The National Garage is a blighted historic treasure.

Parking Rot 

The National Garage is a blighted historic treasure.

Workmen wrestle with a bundle of rebar dangling from a crane at 12th and Oak while their colleagues hammer cement forms into place. A sign displays an artist's depiction of their project: a $20 million gleaming edifice of glass and steel; the shiniest parking garage Kansas City has ever seen.

Its designers want a radical departure from the gray garages scattered across downtown -- a building that hides cars behind decorative walls. That's not such a new idea, though.

Only a block north and a block west stands the National Garage at 11th and McGee. When built in 1930, it achieved a near-perfect balance of form and function. That's why it was put on the National Register of Historic Places in 2000.

But the building shows its age. It has stood vacant for a couple of years. Its owners long ago boarded up the storefronts on the first floor. Fire has singed its terra-cotta ornamentation. Support pillars are crumbling.

The city needs to knock it down, says Nathan Paré, manager of the city's Division of Dangerous Buildings. The owners have done "nothing" to show they intend to maintain the building, he says. "We have an obligation to our citizens to make sure our buildings are taken care of."

Paré has received a bid of $350,000 to level the seven-story building.

And the fact that the city may tear it down carries no small irony. Downtown boosters say they'll need lots of new garages if development takes off inside the freeway loop.

The idea horrifies preservationists, who find in the National Garage what has been missing from almost every garage built since.

"Garages and certain utility types of buildings, they didn't spend their most creative juices on," says Jane F. Flynn, board member of the Historic Kansas City Foundation. Flynn parked in the building during the 1980s, when she worked for the city. "The architectural detail is really quite exceptional. It's worthy of a battle by the historic preservationists."

That detail includes "double-hung fenestration, decorative brickwork, terra-cotta spandrels, and elaborate Art Deco ornamentation at the north and east facades," wrote historical consultant Cydney Millstein, who prepared the building's application for placement on the National Register of Historic Places three years ago. " ... the National Garage does not visually intrude with the character of the neighboring streetscape, unlike the bleakly designed multistory parking garage site to the north."

Designed by Kansas City architect George E. McIntyre during the depths of the Great Depression, the National Garage used the revolutionary one-way "Clearway Ramp System" to move cars among its eight floors.

The National Garage was up-to-date. And so was Kansas City.

"While other cities are talking business depression, Kansas City is carrying forward an epochal skyscraper building program," Commissioner of Buildings William McMahon told The Kansas City Times in 1930.

Construction crews labored on the sixteen floors of the Professional Building and would eventually link that building to the National Garage by tunnel. More crews readied the lot of the Phillips Hotel. The city had issued building permits for the Power and Light Company Building and the 31-story Fidelity National Bank and Trust. Under Tom Pendergast's guiding hand and with his company's cement, Kansas City would soon build its City Hall as well as the Jackson County Courthouse and Municipal Auditorium.

The activity drew people downtown, and more and more of them were shunning streetcars for Fords and Chevrolets, creating the city's first parking crunch. When firefighters complained that cars were making their work harder, the city banned street parking and forced businesses to adapt.

"Kansas City was reported to be unusually progressive about construction of parking garages in the central business district," Millstein's application says. "Kansas City had a substantially higher ratio of off-street parking facilities than any other American city of similar size."

The National Garage became the city's signature garage.

The $385,000 marvel was able to hold 1,000 vehicles.

More recently, though, it has become just another sign of downtown's failure.

Two years ago, a group of investors bought the National Garage and hired Millstein. Her success in getting it on the National Register allows the owners access to tax credits and federal grants to help with restoration. In Missouri, such credits can be significant.

The property owners can deduct 20 percent of the renovation cost from their federal income taxes and another 25 percent from their state income taxes. "It basically halves your costs," says Tiffany Patterson, National Register coordinator for the Missouri State Historic Preservation Office. "If you spend $100,000, you're actually only spending $55,000."

Developers disagree about whether that will make the National worth saving. Matt Meier, of Alexander Company in Madison, Wisconsin, says it can't be done.

His group has signed a 150-year lease with the owner of the Professional Building, which is also on the National Register. That building has been vacant since 1992, when 270,000 gallons of water flushed through it from a top-floor tank after a power outage. With the help of tax credits, Meier plans to spend $17 million to turn the office building into 120 apartments.

Meier says he wanted to convert the National Garage to apartments as well but found it unusable.

"One hundred years of water and salt does a lot to concrete," he says, exaggerating the building's age if not its poor condition. "We found the structural integrity of the building is a significant issue. There's not much left to save in that building."

In order to shore up the support columns, builders would have to dismantle the front of the building, Meier says. "In the end, you'd have nothing left," he says. "Historic renovation is what we do, and we passed."

To provide tenant parking for the Professional Building, Alexander Company bought the 650-space Shoppers Parkade -- that "bleakly designed" garage Millstein criticized -- across the street.

The National Garage's current owners, represented by Tom Cabibi, of Denver, are looking into rehabbing the building as a parking garage, says Joe Egan of the Economic Development Corporation. They are consulting with West Bottoms renovator Adam Jones, who told Egan the building could be saved. Jones was out of the country and unavailable to comment for this story.

Cabibi has a little more time to put together his plan. Before the bulldozers roar to life, Paré must ask the Missouri Historic Preservation Office for what amounts to permission to demolish the structure.

In order to spend federal money to demolish a historic building, the city must prove that renovation is unfeasible.

"The intention of the law really is to preserve the building and demolish it as a last resort," says Paul Mohr, of the city's Department of Housing and Community Development. "You can't just be using federal moneys to knock down historic properties. You can't just look at a building and say, 'It's old and dirty and somebody urinated in a corner and there's been a fire and it's been vacant for a few years.'"


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