A few years ago, a vacant building on 18th and Vine caught on fire after a homeless person set it ablaze trying to stay warm. Just this year, the historic House of Hits building near the corner of 18th Street and Paseo partially collapsed. The building had been missing its roof due to another partial collapse a few years ago.
What do both buildings have in common, besides being safety and eyesore issues in what is billed as one of the city’s prime destination locations?
Both buildings are owned by the city. In fact, nearly all the buildings on that block are city-owned and nearby business owners and property owners have expressed their frustration with the city as the neighbor who’s driving the value of their property and/or business down.
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In 2016, Kansas City committed more than $27 million in a plan to transform the district, but councilwoman Melissa Robinson said only about $7 million of the committed funds have been spent.
Last year, Robinson introduced a resolution to invest $4 million to immediately restore the blighted buildings in the Jazz District, including improvements to the House of Hits, Roberts Automotive Building, the Savings and Loan Building and Gem Theater. But the resolution was placed on hold eight times last year and city council hasn’t taken any actions on it since last October.
More than half of the money Robinson was requesting was for basic structural maintenance of many of the district’s buildings. Many of the district’s buildings are 100 years old or older, and like the House of Hits, are falling apart. The funding would have allotted $2.7 million as follows:
$1,600,000 to stabilize and dry shell the Roberts Automotive Building,
$268,000 to dry shell the House of Hits,
$366,000 to dry shell the building facades on Vine,
and $448,000 to dry shell the Savings and Loan Building
Signs of structural decay of the buildings is evident, besides being boarded and shuttered, you can see bricks that have fallen off some building lying in the sidewalk.
This month, Atty. Henry Service, owner of the district’s Historic Lincoln Building, decided to take action. Fed up with the City as a bad neighbor, he filed a lawsuit again the city and the director of the city’s Neighborhoods and Housing Services Department.
Service wants the city to repair the blighted property it owns in the Jazz District, specifically on Vine Street. It’s something the city has tried to go after other property owners in the district for. Service represented Lisa Walker-Yeager who owns the property that used to house the Mardi Gras Club at 1600 E. 19th St. The building caught on fire in May 2015 and has been inhabitable ever since. In March 2018 the city filed a lawsuit against Yeager with the ultimate goal of taking her property and selling it. In the lawsuit they identify Yeager’s property as a dangerous building and a public nuisance. Per the lawsuit, some of the conditions that made Yeager’s property a nuisance included:
•Rotting boards on exterior walls
•Roof is not structurally sound
•Brick veneers loose
•Bricks missing structure is boarded
•Unsafe for human habitation and
•The property is a vacant blight and has a detrimental affect on the general welfare and wellbeing of the community.
The property’s status as vacant blight adversely impacts the property values of surrounding properties.
When Service saw the notice, he thought “how hypocritical.” Everything they’d written about Yeager’s property applied to city-owned property in the district. The City should be held to the same standards they’re asking others to meet. So Service filed a lawsuit against the city for failure to maintain their property.
“The City should not be allowed to break the law, prosecute, and take the property of private property owners based on pro forma allegations of lawbreaking, collect money based on maintaining blight on Vine Street while keeping 100% of the unsafe and blighted buildings in a community,” Service’s lawsuit says.
Service is asking for the city to bring all of its blighted buildings in the Jazz District up to code and make them safe and fit for occupancy. The lawsuit also directs the city to use the money from historic tax credits to develop, make safer, repair and maintain the buildings in the Jazz District.
The lawsuit goes on to claim, “The city is receiving money, based on the said tax credits, and maintains the facades of the buildings, to collect on the said tax credits.”
Service has consistently voiced to others and the media, his distaste with the way the city treats the 18th and Vine district as compared to other entertainment districts citing environmental racism.
“They have not done this in Westport, Power & Light, the River Market, Crossroads, the Plaza,” Service said. “Why only the Black entertainment district?”