Everyone agrees that West 39th Street took a turn for the better on the day that John Bregin Jr. bought the former Loretto Academy.
Built in 1903, the Loretto Academy originally served as a boarding school for girls. A Bible college took it over in the 1960s. The property was tied up in bankruptcy court when, in 1996, Bregin came up with $795,000 and a plan.
Bregin, who had developed the KC Racquet Club in Merriam in the 1970s, felt that the chapel and gymnasium once used by schoolgirls would be ideal for weddings and receptions. He also created apartments inside the building.
He had to overcome a few obstacles in the course of getting City Hall to approve the project and cut him a tax break. A Loretto neighbor, Cynthia Riggins, objected to his idea to put up three apartment buildings along Mercier.
Fourteen years later, Riggins continues to object.
In her attempt to unmake decisions that previous and current city councils made, Riggins recently took the stand in a Jackson County courtroom. She filed a lawsuit in 2007 to stop Bregin from building along Mercier. Essentially, she is trying to litigate an outcome that she could not produce politically.
Depending on one's view, she is either a determined crusader or a very bad sport.
Riggins has lived on Mercier since 1983. On the stand in Judge J. Dale Youngs' courtroom, she described how the neighborhood improved when families began to reclaim homes that had been cut up into apartments. "Now we have kids," Riggins testified. "We didn't before."
Her testimony was ironic. Riggins was a renter when she arrived in the neighborhood. Today she owns two homes on Mercier. The house next door to her personal residence contains three units that she leases to presumably childless tenants.
Riggins draws a thick line of distinction between her landholding (she also owns a building on 41st Street) and what Bregin hopes to accomplish. She complains that his apartment buildings will add too much density and ruin the character of the neighborhood.
On the stand, Riggins said "mondo" apartment complexes were not appropriate in the Volker neighborhood. But what Bregin has in mind seems a long way from "mondo." The buildings are limited to 45 feet in height, and their designs take into account the surrounding architecture.
Riggins, who works at a travel agency, described herself as "livid" when a Kansas City Star writer asked her about Bregin's proposal in 1996. Others in the neighborhood told the reporter they were concerned that the Loretto redevelopment would pack the streets with parked cars.
Since then, Bregin has won a lot of hearts and minds. Some of the same people who were nervous about his initial proposal say he has been a welcome addition to the neighborhood.
In 2007, Bregin went to the City Council for approval to turn part of the old academy into a boutique hotel. Kathleen Brock, a former president of the Volker Neighborhood Association, said the Loretto could have "no better caretaker" than Bregin.
Brock had expressed fears back in 1996 about too much density. She told the City Council that her opinion had changed. Kansas City, she said, needed more dense, walkable neighborhoods if it wanted to thrive.
Judy Widener, another past president of the Volker group, told the council that she had no doubt the Mercier apartments would be beautiful. Widener said she was thinking about selling her home. Speaking to Bregin, she said, "I would like to be the first person who signs a lease in one of your apartments."
Even the holdouts respect what Bregin has done. Manuel Lopez, who lives on Mercier and shares Riggins' objection, told the council that Bregin had done a "fantastic" job of repurposing the girls' school.