Fowler and a neighbor headed down the hall, slogging through 2 inches of water, before they realized there was no smoke. But they went outside, where they saw fire trucks and police cruisers parked on Armour Boulevard.
Ten firefighters and half a dozen cops were questioning the Bellerive's residents, trying to figure out who had opened an eighth-floor fire hose and caused massive flooding. A few residents described the man who had been yelling "Fire!" outside Fowler's apartment. When the man wandered out, police handcuffed him and took him away. A maintenance crew then got busy yanking wet red carpet out of the hallways and installing industrial drying fans.
It wasn't the first trip police had made to 214 East Armour that month. In June alone, they logged sixteen calls, according to a Kansas City, Missouri, Police Department spokesman. Fowler had noticed the increased police activity; one afternoon, her neighbors saw a narcotics squad searching an apartment with a drug-sniffing dog. But it was the aftermath of the fire-alarm flood that made Fowler start thinking about moving, though she loves living in the Bellerive.
"This is a gorgeous building with a lot of history," Fowler says.
The ornate red-brick structure was Kansas City's fanciest apartment hotel when it was built in 1922, boasting a parade of famous guests: opera diva Ernestine Schumann-Heink, actress Mary Pickford, silent-film actresses Lillian and Dorothy Gish, contralto Marian Anderson and writer Edith Sitwell. Even Al Capone stayed there, according to the Kansas City Public Library's historical file on the Bellerive. Stars like Billie Holiday, Duke Ellington, Tommy Dorsey, Liberace, Bob Hope and Jerry Lewis performed at the hotel's swanky Casbah nightclub. Partly because of its past and partly because of its neobaroque architecture, the Bellerive made it onto the National Register of Historic Places in 1980.
Now residents of the 140-apartment building fear it's destined to become a dump. Tenants, who say they haven't seen much in the way of repairs in the more than three months since the flood, are frustrated. One summer evening, Tim Feiertag, who has lived in the building for eight years, pointed out stretches of bare, concrete-floored hallway; a rusted support beam visible through a hole in the ceiling; missing vintage baseboards; cracked plaster; and water stains on every floor in the southeast corner of the building.
Just a year ago, residents were optimistic about a new owner. They thought the old hotel would be renovated for the first time since the 1980s. For more than five years, a Wisconsin-based partnership headed by a businessman named Harold Jones had owned the Bellerive and the other old apartment hotels on the same block -- the now partially occupied Clyde Manor, as well as the Yankee Hill and Park Central, both vacant.
In recent years, several developers have tried to buy the block of aging buildings. In 1998, The Kansas City Business Journal reported that Robert Dupont Jr., from southern Missouri, had signed contracts to purchase the hotels from Jones' partnership, Bellerive Apartments Inc. Apparently, that deal fell through. In 2000, the paper reported that Phoenix-based developer Maxus Community Development planned to buy the buildings and shell out millions to renovate them if the Missouri Department of Economic Development would approve more than $11 million in tax-exempt bonds and $500,000 in low-income-housing tax credits. Those incentives never came through, and Jones' Wisconsin group kept the property.
But the Pitch could find no record of any news stories when, in late December 2002, the Spartan III company, owned by California investor William Zappas, quietly bought the properties.
In January, Zappas installed Belton real estate broker Brent Barber as the boss of the Bellerive's longtime general manager.
Court records show that Barber is a defendant in numerous lawsuits. More than thirty lawsuits, many alleging fraud, have been filed against him in Jackson County Court; Barber has more than $800,000 in outstanding judgments against him there. One lawsuit, filed in federal court last year by Ameriquest Mortgage, alleges that Barber and his wife, Lisa, conspired to defraud the company into making $4.2 million in bad loans. Until summer 2002, Barber was on probation with the Missouri Real Estate Commission, which had sanctioned him based on the Kansas Real Estate Commission's revocation of his license there in September 1998. In Kansas, Barber had acted as an agent without a broker's license and then misrepresented those activities on his license application, records show ("Home Wrecker," May 22).
Bellerive resident Feiertag remembers his first encounter with Barber, who attended a tenant's meeting last winter. "He seemed like an entrepreneur -- a lot of big dreams," Feiertag says. He adds that Barber presented himself as a "co-owner" of the building. At that meeting, Feiertag recalls, Barber put forth a renovation plan for the whole block. One former apartment manager, who asked that her name not be used in this story, says that Barber promised full makeovers for all of the units in the Bellerive and said he planned to renovate the old Casbah, now a gutted storage space, and install a world-class gymnasium.
"There was so much talk of, CEOh, we're gonna sock millions into this,'" the former manager says. But not long after the takeover, she says, Zappas sent an e-mail announcing that staff salaries would be cut and benefits eliminated. A few months later, with none of the promised renovations happening, she quit. Barber hired another manager and also brought in his mother, Wanda Barber, to assist.
Fowler says that's when things really started to go wrong at the Bellerive. Police were coming to the building more frequently. Residents couldn't get sinks and toilets fixed. Workers replaced the ruined carpet in her apartment with stuff so cheap it felt like Astroturf. Then her dishwasher broke, and the maintenance man botched the repair, flooding her kitchen.
Over the summer, the second manager quit. One sweltering weekend in July, Fowler's air conditioning stopped working. She paged the building's emergency maintenance crew for twelve hours but got no response. Finally, she looked up Zappas' home number in California and called him. He apologized and had the problem fixed, she says.
Many other residents began making plans to move.
Mike Divino intends to break his lease and pay a penalty. "We've had no proper air conditioning all summer, and the gate is always broken in the back," he says. "They're ruining a historic building. I think our rent money is just going in their pockets."
In an interview with the Pitch this week, Barber blamed the lack of repairs on a dispute with a company he said he paid in advance to install new carpet, as well as on an insurance company he said had refused to cover the $500,000 damage.
"It's been a slower pace than we'd hoped, and obviously nobody's happy," Barber said. "You've got tenants mad, and rightly so. And we're stuck with this bill we've got to cover." Barber would not say why insurance didn't cover the damage.
Barber also refused to explain why promised renovations aren't in progress. "There's a process that needs to happen that hasn't happened yet," he said. "There are some things that need to be signed off on." He would not elaborate.
A few weeks ago, Fowler called Conrad Miller, a Kansas lawyer who has sued Barber on behalf of clients who say they were defrauded by Barber on real estate transactions. Miller says none of his clients' lawsuits against Barber has a trial date yet.
Miller advised her to contact Zappas again and fill him in on the maintenance problems and substandard repairs. Fowler called Zappas a few weeks ago. "He wasn't nearly as cordial this time," she says. "He blamed the problems on the man who flooded the building and said there wasn't the money to fix something like this. He basically blew me off."
Zappas did not return the Pitch's phone calls.
"We're serious. We don't want to leave," Fowler says. "We want our home restored to what it was. Why let them off the hook and turn it into a slum?"