Neighbors are nervous as UMKC continues to gobble up land.

Suspicious Minds 

Neighbors are nervous as UMKC continues to gobble up land.

In 2002, the University of Missouri-Kansas City signed a peace treaty. The document, as I read it, recognized neighborhood's right to exist.

Former chancellor Martha Gilliland signed the order four years after the university began targeting an area south of the Volker campus to build intramural sports fields. People who lived in the neighborhood, Rockhill Crest, fought the threat of eminent domain with a slogan that would have delighted Woody Guthrie: "UMKC Kills Our Homes."

Gilliland's 2002 order stated the university's desire for the neighborhood to maintain its character and to establish "ongoing communications" with its neighbors.

Rockhill Crest residents do get the promised face time with university officials, but UMKC continues to acquire homes in the eight-square-block neighborhood when they become available and offers only vague intentions about its plans. The university or its trustees now own 151 of the 203 lots. Some serve as university offices. Most are rented to students and other tenants.

The land grab understandably alarms some of the homeowners who remember the volatility of 1998. (At one point, discussions between town and gown required a U.S. Department of Justice mediator.) According to Ken Spare, who owns a home near 53rd Street and Holmes, university officials respond to minor complaints. But, he tells me, "big things, like trying to get them to stop buying homes, falls on deaf ears."

Spare is also of the mind that a rented house is an unloved house. A landlord like the university, he feels, doesn't put in the effort that an owner-occupier does.

To prove his point, Spare took pictures of crumbling sidewalks and driveways on university-owned property and submitted them to the city of Kansas City. Clarence Leigh, an engineer in the city's Public Works Department, says the sidewalks will be inspected this week. "We're going to take a look at everything," Lee says.

Walking the streets, I didn't see a neighborhood at death's door. I saw anti-war signs and cats napping on stoops. A house with a couch on the porch — a sure sign of undergraduate life — faced a handsome stucco number with a yuppie-mobile in the driveway. In short: a pretty typical college neighborhood.

The stroll made Spare's sidewalk inspection seem a little petty. But then UMKC has certainly earned the mistrust of its neighbors.

In the 1980s, the university began buying property in what was known as the Trolley Barn neighborhood north of Brush Creek and eventually displaced all the residents. Yet the research park UMKC had envisioned for the site never materialized. The land was sold to the Kauffman Foundation, which built a new headquarters and leased land for the Anita B. Gorman Conservation Discovery Center.

More recently, the university demolished the 60-year-old Twin Oaks apartments at 50th Street and Oak, throwing the residents' lives into turmoil. (A mother blamed her visually impaired son's suicide on his dislodgment from Twin Oaks.)

Urban universities are wise to err on the side of assertiveness when it comes to their physical surroundings — I've lived in a college town turned lawless by Dickensian slum lords and bars that serve beer in buckets. But UMKC's creep into Rockhill Crest is disconcerting. The university seems to be tinkering with a neighborhood that does just fine on its own. On 53rd Terrace, a remodeler fixed up a tiny (i.e., one bathroom) bungalow and listed it for $173,000.

The university will continue to pursue properties that come on the market, says Bob Simmons, UMKC's director of campus facilities. "At this point, our objective is really just continuing to use it as the residential neighborhood it is today," he tells me, adding that the university has room to grow on its existing campus.

One afternoon last week, Simmons and other UMKC officials held one of their bimonthly meetings with Rockhill Crest residents. Spare reiterated his belief that UMKC is wrecking the neighborhood and demanded that the university stop buying property.

"Well, it's not going to happen," Assistant Vice Chancellor Dennis Cesari snapped. (In fairness to Cesari, Spare and his twin brother, Keith, who lives south of the Plaza, appeared to get under the skin of fellow neighborhood leaders, too.)

Later that evening, Rockhill Crest residents met with representatives from Cohen-Esrey Real Estate Services, hired in June as UMKC's new property manager.

The discussion indicated that UMKC hasn't been the most conscientious landlord, but things may be improving. John Blatz, a Cohen-Esrey managing director, told residents that workers would begin to trim the trees and shrubs spreading out of control. "The foliage overgrowth is considerable," he said.

Blatz said it seemed to him that UMKC had spent most of its money on the interiors. A renter corrected him. "A lot of that was us," she said, adding that she was the one who painted the inside of her apartment.

Dave Yates, who has rented from UMKC for eight years, said he was flabbergasted at how quickly Cohen-Esrey answered his most recent maintenance request. "A lot of stuff has been mismanaged," he said of earlier days.

Spare seemed less of a crank when Jim Millard, who said he had lived in the neighborhood for 35 years, complained about the challenges posed by the uneven sidewalks.

"It's obvious the concrete is very disintegrated in some areas," Blatz admitted.

If I were putting together a wish list, I would tell UMKC to be a better-than-average nobleman. Plant some flowers. Make sure the signs outside the houses used as university offices match. Pay a tow company to remove cars parked on lawns.

And given UMKC's clumsy history, a bigwig in Columbia should come to town to explain to the remaining Rockhill Crest homeowners the reasons the school continues to acquire land. I'd also like to see the houses that are used as rentals lose the tax-exempt status that comes with state ownership. Those tenants require government services, after all.

As for Ken Spare, I hope he keeps his eyes on the neighborhood.

But, for now, he can probably put away his camera.

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