Anyone interested in “ancient” history — 1915, for instance, when the school that would become Metropolitan Community College was founded downtown — got what they came for at an Oct. 25 program at MCC-Penn Valley. [ Update: An encore of this event is planned for 9:30 a.m. Thursday, Feb. 2, at MCC-Penn Valley Education Center 006. ]
But MCC archivist Janice Lee’s presentation on the geography of MCC also spent some time on more recent history, including the story of how MCC-Penn Valley’s campus ended up at 31st Street and Southwest Trafficway.
The Junior College of Kansas City, as it was known since 1919, had been under the control of the Kansas City School District from the beginning. But new state legislation in 1961 allowed for the establishment of junior college districts that could ask taxpayers for support, which is what happened here in 1964.
Suddenly the college was independent, and the Kansas City district gave the college just two years to vacate its building at 39th and McGee streets.
Lee says the original plan was for one new main campus to be built, with two satellite suburban campuses to follow later. Ultimately, however, MCC-Longview in Lee’s Summit and MCC-Maple Woods in the Northland would be created as full-fledged campuses.
Neither location proved controversial. The land for Longview was practically given to the college by descendants of the Long family, and the land for Maple Woods was inexpensive.
But finding a site for what would become MCC-Penn Valley — often referred to as the “urban” campus — proved more vexing for college officials.
Identifying affordable, buildable, easily accessible land in the center of the city was a challenge, Lee says. Potential campus sites in the mid-1960s included one at Meyer Boulevard and Troost Avenue, former location of the Blue Hills Country Club, and at 48th Street and Troost Avenue, now part of UMKC. There were also proponents of building the new MCC campus on Hospital Hill.
All were ruled out for a variety of reasons.
The two finalists for the campus site ended up being a tract near I-435 and Eastwood Trafficway, called the Bennington site, and one just west of Research Medical Center on Meyer Boulevard, called the Lynn Estate.
When the Lynn Estate, the first choice, fell through, the college settled on the Bennington site.
That decision proved controversial. African-American community members and their supporters considered it too suburban — remember, this was the 1960s, when the city didn’t stretch out so far. And, critics said, the site was too inaccessible, given the lack of public transit.
Objections to the Bennington site took the form of vocal opposition at public forums and a flurry of letters to college officials and newspapers. Lee has a thick stack of such correspondence in the archives.
In the face of persistent and vehement opposition, MCC officials finally hired a consulting firm to find a less polarizing campus site.
The consultants recommended a more centrally located campus at 31st and Southwest Trafficway. But developing the site, which would be named for nearby Penn Valley Park, would be no cakewalk.
The land was expensive; houses had to be demolished and dozens of tracts purchased from landowners such as BMA (then namesake of the office tower, now condos, just north).
Several nearby businesses objected to the proposal. A business association complained that the campus would stand in the way of its plans to develop Pennsylvania Avenue into another Broadway. This led to the idea of building an elevated campus walkway over Pennsylvania.
Despite objections, construction began in the fall of 1969. On Jan. 15, 1973, the $23 million Penn Valley campus opened its doors to enthusiastic reviews. The early opposition was on its way to becoming a memory.
“It’s hard to imagine that this site we now take for granted was once the object of so much controversy,” Lee says, glancing out her office window at a quiet Penn Valley campus.
Her program was tied to MCC-Penn Valley’s Common Read book this year, “Some of My Best Friends Are Black: The Strange Story of Integration in America” by Tanner Colby, which includes a section on Kansas City’s history of real estate segregation and how Troost Avenue came to be a racial dividing line.