A very contentious project, initiated and being pushed by a very controversial person, got a very cool reception last night at a public hearing at St. Francis Xavier Catholic Church, 52nd and Troost.
Three years after it was broached, this project — a proposed four-story apartment building aimed at Catholic students attending Rockhurst College and the University of Missouri-Kansas City — is coming together and moving very close to review by the City Plan Commission and the City Council.
A scaled-down plan will be submitted to the city Friday, with a hearing before the City Plan Commission to be held as soon as March 17. (The Plan Commission, city residents who are appointed to their posts, is an advisory board. The 13-member City Council has the final say.)
What has made this project extremely controversial and brimming with drama is that its main proponent is none other than lightning-rod bishop of the Catholic Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph — Robert Finn, the only U.S. Bishop convicted in the long-running clergy sex-abuse scandal.
In the eyes of many, the project is as tenuous as Finn’s hold on his job.
Finn did not attend the hearing but sent three representatives, including diocesan chancellor Rev. Ken Riley.
Also on hand was an attorney representing the diocese and a top official with the construction firm that would build the 85-unit facility, which would consist primarily of two- three- and four-bedroom suites. (The building would have 237 beds — each tenant would have his or her own bedroom, and the developer says it would need about 213 students, to break even.)
About 125 people attended the hearing, held in the sanctuary of the fish-shaped church.
During the two-hour meeting, people in the pews asked a variety of questions, including:
What would happen if the project proceeds and later failed because it didn’t appeal to enough prospective tenants? (Answer: The diocese would be on the hook for at least “some” of the financing.)
Who would monitor student conduct? (Answer: The property manager.)
Would the parish be guaranteed that it could use the former school gym — a separate building that is scheduled to be converted to conference space — as its parish hall? (Answer: Yes, but it could be used for tenant meetings, too.)
Now, here’s the backdrop, where the spaghetti gets even more rubbery.
In some ways, this would seem to be an easy notch in the belt for the diocese. The diocese owns the church property, including the former school building that would be razed to make way for the apartment building. At four stories, the building would not be as tall as the church, so neighbors wouldn’t have to worry about a skyscraper on Troost. And something needs to be done with the school building, which was closed about eight years ago as the parish elementary school.
However, strong undercurrents are at work here, and the vast majority of parishioners and area residents appear to be adamantly opposed.
First, while the diocese owns the church and all the grounds, this is the only parish in the diocese that is run by Jesuit priests, who do not answer directly to the diocese. They answer to the Jesuit hierarchy. Priests at St. Francis Xavier are not assigned and reassigned by the bishop, as is the case with all other 95 or so parishes in the diocese; instead they are assigned by the Jesuit “provincial” in St. Louis.
By dint of its Jesuit connection, St. Francis Xavier appeals to a very independent breed of Catholics. In general, parishioners are antagonistic to Bishop Finn; they do not kowtow to his conservative beliefs, such as his strident opposition to abortion, and they don’t like it when the bishop hands down arbitrary directives. Several years ago, for example, he put a stop to a former pastor’s egalitarian custom of coming down from the altar and walking up and down the aisles shaking hands with people during the “Kiss of Peace” after the “Our Father.” (Parishioners responded by filing up the steps to the altar and shaking hands with the pastor in his “aerie,” where Finn thought he should remain to maintain the line between clergy and “the faithful.”)
Second, some opponents of the project — including a significant number of the influential 49-63 Neighborhood Coalition members — are extremely worried that the project will be a bust. Many parishioners, especially, believe that the apartment will be marketed primarily to conservative Catholics of Finn’s ilk. And they wonder if there will be enough of that type of students to make the project successful. If it flops, they fear, the neighborhood and the diocese would be stuck with a white elephant. They also fear that this already-hard-strapped diocese could tumble deeper into financial distress and end up forcing the diocese to cut diocesan jobs and/or pensions.
The third and strongest undercurrent working against the project is that it is creeping ahead in the long shadow of Bishop Finn’s criminal record. As noted above, Finn is the only American bishop to have been convicted of a crime in connection with the priest sexual abuse scandal that has tarnished and enervated the Catholic Church worldwide for about three decades.
Finn, of course, was convicted on a misdemeanor charge of failing to report child sexual abuse in the case where former priest Shawn Ratigan (who’s now doing 50 years in prison) took hundreds of “upskirt” photos of young girls at his Northland parish.
Lurking above and around the student-housing controversy, like oppressive humidity on a deep summer’s day, is the fact that it seems likely Finn will no longer be the bishop within a matter of weeks or months. Pope Francis has been reviewing the case and sent a Canadian archbishop here last fall to investigate the issue of Finn’s leadership. (Personally, I think Finn’s hourglass is down to its last few grains of sand.)
As one parishioner, former KC Star reporter Kevin Collison, pointedly noted at tonight’s hearing, the housing project is “really only one man’s vision.”
Collison didn’t say this, but I suspect he and many other opponents are wondering what would happen if Finn’s successor didn’t take kindly to the project…Suppose he, the successor, thought the $15 to $16 million going into the project could be spent better elsewhere. But once plans are approved, papers signed, revenue bonds issued and dirt turned — opponents are wondering — could the project be halted?
The distinct fear is the project could go down as Finn’s final folly.
Here are some of the facts and figures about the proposal:
:: Name of the proposed building — Bellarmino Catholic Center, named after Italian Jesuit cardinal St. Robert Bellarmine, who lived in the late 16th and early 17th centuries.
:: Developer — Domus Development of Dallas. According to its website, Domus “has spent the past ten years specifically concentrating on student housing, both university-owned and privately-owned, for the largest student living developers in the country.”
:: Contractor — Tri-North Builders, with headquarters outside Madison, Wisconsin. Tri-North is a 34-year-old firm with offices in several cities, including Dallas. Steve Harms, Tri-North’s director of pre-construction services, was the main presenter at last night’s meeting.
:: Estimated price tag: $15 million to $16 million.
:: Size — four stories containing 85 units and 237 bedrooms.
:: Rent prices — $700 to $1,200 per student, depending on unit type.
Note: Patty and I were members of St. Francis Xavier (I call it the Catholic church of last resort) for several years, until we left in the late 2000s. We loved the community, but we could no longer take the Catholic Church’s policies, especially on married priests (forget it) and women priests (don’t even think about it)…In addition, Bishop Finn’s meddling and myopic management style was suffocating. Later, like everyone else, we saw his sinister side.