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Kansas City's abandoned buildings re-imagined

By Mike Sherry for KHI News Service, Oct. 15, 2012

KANSAS CITY, Mo. – When Saundra Hayes looks at the old Bancroft School, she doesn’t see a boarded up relic built early in the past century as the first Model T Fords rolled off the assembly line.

“I envision it as a community campus,” said Hayes, president of the Historic Manheim Park Association in Midtown.

And when CiCi Rojas considers the old school, she doesn’t see an eyesore at the corner of 43rd Street and Tracy Avenue.

“Bancroft is perfectly situated for us,” said Rojas, vice president of community engagement for Truman Medical Centers. “Those are the opportunities we look for and that’s what the community health team does. We’d rather be out, than in.”

The two women share the vision of Bancroft serving as a multi-faceted hub of community health activities and programming. The list of potential services includes behavioral health, workout facilities, prevention and wellness classes, and even courses on computer and financial literacy.

Built in three phases between 1909 and 1922, Bancroft was closed in 1999.

But now, the school and the surrounding site are part of a $14 million redevelopment plan that could be completed by the end of next year.

Part of the renovated school would house 29 apartments.

Community space would encompass about a quarter of the roughly 64,300-square-feet building, according to the plan, an area that includes the old two-story gym and a nearby auditorium.

Hayes said she would like for Bancroft to serve a broad swath of the urban core.

Partners on the project include BNIM, a Kansas City-based architecture firm, and the Make it Right Foundation, which Hollywood star Brad Pitt founded to help rebuild New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. Pitt grew up in Springfield, Mo.

There are development plans that would repurpose other old school buildings.

As the Kansas City, Mo., school district works to sell off 30 buildings, many of the proposed plans include community health components:

  • Blenheim (2411 E. 70th Terrace): Is envisioned as a senior-housing complex with commercial space available for health and social services for surrounding residents.
  • Swinney (1106 W. 47th St.): Could become a medical office building with the old first-floor gym serving as physical therapy/gym area available to area residents as well to patients of the tenant physicians.
  • Westport (300-315 E. 39th St.): one plan for the two-building site would redevelop the property with a mix of residential and neighborhood uses, including a Health and Sports Center, to create “a living laboratory for redefining community.”

The district sold Blenheim and Swinney in May, and officials are still reviewing the three proposals for the Westport complex.

Two other buildings, Graceland, 2803 E. 51st St., and Switzer/Old West, 1829 Madison Ave., also could be redeveloped in ways that would include improvements to benefit community health, according to Shannon Jaax, director of the district’s “repurposing” effort for the schools.

The fact that so many of the reuse plans include health and wellness aspects for the community is right in line with the district’s goals for the old buildings, she said.

“These buildings were all once centers of those neighborhoods,” she said.

“They were activity centers. It was more than just where kids went to school. It’s where neighbors congregated after school. So one of the things we have been trying to do is…ensure that these sites once again return as assets to the community.”

That’s certainly BNIM’s approach with Bancroft, said Jeremy Knoll, who is managing the project for the architectural firm.

In discussions with surrounding residents, he said, they had identified the old school as “kind of a black hole of energy” in the neighborhood.

By preserving and refurbishing the school, Knoll said, the developers could provide a “continuity of cultural heritage” that could serve as a catalyst for continued revitalization of the area.

Truman’s work at Bancroft could also include clinical services, Rojas said, though the organization is also scouting other sites in that area.

Given that Truman officials are often out in the community, she said, activists often advocate for services in their neighborhoods.

Truman tries to be helpful and discerning at the same time, Rojas said, knowing the value of doing things like helping expectant mothers and even introducing students to health care careers in settings outside of the medical center’s own buildings.

“We know we have great success when we externalize some of those programs,” she said.

The Health Care Foundation of Greater Kansas City is proud to partner with the KHI News Service to provide weekly health stories about health and policy issues impacting the greater Kansas City region. Because it is committed to objective coverage, HCF exercises no editorial control over the content. The KHI News Service is an editorially independent initiative of the Kansas Health Institute.

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