In May 1998, Steinhauser became the first city attorney assigned to enforce city codes full time. She hammered homeowners and renters whose paint bubbled, whose gutters dangled and whose yards were cluttered with broken cars.
In September 1999, Steinhauser announced that she was turning her attention to Kansas City's crumbling downtown. Her first target was the art deco Professional Building at 1103 Grand.
The derelict terra-cotta structure had been vacant since 1991. In 1992, a top-floor storage tank overflowed, flushing 270,000 gallons of water down through the building's sixteen stories. Over the years, city inspectors have found pigeons flapping through the building's vacant offices, water splashing in from open windows or pouring down the stairwell from the leaky roof, chunks of wallboard and ceiling tiles piling up on the floors. Vandals have stripped the plumbing fixtures and much of the wiring.
At first, inspectors wrote municipal tickets to the building's owner, Stephen Sloan of 510 Park Avenue in New York.
In response, Sloan hired Secure Plus to keep the doors to the building locked. He replaced broken windows with black-painted plywood, closed the elevator shafts and fixed a leaking roof drain. At the city's request, he adorned the street-level windows with art. But he didn't renovate the building or find a new tenant. Instead, he pleaded guilty to one municipal ticket for failure to demolish or repair a dangerous building and paid a $500 fine on September 29, 1999.
That same month, Steinhauser filed suit against Sloan. This time, she bypassed Municipal Court, where judges imposed piddling fines and rarely ordered jail time for codes offenders. In October 2001, when the case finally made it to Jackson County Circuit Court, Steinhauser demanded that the judge order Sloan to renovate the building, sell it or tear it down.
Now the escalating legal fight over the Professional Building has become a test case that will determine how aggressively Kansas City can pursue downtown landlords who let their buildings rot.
"The building sat there for seven years with nothing happening," says Sloan's lawyer, Jeff Simon. "There's no denying that."
But Simon argues that the city overstepped its bounds by pulling Sloan into circuit court. As long as the Professional Building's doors stay locked and its bricks aren't crashing to the sidewalk, he says, Sloan should be allowed to leave it empty indefinitely. Simon argues that forcing Sloan into action ignores the market forces that cause buildings to be built and renovated.
"This is the first case in the history of Anglo-American jurisprudence in which they would force redevelopment by injunction," Simon says.
But the city's attorneys contend that eleven years of empty storefronts and vacant offices are enough, particularly when they occupy what could be one of Kansas City's premier addresses.
"We have declared the building a dangerous building, and still yet nothing has occurred on it of any substance," Steinhauser told Judge John R. O'Malley at the October 2001 hearing. If Sloan refused to fix or sell the building, Steinhauser wanted O'Malley to hold him in contempt and freeze his Missouri assets.
In November of that year, O'Malley gave Sloan one month to seal the building from the weather, two months to fix the roof, three months to repair the street-level artwork, four months to power-wash the exterior and repair any loose terra-cotta, and 180 days to bring the building up to code. Alternately, O'Malley said, Sloan could demolish the building within 180 days. If he did neither, the Jackson County Sheriff's Department would sell the building at auction.
The decision was a victory for the city. But O'Malley didn't have the last word.
Sloan appealed to the Missouri Court of Appeals Western District. Before a three-judge panel, Simon argued that the court didn't have the authority to force the sale, that the city could have done more to address the problem at the municipal court level before running to the circuit court judge, and that the building wasn't a nuisance.
Simon claims the city's lawsuit scared off a developer who was interested in renovating the building. "The politics beat down the common sense and the economics," he says. Now Sloan has another renovator interested. The Alexander Company, of Madison, Wisconsin, has signed a 150-year lease and hopes to use tax credits to help fund a $17 million project to turn the Professional into a 120-unit apartment building. Company officials have said they will decide by next month whether to proceed with the project.
On December 17, the appeals court reversed the lower court's decision, siding with Sloan.
Unless the Missouri Supreme Court agrees to hear the case, as the city has requested, the city is back to square one with the Professional Building.
In the meantime, though, Steinhauser has left town. Her replacement, Ted Anderson, says he has no faith that the Alexander Company will follow up with its renovation. So Anderson told the City Codes Department to reinspect the building.
On January 31, Code Enforcement Officer Jennifer Floyd noticed a 16-square-foot hole in the brick wall on one side as well as broken and missing window panes and peeling paint. Floyd mailed a notice of violation to Sloan on February 3. Sloan has thirty days to make the repairs or request an extension. If he refuses, he faces the maximum $1,000 fine.