Clara Irazábal merges pursuit of social justice and equity in two areas

Clara Irazábal is settling into her new roles as director of the Latina/Latino Studies (LLS) Program and professor of Urban Planning at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, where she combines these roles to pursue social justice and spatial equity.

“These positions allow me to teach, research and serve while addressing the urban challenges our communities face,” said Irazábal.

“I feel mutually connected and devoted to both areas, and my classes at UMKC will have components from urban planning and Latinx Studies, including exploration of issues of economic and community development; affordable and inclusionary housing; and sustainability and resilience for the Latinx communities and other minoritized groups in Kansas City and beyond,” she said. “Not only will we learn to identify and analyze the challenges, but most importantly, rehearse solutions for them while empowering communities.”

Irazábal has conducted her planning research in Latinx communities in the United States and in countries of Latin America, including Venezuela, Brazil, Chile, Argentina, Colombia, Costa Rica, Trinidad and Tobago, and the Caribbean. Throughout her career, she has been motivated by her concern for understanding social justice struggles as displayed in the transformation of urban space, which has allowed her to share her experiences and expertise with communities.

“I have conducted the majority of my urban planning research in the Latinx community. It sets the stage for how to improve practices and the well-being of the entire community, beyond Latinxs,” said Irazábal. “I know here in Kansas City there’s a Troost divide, which the city has not yet overcome. We need to integrate both sides of the community,” she said.

Irazábal explained the rapidly-growing term ‘Latinx’ (pronounced Latin X) as an all-inclusive term. When using ‘Latina or Latino,” some individuals might be excluded. Latinx includes individuals who do not identify as women or men in the LGBTQ community.

The new UMKC Center for Neighborhoods in the Department of Architecture, Urban Planning + Design is an example of where she can merge the two areas of research and engage the community.

“The goal of the center is to promote community development by training leaders, and allowing them to select projects they wish to work on,” Irazábal said. “The Center just graduated its first cohort of trainees, which includes neighborhood leaders and police officers. There is much hope for the LLS and the Center for Neighborhoods as instruments for community development, representing opportunities to learn how to work better, collaborate and create synergies,” she said.

Since her arrival in July, Irazábal has been attending meetings and learning about more initiatives at UMKC, which she will support.

“I have already attended meetings with the UMKC Hispanic Advisory Board and was impressed by how invested its members are in the LLS Program and UMKC at large, as well as their energy when promoting the university and our students,” she said. She has learned about upcoming Division of Diversity and Inclusion programs, including the Social Justice Book and Lecture Series, the Agapito Mendoza Scholarship Breakfast and the Avanzando program.

“Each of these is critical to the success of our students and to celebrate and reach out to the community,” she said.

Irazábal has some specific thoughts about enhancing the LLS Program, which include opportunities for growth.

“I want the program to mature and expand and offer an integrated graduate certificate, a Latina/Latino Studies major and eventually a master’s degree,” she said. “Also, I want the program to include Latina/Latino and Latin Americas Studies, attracting students and faculty to increase visibility and impact in the community,” she said. “I want the program to have a larger presence in our community and for the community to be engaged with us.”

Having arrived at UMKC by way of Columbia University in the City of New York, where she taught and conducted research for eight years, Irazábal worked with the Institute of Latin American Studies and collaborated with the Centers for Brazilian, Mexican and Caribbean Studies.

“Latinxists and Latin Americanists – researchers, teachers and activists – came together to create a synergy, a dialog, an enrichment to communities and students,” she said. “I want to stimulate that here at UMKC.”

While not in the classroom this semester, Irazábal will take the time to be become more familiar with UMKC and the LLS program before teaching in the spring.

“I will teach Introduction to Latina/Latino Studies. It will be a good way to get to know the students and for them to know me,” she said. “Later, I will teach Urban Planning and Latino Studies, which will help students understand community development and the LLS. It will have an impact on the minority community. That course is still being developed,” said Irazábal. She also wants to ensure the students continue to grow their research skills, including investigating, developing and testing hypotheses.

