Behind Benni Ewing's house, there's a festering, empty expanse where a shiny new shopping center should be.
The area looks like an abandoned dumping ground. Hip-high weeds blanket awkward mounds of dirt. Unruly vines creep up half-toppled utility poles. Huge piles of rubble sit next to streets with no houses.
On the northeast end of the 35-acre tract, a crumpled stretch of chain-link fence arches up from the ground like the skeleton of some prehistoric beast. In the middle of the raw landscape, one boarded-up white house stands like a ghost of the former neighborhood.
The place looks like a forgotten war zone, not the site of one of the largest taxpayer-backed projects ever in Kansas City.
Behind a standing portion of the chain-link fence, signs read "COMING SOON: CITADEL PLAZA." But it has been seven years since an organization called the Community Development Corporation of Kansas City started this project at 63rd Street and Prospect. Construction on the 300,000-square-foot shopping center was supposed to be finished by the end of 2007.
Ewing lives in a five-bedroom house on Park Avenue, where homes were to be leveled to make way for Citadel Plaza. The 40-year-old Sprint employee says she got a letter from the Community Development Corporation of Kansas City in October 2006, telling her that the developers intended to buy her out. Ewing says her house has been in her family for 37 years, so when the CDC-KC offered her $42,000 to move, she said, "No way."
She expected a negotiation. But in the past year, she hasn't heard again from the CDC-KC. She has listened to the rumble of backhoes and bulldozers, though, as the organization continued demolition on her street. "They call our neighborhood blight, but look what they've turned it into," she says.
She points to the ripped-up sidewalk in front of her house. Down the block, orange pylons spill into the street, next to muddy lots. An oversized tumbleweed of discarded plastic fencing spasms in the wind. An explosion of trash — a splintered television, a rolled-up rug, a handful of black garbage bags — has been splayed over the curb for months.
"Why are they doing this to my family?" Ewing asks. "Why are they making us live like this and not communicating with us?"
The man who could answer those questions is William Threatt Jr., president of the CDC-KC. If you ask him, the area is evidence of a groundbreaking achievement to bring big-name retailers to an underserved community. He'll tell you that the CDC-KC just needs the city to front it $45 million to make sure the project doesn't fall through.
But if the recent past is any indication, that would be a risky investment.
Before Terry Riley was the city councilman for the 5th District, he was an AmeriCorps volunteer in 1994 and 1995 in one of Kansas City's toughest neighborhoods. The Blue Hills neighborhood — bounded by Prospect on the east, Paseo on the west, 47th Street on the north and 63rd Street on the south — was a neglected and dangerous slice of the urban core.
"Blue Hills Park was known as a gang park. It had bullet holes in the backboard of the basketball goal," Riley says.
Volunteers worked to shut down crack houses and start block watches; they began to improve the housing stock and encourage homeownership.
In 1994, City Hall marked the southeast corner of the neighborhood as part of a massive tax-increment-financing plan — a 14-project initiative that would front developers some future tax revenues if they would help revive blighted areas. Riley says the blocks around the intersection of 63rd Street and Prospect were perfect for city incentives.