plans on the table, Foutch Brothers, stands on its track record: it has redeveloped 20 schools. “We’ve done this before,” says Steve Foutch. His company is redeveloping Switzer School on the West Side and has been in the news for its plans for Kemper Arena.

The Background

The school district put both schools on sale as part of its Repurposing Project. Sustainable Development Partners is redeveloping Westport Middle School and had originally proposed a project that included both schools. The district administration approved the sale of the middle school to that group, but recommended sale of Westport High school to Foutch Brothers for mixed-use development.  No decision has been made on the high school. Many people in the neighborhoods heard that Academie Lafayette Charter School wanted to work with Foutch Brothers to open a charter high school. But in 2014, the school district announced it was exploring opening a joint charter school with Academie Lafayette at Southwest High School, seemingly taking away the option at Westport.

Highlights of last night’s meeting:

  • Neither development team has plans for using either site as a school. Al Tuinis of the school district told the crowd the first step in reusing a former public school as a charter school would be an arrangement between the school district and the leadership of the proposed school. While the developers say they are open to schools as part of their reuse plans, there was no discussion of plans for any type of school in either building.
  • Changes in the Westport Middle School Proposal: The Westport Middle School plan originally included 85 residential units in addition to serving as a hub for nonprofit organizations. Bob Berkibile of Sustainable Development Partners said as his group focused on redeveloping only Westport Middle School, they no longer plan to include housing units. Instead, he said the school would become hub for 16-20 nonprofit groups, which would share common spaces like the auditorium and benefit from the synergy of being in the same building.
  • A revised Sustainable Development Partners plan for Westport High School. Berkebile says his group has always seen the two schools working together as one campus. He spoke of the need for a new type of high-tech collaborative office space now popular in other cities.   Their current ideas for Westport High include a “maker space,” a shared workspace for design and manufacture of products, and a coding school to provide software development training skills for entry-level employment as a computer developer. He said the building had the potential to be a “business model for the 21st Century, not just for Kansas City but for the whole country.” The proposal also includes 20-30 live/work units. “Kansas City has a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to have such a collaborative campus,” Butch Rigby told the group.
  • Foutch Brothers added more details to its proposal for the high school.Steve Foutch once again reiterated his company’s track record: it has repurposed 20 schools. “We love the buildings,” he told the crowd. “We try not to tear parts out of them. We leave the trim, the chalkboards. You could turn them back into schools in the future.” His proposal would create about 96 apartments around the outside of the former school building, with a fitness center and pool open to members, and commercial/mixed-used office space in the center of the facility. He showed a slide of the types of businesses that are interested in relocating to the school, and said several of these businesses would benefit from shared used of the gym and other facilities.
  • What happens next: The district repurposing team plans to add the feedback generated from comment sheets at last night’s meeting to a technical assessment of both schools and make a recommendation to the school board by April.