Law school mulls move downtown

The Kansas City Star
April 2, 2004

The UMKC School of Law is being lobbied hard to move to the old U.S. courthouse, which would bring 500 faculty and students downtown.

The law school, now at 500 E. 52nd St. on the University of Missouri-Kansas City's main campus, has emerged as the first choice among potential tenants being pursued for the vacant courthouse at 811 Grand Blvd.

“We hope the UMKC Law School would be the anchor tenant,” said Hugh Zimmer, who a year ago won the rights to redevelop the historic building.

“We believe the university is quite interested. They've gone into this in a professional and thorough manner. They've visited a number of top law schools that are in urban locations remote from the main campus.”

Last week UMKC Chancellor Martha Gilliland received a report conducted by the law school that gauged the interest of students and faculty in the idea. Sources who have seen the report said the idea received a chilly reaction within some quarters of the law school, but Gilliland is open to exploring the idea further.

“The decision about what to do will rest with the chancellor and her senior staff,” Zimmer said.

Michelle Hopkins, a spokeswoman for Gilliland, said the chancellor needed to review the report and discuss it before commenting. Officials at the law school could not be reached for comment.

Andi Udris, president of the Economic Development Corp., said his agency was working to make it economically viable for UMKC to become part of the $38 million courthouse redevelopment plan.

“We're trying to create a facility at the same cost,” Udris said. “The cost of garage parking would be the same as the campus, and also the garage would be safer and more secure because it also would be used by employees at the new federal courthouse.”

The effectiveness of some typical development incentives would be limited by the fact that the law school isn't a for-profit enterprise, but Zimmer said he thinks the state and federal historic tax credits generated by the 65-year-old building would provide a financial boost to help make a deal work.

The old courthouse closed in 1998 when the Charles Evans Whittaker Federal Courthouse opened. The General Services Administration then conducted a search for new uses for the nine-story building. In April 2003 the federal agency chose the Zimmer Cos. as the designated developer.

Zimmer won with a proposal to convert the 256,000-square-foot courthouse, which was built in 1939, into a “metropolitan enterprise center.” At the time, UMKC was considered a possible user along with a pair of quasi-public agencies, the Mid-America Regional Council and the Economic Development Corp.

While early thinking revolved around moving single programs or sections of UMKC departments to the courthouse, the major push in recent months has been to move the entire law school.

Zimmer did a feasibility study that estimated the law school would occupy about 140,000 square feet in the building, making it the major tenant. The renovation would cost about $8 million.

“We've been talking to UMKC a long time,” said Udris, who added that discussions with the law school have been more complicated because it is operating with an interim dean.

Though the law school is the priority for Zimmer, he said the Mid-America Regional Council and the Economic Development Corp. are very interested in becoming tenants. Taken together, the three entities would occupy almost 75 percent of the building.

The redevelopment plan includes construction of a 1,200-space parking garage that would serve both the old building and the current federal courthouse.

Zimmer said there are many examples of law schools that are off campus, including those of Northwestern University in Chicago, Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., and Loyola University in Chicago. He said the UMKC Law School could make that transition as well.

“Part of the whole plan is to make a seamless transition from the environment of the campus and not penalize students and faculty on parking,” Zimmer said. “We think we can do that.”