Streetside: A billboard owner has the West Side choppin’ mad

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Thirty years ago, the West Side neighborhood was a crime-infested hilltop just across the highway from downtown. Now, it is to the creative community what Mission Hills is to the metro’s business community: a sought-after enclave with a clubby vibe and a finite amount of suitable housing stock.

Progressive restaurants and cute shops have taken root at its center, the intersection of 17th Street and Summit, a few blocks from the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts. Modestly sized modern homes mix with elegant, well-preserved older houses. Residing in them are liberal-minded lawyers, graphic designers, gay power couples, and owners of beloved local businesses. (Disclosure: I used to live on the West Side. I rented.)

Some West Side residents, having contributed to the property-value-boosting eclecticism of the neighborhood, espouse rather strong opinions about the neighborhood they helped build. Liberal values are guarded on the West Side in much the same way that visual uniformity is enforced in a suburban homeowners association

In this world, what Gary Tauvar did two weeks ago is akin to cousin Eddie parking his camper on the front lawn of a Mission Hills mansion and emptying its septic tank into the street.

According to Jackson County records, John Tauvar, a registered sex offender who owes $6,500 in delinquent taxes to the county, owns the property at 1703 Jefferson. There’s no structure on the land, just a pole that rises about 70 feet into the sky, where it widens to become a billboard visible to motorists on Interstate 35. Gary Tauvar owns the billboard. Public records that The Pitch has reviewed do not confirm that the men are related; neither Tauvar could be reached for comment.

Jefferson is the first north-south street in the West Side neighborhood west of I-35. Between Jefferson and I-35 is a narrow strip of land that runs from 16th Street to 20th Street. This land is owned by the Missouri Department of Transportation (MoDOT). About 15 years ago, as part of an urban forestry project carried out in conjunction with MoDOT, trees were planted on this land.

“They were planted by volunteers to serve as a sound and pollution barrier between the highway and the West Side,” recalls Kathy Kirby, a longtime resident on the 1600 block of Jefferson.

Gary Tauvar (hereafter Tauvar) recently obtained a permit from Outdoor Advertising, the arm of MoDOT that regulates billboards, to trim parts of the trees that were obstructing views of his billboard.

Instead, Tauvar hired a crew that chopped down dozens of large trees between 16th and 20th streets.

“It totally surprised everybody,” says Ari Aytar, who also lives on the 1600 block of Jefferson. “One afternoon I’m sitting on my porch, and I look out, and there’s guys downing trees left and right. For days in a row, they’d fire up their chainsaws at 4 p.m. — around the time city and codes people aren’t at the office — and work until it got dark.”

Concerned residents called MoDOT, which issued a stop-work order to Tauvar. But by then, the damage was done.

“To call it devastation is not an exaggeration,” says Jack Reese, who lives on the 1600 block of Summit. “Whatever trees were blocking the billboard were minimal. And they just came in and cleared everything out.”

Matt Killion, a MoDOT representative, confirmed to The Pitch that Tauvar was not authorized to remove any trees. “We counted 50 trees that have been removed,” Killion says.

Killion did not comment on what kind of fines Tauvar might face for so drastically exceeding the scope of work allowed by his permit. “We are still in discussions with Mr. Tauvar regarding the situation,” he says. “We’re committed to getting trees back in place down there.”

That may take awhile.

I took a stroll along the path of destruction last week. It vaguely resembled a small logging site. Just west of the I-35 overpass on 17th Street, I spotted a man in the distance lugging thick tree branches. I waved, and he came over and asked who I was and why I was taking pictures. I told him that I had heard from neighbors who were upset about the felling of all the trees. He quickly wrote my name and organization down on his arm. When I asked his name and who he worked for, he declined to say. “I’m just a guy from Craiglist,” is all I could get out of him. He walked to a camper parked on the street, grabbed a jug and took a long sip.

Categories: News, Streetside