Westport’s latest development deal again raises the question: Is this a historic neighborhood or an entertainment district?

The red hashtag #NOPUS signs came down quickly after the City Council’s June 15 vote. In something close to unison, members of the Help Save Old Westport group rose and filed out of the council chambers. Fourth District-at-large Councilwoman Katheryn Shields stood by the railing separating the public seating from the council members. “I’m sorry,” she said as the group passed her.

HSOW had lost 8-2, with only Shields and Mayor Pro Tem Scott Wagner voting against an apartment and retail structure proposed for the corner of Westport Road and Broadway, now the site of a Bank of America branch and its parking lot.

Just outside the chambers, near the elevators on the 26th floor of City Hall, the group waited in near silence, demoralized on the far side of a fight that had begun in March. When Shield appeared, they gathered around her. The question was obvious. So was her answer: “There’s nothing more we can do.”

“Seems like Westport is under siege,” Mary Jo Draper said later. A longtime Valentine neighborhood resident, former KCUR 89.3 news director and author of the book Kansas City’s Historic Midtown Neighborhoods, Draper had helped lead the protest against the developer. Many Westport residents, business and property owners in the area, including Historic Kansas City and its executive director, Lisa Briscoe, were along for the ride. If they couldn’t halt the project, they at least wanted its developer, Opus Development Co. LLC, to decrease the size and height of the proposed building. “I always believed the city really listened to the neighborhoods — nine neighborhood organizations were against it — but nobody but Shields and Wagner cared,” Draper said after the vote.

The loss wasn’t a shock. One sought-after no vote was 4th District Councilwoman Jolie Justus, who had claimed she wasn’t for the project from the beginning and “had to be won over.” She was — though, by her own admission, she hadn’t attended any of the meetings held by the Save Westport group and representatives from Opus. “I felt comfortable with the amount of work they [Opus] conducted with me,” she says.

It doesn’t take a visionary to recognize the potential of an intersection as prominent as Broadway and Westport Road. But the Opus conversation arguably started with Chris Kamberis and his Overland Park-based CTK Group. Kamberis, who founded CTK in 1995, has handled development work for large corporations in the past — including Bank of America. That connection, along with neighborhood consensus that the building was showing its age (some of it dates to 1876), may have turned Kamberis’ head.

Kamberis enjoys a reputation as a keen and knowledgeable observer of commercial real estate trends. He was recently quoted by Wave 3 News, the NBC station in Louisville, Kentucky, as saying, “Getting the timing of investments right can mean the difference between an individual making a profit or suffering huge losses.” To get his own timing right, Kamberis pays attention to a city’s unemployment rate and to its available housing stock. Kansas City’s unemployment rate at the end of last year was 4.3 percent, and housing prices here have climbed amid a tight inventory. Another page in Kamberis’ real estate playbook is devoted to pedestrian traffic, something Westport has never lacked. 

In December 2016, Kamberis and the CTK Group bought the Bank of America site, plus two other properties along Westport Road. A few months later, he sold the bank property to Opus Development.

Opus, based in Minneapolis and reportedly worth a billion dollars, was founded by Gerald A. Rauenhorst in the early 1950s, evolving from the Rauenhorst Construction Co. Rauenhorst pioneered the design model of construction, keeping almost all aspects of a project — the architecture, the engineering, the construction — in-house. Today, the Opus Group consists of Opus Holding, Opus Development Company, Opus Design Build and Opus AE Group, all limited-liability companies. But the in-house model goes only so far: The company does not have a history of keeping or managing the projects it builds.

The Opus name is well known in the Twin Cities, and founder Rauenhorst’s philanthropic activities have had an impact there and beyond. Company policy is to give 10 percent of pretax profits to community and religious organizations, with 1 percent to 2 percent distributed to local causes where Opus has offices or projects. Opus has made contributions to Kansas City charitable organizations.

Opus previously operated here as Opus Northwest. Bankruptcy filings by other Opus development subsidiaries and a 2009 reorganization led to a period of relative inactivity in KC, though Opus has completed projects in south Kansas City, just south of the Plaza and in Overland Park and Olathe. It also is pursuing projects in the Crossroads.

Devon Coffey is the Opus representative in Kansas City and the main point of contact for the Save Westport group. She is the daughter of Dan Coffey, leader of a group called Citizens for Responsible Government. The elder Coffey has loudly opposed the single-terminal airport plan, tax subsidies for a downtown hotel and the streetcar line, but he has remained quiet about neighborhood-preservation efforts in Westport.

Plans for the Westport Apartments were first filed in early March. After revisions, the final plan was submitted in late May. John McGurk, a lawyer with Polsinelli, is listed as Opus’ agent on those plans. Revisions, mainly exterior modifications, were made between the two filings, but the rezoning request, the height of the proposed building and the number of residential units went unchanged. The zoning request — the heart of the dispute with Westport neighborhood activists — was necessary to accommodate the proposed height of the Westport Apartments.

