Kansas City Star Editorial
Westport High School, 315 E. 39th St., was sold this month and will become part of a center for creativity and innovation.
Five years ago, the stream of students seeking an education and better future at Westport Middle and Westport High schools suddenly stopped when the buildings were among many that Kansas City Public Schools closed. Five years from now, those same structures are expected to give new life to the neighborhood and to young students and entrepreneurs.
They’ll be part of a new campus called Westport Commons: Center for Creativity and Innovation. The Kansas City school board this month, in executive session, approved the sale of Westport High School, 315 E. 39th St., to Kansas City Sustainable Development Partners. The purchase and retrofitting are part of a $23 million investment in the midtown area. The same firm, led by green-design expert Bob Berkebile, two years ago acquired Westport Middle School, which is across 39th Street from the high school building.
It’s the best possible reuse for the old schools. The district in 2010 made the tough decision to close nearly half of its school buildings because of dwindling attendance and to cut costs. Since then it has put the vacant buildings on the market, hoping to find buyers with innovative ways to reuse the structures.
Kansas City Sustainable Development Partners and Foutch Brothers had competing plans for the former high school, which were aired in a public meeting earlier this year. School board President Jon Hile said both plans were exceptional, but the community favored the Westport Commons proposal.
“We feel strongly that the best reuse of an educational facility is another educational facility,” said Laura Burkhalter, president of the Southmoreland Neighborhood Association, which includes Westport High School.
The Westport Commons plan is to include a computer coding school to prepare Kansas City students for good-paying jobs. It also will have an early childhood education center. Plans for the campus include live-work spaces for artists and entrepreneurs; an enterprise resource center; a culinary institute; health facilities; forum space; gardening, grocery and food start-ups; and literacy programs.
Berkebile has worked three to four years on the campus concept, where people and nonprofits can function more efficiently and in synergy. “We see the campus as a catalyst force increasing vitality for the middle of the city,” he said.
The partners also aren’t new hands with old schools. The group purchased Swinney Elementary School west of the Plaza in 2013 and is converting the property into market-rate, multifamily units.
Berkebile is a principal of BNIM Architects, which has been involved in the conversion of Bancroft Elementary School into housing intended to act as a development catalyst in the Historic Manheim Park neighborhood east of Troost Avenue. Brad Pitt’s New Orleans-based Make It Right Foundation is a major partner in that Bancroft project.
Berkebile said Bancroft and Westport Commons are examples of “urban acupuncture” in which public and private groups work creatively together. About $15 million will go into retrofitting the middle school. Construction is expected to begin within a month and tenants are expected to begin moving in by the spring of 2017.
Closing is set for December or January on the high school. Environmental and other prep work have to be done on that structure. It is larger than the middle school but it will probably be ready for tenants about a year after the middle school opens.
By 2020 the Westport campus very likely will be a thriving community of thinkers, doers and learners, helping to attract more people, businesses and housing to midtown.