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At 100, the Country Club Plaza is less full, owned by outsiders and heading into an uncertain future

Carlos Moreno
KCUR 89.3
The Mill Creek Park fountain, installed in 1960, stands as a popular site for selfies and taking a break from shopping and dining adjacent to the Country Club Plaza.

Can Kansas City's venerable shopping district hold onto its mix of prestigious national chains and trendy local businesses as it moves into its second century?

For a historical deep dive on the Plaza, listen to "100 years of the Plaza" from KCUR's podcast A People's History of Kansas City on Apple PodcastsSpotify or Stitcher.

Take a walk around Kansas City’s Country Club Plaza, and the signs of trouble are inescapable.

More than two dozen storefronts are vacant. National chains that brought status to the district -- like Nike, Michael Kors and Victoria’s Secret — have left, leaving people to wonder if the mix of national and quality local businesses that has defined the Plaza for decades can hold up.

A vacant, 122,000-square foot dirt lot sits on the west end of the district. Buildings there were demolished to pave the way for a new Nordstrom department store and cafe. But Nordstrom now says it will remain in its current location, a suburban shopping mall.

Some Kansas Citians question whether the Plaza’s out-of-town owners have the district’s best interests in mind. But right now the plans of a developer based in neighboring Overland Park, Kansas, are causing heartburn for preservationists and neighbors.

Drake Development wants to demolish a historic church and replace it with a nine-story structure with high-end condos and restaurants that would alter the landscape of the Plaza.

Robert Martin, president of Plaza Westport neighborhood association, said this looming issue could leave lasting changes in the area.

“So it really is a domino effect. This isn't crying wolf, this is a real problem,” Martin said.

Mixed reviews from local retailers

Currently, the majority of the retail space on The Plaza is owned by Taubman Centers and Macerich, two of the nation’s largest mall developers.

Their business model is a mix of national chains, and smaller, local businesses. That fits with longstanding trends on the Plaza, where well-known department stores have pulled in shoppers, while local shops and restaurants have enjoyed the opportunity to showcase their brands for locals and tourists alike.

Plaza Night-18.jpg
Carlos Moreno
KCUR 89.3
The Neptune Fountain at 47th Street and Wornall Road was installed in 1953 and remains a distinct attraction.

Tyler Enders, co-owner of Made in KC Marketplace, said the Plaza’s location was the biggest reason he chose to open his business on 47th Street. Made in KC has been on the Plaza for four years and does not plan to leave.

“Everyone goes to the Country Club Plaza, at least sometime during the year,” Enders said. “So it gave us a huge opportunity in our minds to reach all of Kansas city with one location.”

EB and Co., a local boutique, got its start on the Plaza at the Made in KC Marketplace, a collection of local businesses. Since then, owner Emily Bordner has opened a stand-alone location on the Plaza and stores in Brookside and Overland Park.

She said starting out on the Plaza was key to her success.

“It changed the trajectory of my business and my life for sure,” Bordner said. “I love being there and having a store there is just such a huge source of pride.”
But some business owners worry that the appeal of the Plaza may begin to wane.

That’s how Chrysalyn Huff felt when she decided to pull her home decor and lifestyle store, re:emporium from the Plaza.

Huff said she was not impressed with the proposed businesses Taubman was planning to bring in to replace the departing big-name brands.

“I am someone who has been around this industry a long time and I have seen the list of names and, honestly, some of it is embarrassing,” Huff said. “It’s very sad to me to see the level of retail is dropping.”

Taubman offers short-term leases to smaller, independent or local businesses, at more affordable rents than the national chains or long-term tenants pay. That enables local businesses to get a foothold on the Plaza. But they can expect a boost in rent when the temporary lease expires.

While many retailers appreciate the inclusion of local businesses in the owners’ strategy, some think it adds to instability on the Plaza.

“I don’t think that there’s often the belief that some of those temporary tenants are going to stay long term,” Enders said. “And it does kind of create this revolving door nature.”

Representatives from Taubman Centers and Macerich did not respond to repeated requests for comment on leasing terms.