As it stands, the L-shaped proposed Westport Apartments, sitting on a 1.71-acre site, will rise six stories above ground, with three more below ground. It would contain 256 residential units, 275 garage-parking spaces and 28 surface-parking spaces. (Parking spaces for tenants would not be included in a tenant’s lease.) The plan also includes 8,500 square feet of retail space.

The Bank of America facility now at that location is two stories high, with surface parking in the rear. The bank has announced it will close the branch on August 22. Opus has said it wants to start demolition and construction before the end of the year.

Neighborhood activists against the Westport Apartments agree on their reasons for opposing the project: too big, certain to cause congestion and parking problems, a bad precedent for the future.

“It’s just too big,” says the Rev. Scott Meyer, pastor of the historic Westport Presbyterian Church at 705 Westport Road. “I generally go along with Scott Burnett [Jackson County 1st District representative], that it’s fitting a Size 12 foot into a Size 5 shoe. They’re going to shove this down our throat. I guess we’re just going to have to learn to live with it but it’s not the right solution.”

Meyer, speaking for himself as well as for the church, brings a lot of weight to a historical argument against the project. The church, a few blocks east of the Westport Apartments site, was established in 1835 as the Westport Cumberland Presbyterian Church, and its first permanent building was completed just after the Civil War. The building suffered a devastating fire in late 2011, and much of it had to be rebuilt; it was rededicated in June of last year. Meyer has been pastor since 1994 and guides a congregation involved in many community outreach programs. 

Across the street and west of the church, Thomas Platt and his brother Stephen operate the Westport Land & Management Company. Their father, Beverly, started the company in 1948, purchasing what was then Westport Floor Covering on Broadway in the early 1950s.

Thomas Platt says he jokes with Kyle Kelly, co-owner of Kelly’s Westport Inn, at Pennsylvania and Westport Road, about which family’s roots go back further in Westport. 

Kelly’s Westport Inn operates in what is believed to be the oldest building in Kansas City, built by Albert Gallatin Boone, grandson of Daniel Boone, as a grocery in 1850. Beginning in the 1940s, with Randall Kelly — who started as a bartender — the Kelly family has poured countless beers to generations of Westport dwellers and habitues.

The Platt brothers own nine buildings operating 18 businesses in and around Westport. Their main concern is parking. “There’s not sufficient parking for tenants and employers for retail now,” Thomas Platt says. “People end up parking in the neighborhoods. I want fewer units. I’m appalled the City Council changed the zoning to a multistory building. It’s a blow to what is a historic neighborhood.” 

For Lisa Briscoe, of Historic Kansas City, it’s about the future. 

“What we were advocating was consideration of the bigger picture,” she says. “This approval opens the door and sends a message, making it more difficult to say no. They [the City Council] were looking at a project in an isolated manner — a case in point here with Opus — and not looking at the consequence. That’s narrow-minded. You need to evaluate it.”

Mayor Pro Tem Scott Wagner’s no vote echoes Briscoe’s reasoning. “With this certain zoning change, it would be the first in the Westport corridor [Main Street to Southwest Trafficway] and open the door for high-scale — more height,” he says. Wagner believes a flood of developers in Westport eventually will cause the City Council to introduce height restrictions, but he understands a developer’s rationale. “Every company has a different rate of return and style,” he says, “and I wouldn’t say Opus was incorrect in theirs.”

Justus says she views development on a case-by-case basis. “The slippery-slope argument doesn’t speak to me,” she says. When she voiced her support for the project the day of the vote, she said, “If this project is to move forward, it has to have a long-term relationship between the developers and the neighborhood.” 

But research by Draper shows that Opus has a history of selling projects it has built to real estate investment-manager firms. In reporting on the controversial District Flats apartments in Columbia, Missouri, in July 2014, the Columbia Tribune called Opus a “’merchant builder,’ where holding on to properties is not part of its portfolio of services.” The story went on: “It [Opus] offers wrap-around services for constructing buildings, including architectural and engineering work and shepherding the projects through governmental processes. From there, the company flips the properties over to investors.”

Nine months after the District Flats complex was completed in Columbia, Opus put it up for sale.

Ownership of the Westport Apartments isn’t an issue for Eric Bunch, of BikeWalkKC. Speaking for himself rather than on behalf of his organization, he says he supports the project; the corner as it is, he says, is “dangerous.” He believes that the Opus project would make better use of the land than the bank has. With more density, he says, more city services may come to the area. More density, he adds, “means more eyes on the street to make it safer.”

Bunch also disputes the height argument. “There are nearby buildings the same height, and not that many historic buildings. The cultural argument is overblown.”

The proposed privatization of Westport streets — a move unrelated to the Opus deal but worrying some of the same activists — concerns Bunch more. He fears such an effort would solidify the public’s perception of Westport as exclusively an entertainment district and lead to racial profiling. “Westport should be a mixed-use community,” he says.

