HDR Foundation Grant: CHWC

More Than Garden Variety

HDR Grant Recipient Planting Life Back Into Kansas City Community

In the heart of Kansas City, a mile and a half west of the Missouri River, stands an old fire station. Firehouse No. 9 as it was formerly called. Three stories, red roof, garages-turned-entrances – signs of a historic piece of Wyandotte County, Kansas.

Today, it is fittingly the home to Community Housing of Wyandotte County, a nonprofit organization that revitalizes, stabilizes and reinvests in the community. Jeff Lipp, Associate Vice President and Operations Support Manager at HDR, sits on the board for CHWC, which was selected as a recent HDR Foundation grant recipient.

Lipp grew up in Wyandotte County. He went to high school just down the road at Bishop Ward and has family still in the area. So it's been difficult for him to watch the community suffer as many homeowners move to newer developments, leaving behind family homes, vacant lots, dilapidated buildings and rising crime rates.

"That's been my motivation with CHWC," he said. "It was gut-wrenching to watch my community start moving to the south side of Kansas City."

Lipp was asked to serve on the CHWC board in 2009 and he was eager to oblige. Two years later he became the chairman, serving in that role until 2014 before moving back to a board spot. In that time, he has helped CHWC made a lasting impact in the community.

The organization takes vacant, broken down homes and restores them for homebuyers. The services go much deeper than that, however, as CHWC has also built new homes on empty lots; restored historic buildings, including the firehouse and a newly opened coffee shop named Cup on the Hill; added art programs to the community; counseled more than 250 new homebuyers annually; and even helped create an urban garden.

That garden, called Splitlog Farm, is what the HDR Foundation funding will support.

"Our community organizer is an artist by profession, and he established this garden through a vision he had for many years," Lipp said. "There are a lot of residential lots where houses have been torn down and nobody really wants the land, so they fall into the county land bank. The county will either donate lots to us, or sell them to us for a nominal fee if we are willing to do something with them."

That's how Splitlog Farm came to be. It's located adjacent to M.E. Pearson Elementary School a few blocks from CHWC, and the garden does much more than provide vegetables to the neighborhood.

"School kids come over and work in the garden as part of their classes," Lipp said. "And now approval has been obtained to use those vegetables in the school, which is really unheard of with all the regulations."

The garden currently fills two conjoining lots in the neighborhood and features a small greenhouse, equipment shed, bee hives, and local artwork. The HDR Foundation grant will help take Splitlog Farm to a new level, adding a shelter for classes of M.E. Pearson Elementary School to meet, a fence around the area, a solar drip pump system, benches and large stones for seating and an irrigation system.

"Splitlog Farm is a place where members of the community are always welcome," said Steve Curtis, CHWC community organizer and farm manager. "It gives them a place where they can hang out and be around other people that care about them, and care about the neighborhood."

The students have benefited from the green space, increased access to healthy foods and nutrition education. Nearly 97 percent of the students at M.E. Pearson qualify for the free and reduced lunch program. This neighborhood has become increasingly impoverished over the last 16 years, going from a 19 percent poverty rate to 35 percent, according to CHWC. In addition, the neighborhood is considered a "food desert," meaning there are no local grocery stores and residents rely on dollar and convenience stores for much of their nutrition.

CHWC is also trying to create more friendly neighborhoods, providing families with places to gather and interact, which is important for an area that has influx of immigrants from Mexico, Burma, Bhutan and Nepal who Lipp said previously felt disconnected socially.

Helping residents feel safe in their community is also important. Lipp saw this firsthand with a project at a park not far from Splitlog Farm.

"One particular area we have revitalized is the area around Waterway Park. We did complete teardown and rebuilds of more than 300 homes in neighborhoods surrounding the large park, which, while I was growing up, was an area of drug activity and other crime," Lipp said. "We have revitalized that entire area from a parks perspective and recently added a coffee shop that we are running on a really low budget."

Thanks to the work of CHWC, that St. Peter's area of Kansas City recently won the Sustainable Communities award from the Greater Kansas City Local Initiatives Support Coalition (LISC).

Sustainability is just one more box on the checklist of things that CHWC is doing to help this community. It's preserving the history and diversity of Wyandotte County and Kansas City, Kansas, one building at a time and one homebuyer at a time, all with the help of an HDR employee and now the support of the HDR Foundation.