The historic Crispus Attucks School in the Jazz District was one of the biggest grade schools for Black students in Kansas City. But the old building has been little more than an eyesore for the community since it was closed. Plans to put the building to use were approved by the Kansas City, MO, city council in March 2018, but after three years with little or no improvement, the Kansas City, MO, city council took a long hard look at the project last week, and its lack of progress to date.

In an effort to preserve the legacy of the historical school building and bring more development to the 18th and Vine District, in 2018, the city sold the school as part of a redevelopment agreement to the Zhou Brothers, Chicago-based artists who presented plans to transform the building into an arts and cultural center.

The Zhou Brothers opened a similar award-winning arts center in Chicago in 2004, and saw an opportunity for a sister arts center to enhance the 18th and Vine area and even attract international attention to the district.

According to the brothers’ development agreement with the city, the multi-million-dollar “Zhou B Arts Center of Kansas City” was to be finished within three years. As that three-year deadline approached, without any visible improvements, the council revisited the project at a recent meeting.

Extension Requested

At the meeting, Allan Gray, developer and organizer for the project, requested an extension. Gray blamed the pandemic for major delays during the past 12 months, but said the project had complemented many milestones and is on track for a July 1, 2023, opening.

While the Attucks building will go through some major improvements, Gray said they are working diligently to make sure they preserve the character and history of the building.

“We’re very much interested in making sure that the Attucks building continues to be a beacon and a gem in our community,” Gray said. “We’re going to bring this building to life for the community. There will be a place for the arts and for gatherings that don’t exist currently.”

As proposed, the Zhou B Arts Center of Kansas City will include an art museum, 45 artist studios, banquet space and an outdoor event space. They project the venture will infuse $180,000 to the district annually. Gray also added there would be a strong economic boost to the district’s restaurants and small businesses, a major concern of the last few years.

“One of the marketing concerns is how do we continue to draw individuals to 18th and Vine, and how do we continue to make the district a fresh and viable location for tourists and for residents?” he said.

Community Concerns

While developers say the project is going well, Councilman Brandon Ellington expressed concerns locals shared with him before the city council voted to allow the redevelopment extension.

Ellington said there have been complaints about the upkeep of the property since the redevelopment agreement and that nothing has been done about vandalism and break-ins.

While Ellington said he’s willing to work with developers, he hopes they will uphold their word to keep the property safe.

“We’re facing challenges that many developers face,” Gray said. “I believe in success and this will be a successful project.”

Gray said he has met with police and asked for more patrols on the site.

As part of the two-year extension of the redevelopment plan, the city council required the developers to submit a plan of how they will address the neighborhood’s safety and maintenance concerns until the completion of the project.

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