UMKC rejects plan to move law school

The Kansas City Star
May 27, 2004

The University of Missouri-Kansas City has rejected a proposal to move its law school downtown to the old U.S. courthouse, citing overwhelming opposition by faculty members.

The decision is a setback for developer Hugh Zimmer's plan to revive the historic courthouse at 811 Grand Blvd., which has been empty since 1998, and to the larger goal of downtown revitalization.

A move by the law school would have brought 500 faculty and students into one of the central business district's more deserted corners.

“I'm obviously disappointed they made this decision,” Mayor Kay Barnes said Wednesday. “I do respect the chancellor and the faculty. We'll move forward, and I'm confident that there will be other uses for the building.”

Concerns that relocating the law school would disrupt its vision of being an inter-disciplinary program based on a liberal arts campus, unease about downtown parking and security, and worries that moving the school would make it more difficult to recruit and retain professors gave the proposal no traction with faculty.

The faculty was strongly opposed when the idea was first presented last November, and sweeteners offered by the developer and downtown civic leaders, including the possibility of substantially boosting the school's endowment, failed to soften that resistance.

“I think the faculty felt we were able to do more of what we needed to do to educate students on the main campus rather than 811 Grand,” said Ellen Y. Suni, interim associate dean at the law school.

Zimmer had hoped the law school would be the anchor tenant for the 256,000-square-foot courthouse, which opened in 1939. He won the development rights from the federal General Services Administration a little over a year ago.

“It would have been an excellent thing for the university,” he said. “It would have raised the level of visibility and probably raised the level of support for the law school.”

University officials surveyed faculty members last week to determine whether any incentive would overcome their resistance. The options included:

• The prospect of obtaining an additional $750,000 annually for 10 years from outside sources to boost the law school budget.

• Substantially upgrading the school library by combining it with the Jackson County Law Library, National Archives documents and perhaps other law libraries in combined new quarters at 811 Grand.

• The possibility of attracting even more outside contributions that would boost annual law school funding by $1.5 million a year for 10 years.

• The possibility of providing residential space for law students within close proximity of 811 Grand.

All were overwhelmingly rejected by the faculty.

“It was pretty unequivocal on all the alternatives,” said UMKC Chancellor Martha Gilliland.

The chancellor said, however, that she was not disappointed by the faculty reaction. Essays that accompanied some of the survey responses demonstrated a desire to continue to improve the law school and to build relationships with other colleges on campus, she said.

Supporters of bringing the law school downtown thought that giving it a separate identity and address would boost its reputation and fund-raising ability.

“Obviously, our recommendation to relocate the law school would give them visibility they don't have now,” said Andi Udris, president of the Economic Development Corp. “It's regrettable they chose not to.”

The Civic Council, a group of business leaders, also had hoped the law school would come downtown.

“We were hopeful a mutually beneficial deal for the downtown community and UMKC could have been reached,” said lawyer David Frantze, co-chairman of the Civic Council urban core revitalization committee. “I'm disappointed a deal apparently couldn't be put together to make it more attractive to them.

Zimmer is also a member of the UMKC board of trustees, a private fund-raising organization for the university. He said moving the law school downtown would have increased its outside financial support. The proposals listed in the survey given to faculty members were not “idle,” he said.

“There probably would have been a high probability of them having been reached if the school had come to 811 Grand,” he said. “Whether those higher expectations can be obtained on the Volker campus, the faculty will have to work for.”

Zimmer also estimated that the benefit to UMKC, had the law school moved downtown, would have been about $24 million. The university would have been able to move the law school at no cost and would have had a $10 million allowance for finishing the space. The move also would have freed up the current law school building for other uses.

With the school's rejection of the move, Zimmer must essentially start over on his redevelopment plan. He still has prospective tenants such as the Mid-America Regional Council and the Economic Development Corp., but none would occupy the space the law school would have taken.

Gilliland said the university might still be interested in having some continuing education programs in the building.