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Housing Boom

Watkins Drive's neighbors say blasting damaged their homes.

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As blasting crews smashed through tons of bedrock to carve a valley for Bruce R. Watkins Drive in the mid-'90s, nearby residents felt the shock waves. Walls trembled, windows shook, and a tall oak was uprooted and crashed across the front lawn of Darthard Perry's home.

For him, the destruction still symbolizes the freeway's impact on his neighborhood. Despite its neatly landscaped medians, well-designed bridges and traffic-taming signals, Watkins Drive has clearly scarred Kansas City's east side. "Nobody asked them to build a freeway there," Perry says. "They've taken down all these homes -- all that was viable -- and they haven't put anything in its place."

Many homes that remain standing bear scars too, and more than forty residents recently sued the Missouri State Highway Commission for the damage.

Explosions shook Yvonne Norris' home "from the ground up," cracking her windows. Gas pipes cracked in Patricia Smith's home, forcing Smith and her husband to replace them and pay for installation. Walls in Smith's home bow in and out. "[That] had to be caused by the highway," she says. "We'd had no problems before."

The partially collapsed roof of Perry's garage has a splintered center beam. West of Watkins Drive, a huge boulder smashed through the cinder-block wall of another garage, rending a hole big enough for someone to walk through nearly upright. Across the street, front porches and balconies droop uneasily.

Most of these houses were built in the '20s and '30s. Nevertheless, during the two years that Garney Incorporated, the project's contractor, excavated land to build the last leg of the highway between 31st Street and Brush Creek, demolition crews conducted 794 "blasting events," detonating almost 500,000 pounds of explosives.

When homeowners complained, Garney hired a consultant to study eighteen homes. Unsatisfied after the surveyor determined that blasting had left no damage, residents got another study from the state, this one by an engineering firm. Woodward-Clyde studied more than 100 homes and concluded in 1998 that "there was no visible, compelling evidence of blast-related damage in any of the structures. Most observed structural damages were consistent with age, deterioration, environmental or other causes."

The survey took nearly a year to complete and cost the state $235,000. "For as much money as they put in it, they could have just gone on, taken the money and fixed the properties," says Mamie Hughes, the former ombudsman the city hired to represent the community.

The east-side residents' attorney, Joe Borich, doesn't think the state's study is conclusive -- his clients' houses are outside the area covered by the Woodward-Clyde survey -- so he has commissioned his own study. "We're not talking about huge amounts of [financial] damages," he says. So far, the lowest estimate of damage to a house is only a few thousand dollars; the highest is $30,000. (John Cave, attorney for the highway commission, declined to comment for this story.)

Watkins Drive was an idea as early as 1951, although it wasn't until the mid-'60s that plans took shape. Litigation delayed the start of construction until 1987. It finally opened late last year.

But the freeway was destroying east-side neighborhoods before the first blast. As litigation ground through courts, the city forced residents out, and many longtime businesses left. Homes bore the marks of neglect.

But the damage caused by blasting is distinct, residents say.

"These people really and truly believe that this blasting caused damage to their houses," Borich says. "I just can't believe they misunderstand what happened to their homes."

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