On June 2, Harry Cleberg, a former chief executive at Farmland Industries, obtained a permit to cut a doorway between two condominium units. Cleberg and his wife, Clara, live on the third floor of Santa Fe Place, a seven-story building at Crown Center.
The timing is noteworthy. The Clebergs purchased their units in the fall of 2005. Why would nearly six years pass before the city of Kansas City, Missouri, was apprised of their intention to combine the units? The answer may lie in a recently opened investigation. The city is looking into the apparent disregard for the permitting process that occurred at Santa Fe Place during its condominium conversion.
Santa Fe Place functioned as an apartment building for most of its 35-year existence. Crown Center Redevelopment Corp. stopped renting and started selling the 110 units inside the building in 2005, when the market for downtown condos peaked. Prices ranged from $88,000 to $378,000.
Several dwellings have undergone extensive makeovers. Last fall, Crown Center auctioned off its 15 remaining units. A sales brochure indicates that one unit received a $100,000 upgrade, including a new floor plan. But City Hall has been kept in the dark about most of the work. Cleberg is only the second occupant to get a permit.
Of course, not every remodeling job would have needed a permit. Wilson Winn, the manager of the Investigations Division of the city's Planning and Development Department, tells Plog that cosmetic improvements -- paint, carpet, light fixtures -- can be made without City Hall's permission.
But when the work involves more than new flooring and a bucket of high-gloss, city officials like to be kept abreast. The city is aware of multiple instances of units being combined. "Obviously, doing something of that magnitude is going to require a permit," Winn says, "because you're going to get into moving walls and those kinds of things."
Conrad Knab, the president of the Santa Fe Place Condominium Association, is not ready to concede that some residents may have flouted the city's rules. "We don't feel like there's been any violations at this point," he says.
As Knab tells it, his knowledge about what's happening at Santa Fe Place is limited largely to the common areas. "Crown Center sold the units as-is," he says. "What every individual owner has done, I'm not privy to all that information."
Knab, an engineer at Hallmark, isn't clueless, though, and neither are other board members. The condominium association's newsletters identify the units in which construction is taking place. The December newsletter noted that work "continues" on the seventh floor of the building, an apparent reference to the most substantial remodeling project at Santa Fe Place.
The family trust of Dan and Ron Shaffer, brothers who ran Seiden's Furs in downtown Kansas City with their parents, owns six contiguous units on the seventh floor. The city's preliminary investigation indicates that four of the units have been combined into two. City records do not show that permits were obtained.
Messages left at a phone number listed to Ron Shaffer did not elicit a response. Cleberg, a member of the condominium association's board of directors, did not respond to a voice message. A Crown Center spokesman did not reply to an e-mail or return a phone message.
In an initial interview, Knab seemed to want to put the compliance burden on Curry Association Management, a private company that manages the building on behalf of the residents. "We depend on Curry Management, that's had a lot of experience in condos and everything, to follow the rules and regulations of the city," he said.
But later, in an e-mail, Knab took Curry off the hook. "Any modifications made to individual units are the responsibility of the homeowner," he wrote. "It is spelled out very clearly in our bylaws that everyone who purchases a unit has received."
Permits have been obtained for work that has been performed in the common areas of Santa Fe Place. The most recent, issued in 2008, indicates remodeling of a clubhouse.
The apparent lack of compliance within the units is not standard for condominium conversions. The Sulgrave, a high-rise apartment near the Plaza, went through a similar transformation. City records indicate that dozens of permits were issued for plumbing, electrical and other remodeling work that took place inside the dwellings after they were sold.
The city's permitting process is not unusually burdensome -- it takes hours, not weeks or days. "The city tries to make it pretty easy," says an executive at a construction company that has worked on a number of lofts.
The city can penalize work that begins without a proper permit in place by tripling the fee. There is a five-year statute of limitations, however, which may complicate the city's investigation of Santa Fe Place.
The residents who hired contractors who ignored the permitting rules deprived both the city of fees and Jackson County of information. Every month, cities within Jackson County submit permit information to the Assessor's Office. The permits alert the county assessor to property enhancements that may need to be recognized with a higher assessed value. They also notify the county of parcel numbers that need to be reissued. From Jackson County's perspective, the Shaffer brothers own six discrete units on the seventh floor, which is inaccurate.
Calvin Williford, an aide to Jackson County Executive Mike Sanders, says permit information helps the county perform its duties. "It becomes really problematic for us as Jackson County to move forward when these sorts of issues are out there," he says.
At Santa Fe Place, the prevailing opinion seems to be that what went on behind closed doors was only the business of the residents.