Invoking a line from poet June Jordan – “We are the ones we’ve been waiting for” – and a phrase from activists César Chávez and Dolores Huerta – “Sí se puede (yes we can),” Irazábal illustrated her sense of mission and vision for what she and the community can do together.

Wandra Brooks Green, Division of Strategic Marketing and Communications

Photo credit: Brandon Parigo, Strategic Marketing and Communications

Reposted from UMKC’s blog.

Shaping Cities: The Architect as Community Organizer

John Ruble
Moore, Ruble, Yudell Architects & Planners

Please RSVP here.

As co-founder and partner in the Santa Monica, California-based architectural firm Moore, Ruble,
Yudell, John Ruble has collaborated on a broad spectrum of residential, academic, cultural,
and urban design work in the U.S., Europe, and Asia.

Ruble examines urban design issues now confronting Kansas City and other metropolitan areas in
the latest Kivett/Seligson Lecture. Ruble also discusses his work, and that of his firm,
and its emphasis on creating meaningful, memorable, and sustainable places.

Kivett / Seligson Lecture Series, Sponsored by the UMKC Department of Architecture, Urban Planning + Design

Center for Neighborhoods welcomes first group of Neighborhood Leaders

Date: June 6, 2016
Time: 5:30 p.m.

4747 Troost

UMKC Center for Neighborhoods Welcomes First Cohort Group of Community Leaders!

Group will engage in 12 weeks of interactive classes and workshops that begin Monday June 6, 2016.

The UMKC Center for Neighborhoods in the Department of Architecture, Urban Planning + Design (AUP+D), will welcome the first group of neighborhood leaders who will participate the Center’s program. The event is scheduled for 5:30 p.m. Monday, June 6 at 4747 Troost Ave., Kansas City, Mo.

The initial cohort is the first of several groups, drawn from 35 people representing 17 neighborhoods, who will participate in the Center’s program.

Areas of focus will include: Neighborhood Governance and Leadership; Technology and Communications; Neighborhood Health and Safety; and Neighborhood Planning and Development. Cohort 1 represents neighborhoods located throughout Kansas City, Missouri and covers a wide range of neighborhoods in size, location and capacity from the Missouri River to South Kansas City.

“As an urban-serving university, UMKC has a charter-based responsibility to meet the needs of the urban population in the Kansas City region, and the Center of Neighborhoods is poised to serve as the catalyst for university-community partnerships that help meet the needs of these neighborhoods,” said Dina Newman, Director of the Center.

While Cohort 1 is full, interested neighborhood leaders are invited to sign up for Cohort 2, which is scheduled to begin in the fall.

After the kickoff event, the regularly scheduled Monday night classes will take place at Katz Hall, 5005 Rockhill Road on the UMKC campus.

For more information, please contact: Dina Newman at 816-235-6931, or visit our website: Center website

Center for Neighborhoods celebrates Grand Opening – April 23rd!

Date: April 23, 2016
Time: 10 AM

4747 Troost Avenue
Kansas City Missouri

Please join the Department of Architecture, Urban Planning and Design (AUP+D) in the College of Arts and Sciences at UMKC to celebrate the grand opening of the Center for Neighborhoods and welcome our new staff.

The opening ceremony will begin promptly at 10:25 a.m. on Saturday April 23rd at the Center for Neighborhoods – 4747 Troost Avenue, KCMO.

The event is free and open to the public. There will be light refreshments and music.

The Center for Neighborhoods is located at 4747 Troost Avenue, Suite 222 – Kansas City MO 64109. The Center is a research and outreach unit based in the Department of Architecture, Urban Planning + Design.

For more information, please visit our new website:

Kansas City’s Shuttered Public Schools

A Look At What’s Going On With Kansas City’s Shuttered Public Schools


KCUR, By Esther Honig • Jun 8, 2015

It was a tearful, dramatic day five years ago, when the school board of Kansas City Public Schools decided to close 21 buildings in order to adjust to a shrinking student population. That was in addition to nine previously closed schools, leaving the district with 30 surplus buildings.