When the news of Opus’ plans for the Bank of America building began to filter through Westport neighborhoods, the process toward approval was already in motion. With one-on-one meetings and phone calls to people likely to sway opinions, Opus, through Devon Coffey and Polsinelli lawyer John McGurk, was already at work.

McGurk is well versed in real estate and economic-development law, and his stint as Mayor Sly James’ chief of staff (2011-14) has given him both political gravitas and access to key players.

Coffey, for her part, told The Kansas City Business Journal earlier this year, “I’m the business developer as well as project developer. … It comes down to understanding every intricacy and being very focused on details and understanding relationships and getting things accomplished. It’s really about working with people.”

It didn’t hurt her networking efforts that Opus had been making charitable contributions locally, in keeping with philanthropic covenant instituted by Opus founder Rauenhorst, who died in 2014. The Boys & Girls Clubs of Greater Kansas City and Operation Breakthrough have received contributions from Opus. 

Draper, Briscoe and others lacked similar connections; they launched a GoFundMe campaign to cover the cost of a historical survey of Westport, with a goal of raising $25,000.

“Westport is perhaps the most important historic district of Kansas City, yet most of its historic buildings have no protection from demolition,” Draper told the Business Journal in March. “If we don’t act quickly, the Westport that we know today and that many people have loved for decades could be gone very quickly.”

Opus met with activists a number of times but refused to make size or height changes to the project. “My experience is that Opus, in every meeting, sat stone-faced and did not budge an inch,” says Arthur Benson, a lawyer who, with his wife, owns property in Westport.

Benson, a well-known legal personality in Kansas City, attracts varying degrees of opinion based on his past work in the Kansas City school desegregation case and his time on the Kansas City, Missouri, School Board. He is considered friendly with Councilwoman Shields, who concurs with Benson about Opus. 

“They listened. But the responses to changes was unilaterally and consistently no,” Shields says. 

Devon Coffey, who declined to be interviewed, says, through a statement issued by the PR firm Weber Shandwick: “When Opus pursues a project we actively seek and incorporate as much community feedback as we can to deliver the best possible outcome.” The statement notes the more than 58 meetings held with neighborhood groups, businesses and individuals and adds, “It’s simply not feasible to accommodate every idea.”

McGurk, who also declined to be interviewed, writes in an email: “In our view, it (Opus) did a great job of making changes where possible and being transparent about where changes were not possible.”

But Save Westport’s primary goal remains fairly simple: a reduction in size and height of the Westport Apartments. “It would be acceptable to me if it was four stories instead of six,” Benson says.

Whether McGurk tried to persuade Opus to reduce the project’s footprint isn’t known. But he has a history of working toward that kind of compromise. In representing developers for a twin-tower apartment and hotel project north of the Country Club Plaza, he was able to change the plan from a 13-story, 168-unit apartment tower and a 10-story, 252-room hotel to a development of eight stories per building, with fewer apartment units and hotel rooms.  

McGurk, in his email statement, points to “a divergence of views.” One issue, he writes, has been an inability to come to an agreement on density.

Draper says the issue of density has drawn discussion away from historic preservation. “Seemed like the argument turned into pro-density and NIMBY [not in my backyard],” she says. “That’s not a helpful discussion.”

Yet statistics indicate that increased density might be a nonissue in Westport. According to zipatlas.com, the Midtown-Westport area is ranked No. 2 in density in Kansas City, Missouri, ahead of downtown and the Crossroads.

Benson wonders about the role mayoral politics may have played in passage of the Opus rezoning ordinance. Both Justus and Shields have said they’re considering running for mayor. McGurk’s association with Mayor James has led some to speculate that he may be helping James search for his next political step when term limits turn James out of City Hall. A James campaign for some other office (U.S. Rep. Emanuel Cleaver is in his sixth term and turns 73 this year) would mean soliciting campaign donations and likely contacting lawyers and developers with deep pockets.

Benson may turn out to be the chessmaster in the saga of Westport and Opus. As this story was going to press, the lawyer had sent Devon Colley and Councilwomen Justus and Shields an email outlining additions to an agreement Opus is seeking for air rights (presumably for a construction crane) behind one of the buildings that Benson and his wife own, on Westport Road.

In the July 13 email, Benson asked that compensation be made to his tenants for possible utility disruptions and closures due to construction; a covered pedestrian sidewalk on Westport Road; additional “decorative features” atop the Westport Apartments building; changes to the exterior facing Broadway and Westport Road, and payment — of $1 — to Benson Westport Investment Inc., for the air-rights easement.

Benson had one more significant request in his letter: that demolition of the Bank of America building not start before January 2, 2018. If Opus Development agreed to that provision, the draft of the Westport historical study, paid for by the GoFundMe campaign and conducted by Rosin Preservation, will presumably have been completed —perhaps leading to further discussion.

Elizabeth Rosin, owner of Rosin Preservation, would not speculate what her research group would find within the survey boundaries (39th Street to 43rd Street, and Main Street to Southwest Trafficway).

As of July 22, Benson said he had not received a reply from Opus. 

This story appears in The Pitch‘s August issue.

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