Kansas City commission delays decision on faith-based dormitory

Kansas City, Mo. — The City Council's Planning, Zoning, and Economic Development committee has postponed action on a proposal to build a faith-based dormitory to give time for members of a local parish, which would be the site of the dormitory, to consult with the acting bishop of this diocese.

After the proposal was rejected three times before the City Plan Commission, Wednesday's meeting was the first time the design was presented to elected officials. The project -- the brainchild of recently resigned Kansas City-St. Joseph Bishop Robert Finn -- continues to face overwhelming opposition from parishioners and neighborhood groups.

After nearly three hours of testimonies and rebuttals, the commission decided to reconvene in two weeks to give time for discussion among members of St. Francis Xavier Parish, members of a neighborhood coalition and Archbishop Joseph Naumann of Kansas City, Kan. Naumann was appointed the apostolic administrator the diocese following Finn's resignation.

About three years ago with Finn's blessing, Domus Development in partnership with EPR Properties began working on a plan to build a dormitory for Catholic university students on the site of the St. Francis Xavier Grade School, which had been shuttered a couple of years before.

The project was denied March 17, with the commission unanimously agreeing that there was poor community engagement, a firm condition after previous proposals showed lack of communication between developers and neighbors. They also questioned the long-term viability of the project and noted that the building's design and parking availability were not favorable to the neighborhood.

Since that vote, no changes were made to the proposal brought to the newly elected commissioners.

Testimonies Wednesday began with White Goss, the Kansas City law firm representing the project's developers. Patricia Jensen, an attorney, said, "This plan has had more communication in terms of zoning than any plan I've seen," noting that developers met with parishioners 14 times since the planning process began in 2012.

Mark Bryant, another attorney for White Goss, added that this design provides more than double the parking spaces required. The dorm, intended for students at neighboring Rockhurst University and the University of Missouri-Kansas City, would attract students already in the area, whereas the proposals the community brought forward to the diocese -- including a community garden, day care/elder care, restaurant, culinary center -- would bring in new people and more traffic.

"I only see good things coming out of this," said one Rockhurst alumnus, attesting to the interest within the student body for a faith-based complex.

Chris Jones, another young man from the area testified that through this project, Troost (the street adjacent to the site, considered an economic and racial dividing line within Kansas City) would be "rejuvenated to what it should be. This feels like a step in the right direction."

But when parishioners came forward to testify, their concerns and complaints were nearly identical to those voiced the last time this proposal was brought to a vote: a lack of parking for church events, no detailed plan for a promised parish hall, and the building's inflexibility should it fail as a dorm.

How dismissive the developers and diocese have been throughout the planning process despite the neighborhood's willingness to cooperate, however, was clearly at the forefront of their frustration.

"I'm embarrassed to see an organization in the faith community behave the way they have," parishioner Keith Spare said.

Vince Gauthier, the parish and neighborhood's spokesperson, noted that the pastor at St. Francis Xavier was not informed that a new plan was brought to the council; he heard about it by chance a week before its scheduled vote.

The diocese may own the property, but parishioners own the diocese, Spare said. "And yet we have no control, and we never have."

Another parishioner, Lois Skogerson, noted that when the CEO of a business steps down, projects are usually put on hold until new leadership approves of it. Finn is gone, so why "straddle" the next bishop to a project he has yet to approve?

This is a nonprofit doing this the for-profit way, Gauthier said, insisting that the current school building can be refurbished rather than razed.

After hearing testimonies, chairperson Ed Ford said the diocese should be just as concerned about its parishioners as it is for ministering to university students.

"These parishioners seem like an after-thought," he said.

"If this were my parish, what you're doing would be extremely offensive to me," one commissioner added.

The vote was put on hold for two weeks so that parishioners can further discuss their concerns with Ford and the bishop.

[Soli Salgado is an NCR Bertelsen intern. Her email address is ssalgado@ncronline.org.]

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