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Church in a Lurch

A Troost neighborhood faces banishment.

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The Downtown Church of Christ is in a long and low brick building that has done duty as a skating rink, a bowling alley and a nightclub. The building, at 27th and Troost, became a church in 1987.

On Sundays, the Reverend Wes Anderson leads sermons in the "auditorium," a windowless room with twenty pews, refurbished oak floors and a chalkboard behind the rostrum. Elsewhere in the building faded strips of red and black paint mark the weathered wood floors of the old skating rink.

The church runs a food bank, a used-clothing center and a tutoring program. "We have been a hub in this community, trying to help the plight of our people," Anderson says. "We teach them the gospel; we clothe them, as well."

Yet, Anderson says, "it looks like now everything is just going down the tubes."

Progress is coming to the long-blighted Beacon Hill neighborhood on Kansas City's near east side, but the church and several nearby businesses probably won't share in the good fortune. Landowners say the city has condemned their buildings but required the area's redevelopment corporation to pay too little.

Sometime next year, the Church of Christ will be replaced by a long wall of townhomes along Troost, part of a giant redevelopment overseen by the nonprofit Housing and Economic Development Financial Corporation. On the advice of the city's property and relocation services division, the development corporation offered Anderson $19 a square foot for his 22,000-square-foot building; including moving expenses, the offer came to about half a million dollars. The congregation needs twice that to build a new facility large enough to meet the church's diverse needs, he says, "unless it was just a place to worship. Even at that, it would have to be cheaply made."

Edgar Jordan, head of property and relocation services, says the city met with the church and discussed building a new church within the redevelopment. But a modern church requires too much land. "They were looking for four acres," Jordan says. "Four acres would wipe out prime residential area, not to mention the parking."

Anderson is also upset that other churches in the neighborhood will stay.

"We understand their desire not to sell," says Ken Bacchus, chief operating officer of the HEDFC. "But the development plan approved by the mayor and city council called for it to happen."

Starting next year, the redevelopment plan -- crafted by private developers, residents and the city -- will remake 94 acres, bounded by 22nd Street on the north, Watkins Drive and the Paseo on the east, 27th Street on the south and Troost on the west, plus a few properties just south and west of the intersection of Troost and 27th. The plan calls for building as many as 358 new single-family homes and townhomes as well as constructing "north lawn" and "south lawn" green spaces along Forest and a "Beacon Hill Commons" along 25th.

Public funding for the project includes $10 million in federal grants. The HEDFC is paying for acquisition, relocation, demolition and, in some cases, environmental remediation with $6 million in loans from Fannie Mae. (That money is guaranteed by the city.) Property-tax abatements will extend for 25 years and total nearly $11.5 million.

Homeowners have the option of staying put. Ella Tolbert, head of the Beacon Hill-Mcfeders Community Council, is excited. "For me, I think it's great," she says. Low-interest loans will help her and others improve their homes. Tolbert plans to modernize her plumbing and electricity and shore up some of the logs that form her house's exterior walls. "We just want to see dirt turning. I think everyone is anxious for everything to start," she says.

According to a February report about the project, eighty homes have been acquired; fifteen more face condemnation in court. The ten commercial properties acquired and thirteen that face condemnation constitute all of the commercial real estate in the neighborhood. In all, 258 properties or parcels of land will be acquired, and buildings on them will be demolished.

Louis DeLuna owns a vacant lot across from the health department's headquarters. The city's best offer was 60 cents a square foot; DeLuna says he should have received three times that much. "If they let me develop on the lot, I would," he says.

Jordan says he never saw an appraisal from DeLuna. "Lou and I talk all the time," Jordan says. "We've decided to disagree. That's why we're letting the courts decide."

Bob Kelly, who runs a hot dog vending business, bought a building on Troost in 1995. He fixed it up, painted it and repaired the roof. "We were kind of proud of it," he says. The city offered him $23,000 for the building. Kelly says it had been appraised at $48,000, but he took the city's offer. "It's pretty hard to fight city hall," he explains.

The building was razed last year. "What's coming will be gorgeous, so I'm not all that bitter," Kelly says. "But I don't know why they bought it for so low. I think they lowballed everybody."

"I disagree with that," says Jordan, who adds that he never saw Kelly's higher appraisal. "We have to follow federal guidelines." He says the city reviews as many as three appraisals of a property to ensure fairness.

Tony Ragusa owns B&C Party Shoppe, a liquor store at the northeast corner of 27th and Troost. He says he offered to tear down his shop and rebuild to suit the city and developers. No one was interested. The city offered him $100,000 for his store; he refused ("They're Gunning for Him Now," March 8, 2001). "I could have sold the store a few years ago for $1 million," he says.

Ragusa sees his business as a positive part of the neighborhood, but Tolbert and other residents are concerned about troublemakers who loiter around his store. "We all want him gone," Tolbert says.

Meanwhile, China Kitchen, a restaurant across the street from Ragusa, will be condemned and demolished, though it falls just outside the redevelopment area. Restaurant attorney Mark Epstein is trying to persuade the HEDFC to redraw the boundary. "We'd like to see them do that, but I don't know how receptive the development corporation is going to be," Epstein says. A condemnation hearing is scheduled for May 17.

When it comes to condemnation, what a city wants, a city takes. Ragusa is determined to demand more. "Do I think I can beat 'em?" Ragusa says. "No."

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