Kansas City is not the only district doing this around the country … Detroit, Philadelphia and Chicago all closed large numbers of school buildings in recent years. But in the wake of the school closures, Kansas City developed what was considered a pioneering program, asking communities to be part of the process of determining what would happen to the empty buildings.

Four years after the initiative began nine schools have been sold, three have been demolished, one is being leased and one was reclaimed for future use by the district. That leaves 16 schools still for sale. One of those properties is Blenheim, a massive 90-year-old school located at Prospect Avenue and Gregory Boulevard.

Shannon Jaax, the director of the repurposing initiative, gave me a tour of the Blenheim. A she unlocks the heavy metal doors, she releases a seal of stale cold air. As we walk the halls our steps echo over the linoleum tile. Windows are boarded up with plywood and gray paint peels from the walls, but the space still holds a lively energy. Of all the schools, Jaax has brought me here to show me an example of a property that she says holds potential.

This building as a really great layout” Jaax explains. “It’s of a nice size, where when you’re looking at a residential development, you can get enough units in here to make the project work, but there’s still challenges.”

There are four main factors that weigh in on the viability of repurposing an old school: condition, location, layout and size.

Blenheim has managed to stay in good condition — there’s been relatively little vandalism. It’s also in a good location because there are plenty of bus lines and other commercial properties nearby. Still, the building hasn’t sold. Two different developers have submitted plans for repurposing the school, but they fell through because of funding shortages.

Repurposing with a purpose
School districts don’t often act as realtors, but in many cities across the country, massive school closures have forced districts to recycle their shuttered properties. In Kansas City, the district spends $1.8 million a year in security and maintenance, but Jaax explains, the objective isn’t to sell them as quickly as possible.

“The school closures were very emotional and hard for parents, families for community members,” she says. “As a district we saw the impact that those closures had and one way of addressing that was to find good viable reuses and give the community a voice as we moved forward.”

Jaax helped pioneer a new model to help determine what becomes of the structures. At the beginning of 2011, she held meetings in each neighborhood with a closed school. Residents were invited to tour the sites and share what they wanted to see done.
As Jaax expected, every neighborhood wanted their school saved, but given the poor condition — or bizarre layout — she knew some schools were more fit to be demolished than repurposed. Many residents also wanted community centers and affordable senior housing, but that meant finding the right developer willing to take on those projects.

Learning to compromise
The Foutch Brothers, a development company, bought Switzer School on Kansas City’s westside a year ago for $450,000. Renovation have finally begun and director Steve Fouch offers to take me inside to see the old school before it’s gutted.

The air is moist and moldy, which Foutch says is from water damage and a failing roof. Parts of the building have been vacant for decades and last year the old library was burned in an arson fire. Foutch estimates it will cost $24 million to convert the school into 114 market rate apartments. That may be a daunting task for some, but Foutch says it’s like putting together a puzzle.

“It takes a lot of design ingenuity to figure out how to turn it from one thing to the next,” he says. “You have to be able to handle all the hazardous materials and the historic guidelines and syndicating tax credits.”

As we’re talking in the school’s main hall, Foutch suddenly goes quiet … he hears the faint voices of kids who have snuck onto the building. In seconds, he’s on the phone with police asking if they will stop by to scare off his “visitors.”

Vandals can cause serious damage to the old schools, and Foutch knows that. He’s repurposed 20 schools in cities and towns throughout the Midwest — it’s become his niche in the market. A low purchase price, with the added advantage of historic tax credits make them desirable, but in Kansas City he’s required to share his plans with the local residents before moving forward. Not something every developer is willing to do.

“We have lots of meetings,” says Foutch. “I try and work with them as best I can or other people try and get through to them on what their expectations are and realizing that it’s been here for 20, 25 years vacant.”

Some residents expressed that they would have liked more community space and perhaps a smaller parking lot. Foutch says he was open to these suggestions, but at the end of the day his plans have to be financially viable.

“All of their expectations just can’t be met,” he says. “If you want to see it saved you have to give in on a couple things.”

