The Bellerive Hotel, Kansas City, Missouri
Eli Ungar: "I liked the Hyde Park neighborhood so much, I decided to buy another one."
In point of fact, things didn't progress in quite that order. Ungar's MAC Properties began acquiring residential properties in Chicago's Hyde Park at about the same time, in 2005, that it began to do the same in Kansas City's own historic Hyde Park neighborhood.
The similarities between the two Hyde Park neighborhoods are curious. Both are linked to the larger city by a system of boulevards inspired by the City Beautiful movement. Both neighborhoods were platted in the mid- to late-19th century, and both are adjacent to smaller developments called "Kenwood." Both were annexed to their larger metropolitan neighbor after a few decades of municipal independence. Both are a mix of gracious, 19th century homes on broad, leafy streets, and taller 1920's residential hotels, with smaller 3-story apartment buildings sprinkled in between. Both are racially diverse, and both have suffered from urban decline.
And now, both neighborhoods are home to Eli Ungar's MAC Properties.
MAC's object in both neighborhoods, to quote MAC's Peter Cassel, is to develop "contemporary apartments in classic buildings." In practice, that translates into a $30 million project renovating vintage 20's transient hotels, together with smaller apartment buildings, and bringing them to market as middle-range rentals targeted at middle-class professionals.
In Chicago, examples of this strategy are the Del Prado, Windemere, and Shoreland Hotels. In Kansas City, it is the Bellrive and four similar buildings on Armour Boulevard.
A local paper detailed the glamorous heyday of the Bellerive in the Roaring Twenties.
The ornate red-brick structure was Kansas City's fanciest apartment hotel when it was built in 1922, boasting a parade of famous guests: opera diva Ernestine Schumann-Heink, actress Mary Pickford, silent-film actresses Lillian and Dorothy Gish, contralto Marian Anderson and writer Edith Sitwall. Even Al Capone stayed there... Stars like Billie Holiday, Duke Ellington, Tommy Dorsey, Liberace, Bob Hope and Jerry Lewis performed at the hotel's swanky Casbah nightclub. Partly because of its past and partly because of its neobaroque architecture, the Bellerive made it onto the National Register of Historic Places in 1980.
That didn't keep it from falling victim to the declining fortunes of Hyde Park in general, which like those of it's Great Lakes sister, set in after World War II. It's a familiar story.
By the end of the Second World War, a profound change had occurred in the area. Many of the original owners had died or moved to larger communities, with newer addresses of quality. The large old homes were converted into apartments and sleeping rooms. The neighborhood began a long, slow decline which continued unchecked until the 1970's.
By the early 2000's, four the the five old hotels on Armour were vacant, and the Bellerive was traded from developer to developer as plan after plan fell through. The neighborhood was being polarized between affluent homeowners in the 19th century homes on smaller side streets, and the concentration of low-income renters in subsidized housing along Armour. Not long after MAC acquired the property, vandals began raiding it for copper pipe.
Speaking of the Armour Boulevard Hotels, a representative of the Hyde Park Neighborhood Association told a reporter in 2006, "The precedent that needs to be dumped is that this is an area for subsidized housing. These buildings need to be brought back and brought back now. Everybody agrees it needs to be a mixed-income neighborhood."*
As with Chicago's Hyde Park, MAC has made the bet that Kansas City, a growing Midwestern city with a healthy downtown just 3 miles away, home to a number of corporate headquarters, a major university, and a hospital complex, would support a growing market for middle-class renters in a neighborhood where they would add a much-needed demographic balance.
The scale is smaller in Kansas City, and there are no plans for major new developments like Solstice or the Village Center site. The neighborhood politics in Kansas City are also less convoluted, with the prominent neighborhood groups recognizing that an improvement in the housing stock -- or simply the preservation of Hyde Park's urban fabric, as opposed to clearance -- will benefit the entire community.
** "Project to Redevelop Buildings is Revived." The Kansas City Star. February 21, 2007.