Scrapbook Vol. 21, p. 218
The State Historical Society of Missouri Research Center-Kansas City
J.C. Nichols Company Scrapbooks
Archival photo of shopping on the Country Club Plaza in Kansas City from the J.C. Nichols Company Scrapbooks

The Nordstrom saga

Nordstrom, a department store chain, in 2018 announced an agreement with Taubman Centers to relocate from its location in Johnson County’s Oak Park Mall to the west side of the Plaza.

To make way for a new store, the Plaza management tore down a portion of a movie theater, a bank, a restaurant and a parking garage. City records show a building permit valuation of $11.9 million for the space where the proposed project is located.

The project was due to be completed in 2021. After COVID-19 complications upended that timeline, a new completion date in 2023 was announced.

But doubts grew after Nordstrom removed the expected new opening date from its website. And employees in Overland Park told customers the move was off. Early this month, Nordstrom and Taubman made it official: Nordstrom would stay at the Oak Park Mall.

In a statement to KCUR, a spokesperson for Taubman confirmed the two parties have mutually agreed not to move forward with plans in the shopping district.

“Taubman is actively reviewing alternative plans for the location and looks forward to making an announcement in the near future,” the statement said.

Since then media outlets have reported that another department store, Dillards, is in talks to take over the space, although neither the store or Taubmans has confirmed that.

Some businesses that face the empty space see it as untapped potential for more foot traffic. Teresa Ng, owner of Bo Lings restaurant, said she hoped a thriving retail business would bring more business to her restaurant, but that she’s becoming used to upheaval.

“It would be really helpful if they open up because we'll be very busy,” Ng said. “But I really think it does not make that big a difference with our business. It’s been so much change and it's been like this for a few years now, so we just kind of get used to it.”

Carlos Moreno
KCUR 89.3
An ornate metal entryway leading to 47th Street in Country Club Plaza.

More change on the way? 

The Seventh Church of Christ Scientists has stood on the northwest corner of 47th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue since the 1940’s. Drake Development, of Overland Park, wants to tear it down and replace it with a nine-story building that will house restaurants, luxury condominiums, and entertainment.

The size of the proposed development far exceeds height requirements as set forth by a Kansas City Council ordinance that requires some buildings to be limited to 45 feet in height in an effort to maintain the unique characteristics of the Plaza.

The concept is known as the “bowl” or Plaza Bowl Overlay. It attempts to limit building heights in the interior of the Plaza, and while loosening requirements on the outskirts. Drake’s proposed space far exceeds the height the bowl overlay stipulates.

Vicki Noteis, a historian, architect, and president of the Historic Kansas City Foundation, said the height limitations exist for a reason.

“All of that is there to protect the history and character of a unique part of Kansas City, that the rest of the country recognizes as a unique part of Kansas City,” she said.

Matt Pennington, president of Drake Development, has said the future of the Plaza depends on bringing in more density and diverse concepts.

“We believe it’s in the best interest of the Plaza long-term. It needs stuff like this,” he told the Kansas City Star.

Carlos Moreno
KCUR 89.3
The Country Club Plaza's fountains and architecture evoke a lot of memories for people in Kansas City.

Martin, of the Plaza Westport homeowners association, said the West Plaza and South Plaza neighborhood groups also are concerned about the proposed new development.

“Any deviation from it sets the precedent for them to develop other buildings that would deviate even further,” Martin told KCUR.

Noteis said change on the Plaza is inevitable. It’s how you manage that change that will determine the future of the district that Kansas Citians care about deeply.

“If we're all in this together with neighborhoods, property owners, and developers in the city, it's entirely possible to work together to do all those things,” Noteis said. “You don't have to stop development on the Plaza to protect the character or the historic part of the Plaza.”

Hear more about Jacob Martin's reporting on "100 years of the Plaza" from KCUR's podcast A People's History of Kansas City. You can subscribe on Apple PodcastsSpotify or Stitcher.

Jacob Martin is a news intern at KCUR. Follow him on Twitter @jacob_noah or email him at Jacobmartin@kcur.org.
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