Even empty, these schools still hold sentiment and an identity for a neighborhood, which makes repurposing contentious. Residents in Waldo successfully fought plans that would replace the Bingham school with a Walmart grocery store. In the Historic Northeast, despite a campaign to save the Thacher school, it was recently demolished to create field space for students from North East Middle School.

Getting a second chance
In the Blue Hills neighborhood you’ll find the Cinderella story of school repurposing.
On a Thursday evening at the Mary L. Kelly Center, formerly the Graceland School, the building is packed with visitors. A church has rented out the gym for a conference and on the second floor there’s a performance by an adult line dancing class.

Families watch from the sideline of the spacious dance studio, while the performers — an all female ensemble of retirees — step in unison to 1990s R&B. Dance student Teresa Smith started coming here a year ago when it opened, and remembers when it was an abandoned school, but she’s thrilled that it’s now a community center.

“I look on the website and I see all the things that the kids can do and you know it’s just amazing,” she says. “See coming up in my day we didn’t have anything like this — and it’s free. I’m even taking a computer class here.”

The center offers recreational space, summer camp for kids and GED courses. In 2013 the developers, the non-profit The Upper Room, began working closely with the neighborhood to redesign the space and decide what resources they would offer. The result is a community asset, and that’s the goal.

But Graceland came with advantages. The building was in good condition and the developers had access to generous donors.

What to do with Willard Elementary
Just up the street from the Mary L. Kelly Center, on 51st and Garfield, is Willard Elementary. Built in 1924 with a unique Mediterranean style, Willard was closed in 2000. In the years since, vandals have torn the school apart to scavenge copper wire and piping. Many of the roof’s ceramic tiles lay shattered on the ground and the walls are marred with graffiti.

A block away, sisters Yolanda and Erica Hall sit on their front porch, enjoying the first day of summer vacation. Both girls agree that the blighted school has become a nuisance for the whole neighborhood.

“I just think it makes our neighborhood look bad,” says Erica. “The neighborhoods down here they usually already have a bad name and when you see big abandoned buildings that aren’t being taken care of it just makes it look worse.”

The state of this school is no secret. According to Shannon Jaax, developers last year walked away from a proposal on the building. The cost to repurpose Willard would outweigh the potential profit. If no use for it can be found, the site will become a candidate for demolition.

A race against time

Jacob Wagner, an Urban Planning professor at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, has been studying Kansas City’s repurposing efforts since 2007. He knows the effects a school like Willard can have on a neighborhood.

“They can cast a shadow over the neighborhood,” he says. “People feel like it’s bringing down property values and its impacting people’s perception of safety.”

Still he says that even these blighted school buildings are more valuable standing than demolished.

“Even after, if you do demolish the building you still have the challenge of managing a massive vacant lot so that’s a whole other problem.”

Wagner explains that because there’s no immediate market for these buildings, the best solution is to do a better job of preserving them for reuse in the future. Of course, that would require more money from the district, and that’s money that’s not being spent in the classroom.

So, for Willard and the 15 other schools in the district’s portfolio, it’s a race against time to find the right developers before another building is lost.

2014 Chancellor’s Award for Excellence in Community Engagement


Architecture, Urban Planning + Design (AUP+D) was awarded the UMKC Chancellor’s Award for Excellence in Community Engagement at the awards ceremony in March. The award recognized and celebrated students, faculty, and alumni who have participated in community projects over the last two decades.
According to the chancellor’s office, the department “is able to draw on its small full-time faculty, a handful of dedicated professional volunteers and talented, enthusiastic students and get amazing results as community partners.”

AUP+D students have completed analysis, data and design initiatives for 47 community projects, been contributing partner with 83 community groups, secured grants of $750,000, and received two regional and four national awards. Evidence of the breadth and depth of their involvement can be seen in a representative list of community projects: the Troost Corridor Plan, the Trolley Track Trail, the Green Impact Zone, School Repurposing with the Kansas City School District, Vine Street Project and the Washington Wheatley Neighborhood action plan. In addition, the department made significant contributions to the redevelopment of post-Katrina New Orleans and the restoration of Joplin, Mo., after the devastating tornado. ”