Plaintiffs allege brownfield poses threat to unhoused

Abby Hoover
Managing Editor

Columbus Park residents are taking action after their concerns about people camping near a brownfield were met with inaction by the City.

Homelessness has been a persistent and increasingly visible issue in the Historic Northeast and across the city in recent months. With the addition of the COVID-19 pandemic, extreme heat and cold, and pushback on proposed solutions, those sleeping outside have been frequently displaced.

Nearly a dozen have now settled in tents on City property bordering the former Chouteau Courts site at Independence Avenue and the Paseo. The lot is divided into Housing Authority and City ownership, with Belvedere Park to the north.

Columbus Park Community Council President Kate Barsotti reached out to Andrew Bracker, the Brownfields project coordinator for the City, after neighbors watched with concern as people experiencing homelessness began camping on the land they believed to be contaminated.

“Groundwater is seeping up,” Barsotti wrote in an email to Bracker. “I’ve seen photos of empty plastic water bottles by the water as if people may be drinking or bathing from it… I don’t know the source of the water or how contaminated it may be.”

She also notified the Housing Authority of Kansas City, whose head of security reported to the scene to document with photographs.

“What should we be doing to make sure people aren’t being poisoned by being on this property?” Barsotti asked Bracker.

The 140-unit Chouteau Courts was demolished in late 2019 due to unsafe living conditions as part of the Paseo Gateway Project, a Choice Neighborhoods Initiative. The lot has remained empty ever since.

“There are environmental reports on file that can be reviewed to see if there could be any public health concerns,” Bracker said. “I’m not a health professional, but my recollection is that the contamination identified so far is fairly typical of what we find on other urban properties.”

The brownfields program will soon begin another round of testing of the former housing site and the adjacent Belvidere Park, Bracker added. The data from this next assessment will help them better understand the site conditions and plan a path forward for the safe use of the properties now, and to prepare them for redevelopment.

Capt. Victor Webb with the Housing Authorit of Kansas City (HAKC) Public Safety Department said the tents are east of the Housing Authority’s Chouteau Courts property, but the HAKC’s staff is investigating a water line leak.

The tents are currently on City property between Chouteau Courts and Belvedere Park. City Manager Brian said the City will only send case workers to perform outreach and kindly ask that they move, as in the past.

“Unless there is a clear and present danger for being there, we will wait until we have new housing options in the next couple of months before attempting a more permanent relocation,” Platt wrote in an email to Barsotti.

Dissatisfied with that response, Columbus Park residents former Missouri State Legislator and Chair of Jackson County Legislature Henry Rizzo, Charlie Passantino of Passantino Bros. Funeral Home, owner of Garozzo’s Italian restaurant Mike Garozzo, and former Chiefs player and owner of Allied Refreshment Company John Strada enjoined to seek legal action against the City.

“Neither the City Manager’s office nor Mayor Lucas have any regard for the safety of the homeless or for the community that surrounds this dangerous new camp site,” Rizzo wrote in a letter to Platt. “We plan to seek an expedited hearing and our hope is that a judge will listen to our concerns.”

This isn’t the City’s first warning. When the Downtown Council floated the idea of a tent camp at the former Chouteau Courts last winter, the neighborhood objected, citing transparency and quality of life concerns. When the City considered the property for the Verge Pallet Community, this same group threatened legal action. After months of contentious debate, objection from residents, and pressure from houseless advocates, the City Council tabled an ordinance to implement a community of Pallet shelters.