A glass-walled conference room at the Highwoods Properties headquarters on the Country Club Plaza overlooks one of the shopping district’s main intersections.
Glenn Stephenson, the Highwoods vice president who runs the Plaza, took a moment to admire a sight outside — a hard-hatted workman in a lift.
“Look at this guy cleaning that light fixture,” Stephenson says. “Isn’t that amazing? He’s out there with, like, a toothbrush on that thing.”
“That thing” is a city-owned light pole, beflowered with hanging baskets and standing tall on the Cleaver Boulevard median. But to Stephenson it offered a typical example of how carefully Highwoods attends to the shopping district, whose Kansas City roots go back to the early 1920s.
The Plaza Art Fair was a few days away, and unbeknownst to Stephenson, Highwoods’ involvement in the Plaza was about to change rather dramatically.
Just nine days later, the North Carolina-based real estate company announced it would put the Plaza on the market as a way to finance the purchase of two office projects in the southeast.
To many Kansas Citians, the Plaza represents something like the city’s symbolic heart. It’s only a shopping center, but it’s a very special one. It tends to make throngs of people feel good, and it attracts visitors — for drinks, food and shopping — from throughout the region. “North of 40 percent” of its customers, Stephenson says, come from beyond Kansas City.
Yet Highwoods, the district’s owner for nearly 18 years, has landed on the public hot seat from time to time for perceived stumbles that stirred up public ire, a thing made much easier since the dawn of social media. The fights tend to occur over redevelopment moves that test valid but often debatable notions about historic heritage, architectural integrity, private property and public space.
“Believe me, I’ve still got some wounds, right here,” Stephenson said in his jolly baritone drawl as he gestured toward his backside.
We had met to talk about the Midtown/Plaza planning document that’s making its way through City Hall.
Highwoods doesn’t oppose the plan, Stephenson says, but it does have major concerns about two themes. One would dictate storefront design and one points toward a future official historic designation and all the bureaucratic demands and delays that would come along with it. Highwoods’ attorney, Mike White, is aiming to seek amendments to the plan.
“Time kills deals,” Stephenson is fond of saying. Holding up as many as 40 building permits a year would present a grave impediment to landing new tenants or making other improvements, he says.
Well, I asked him in all innocence, what would happen if another owner came along? How can protection of the district’s character be assured?
“My short answer is, you’ve just got to trust us,” he said. Look at the Plaza 18 years ago and where it is today, he says, and it’s “been nothing but a stellar performance.”
“With those lessons learned,” I interjected.
Stephenson’s preferred guide is the bottom line. The Plaza’s revenue has increased every year but two — 2008 and 2009, when “everybody in America had two down years.” It’s 98 percent occupied, and going into the Christmas season it’s in the best shape ever.
One of the latest fights is occurring over someone else’s neighboring property. A developer wants to demolish three Tudor-style apartment houses on the west edge of the Plaza in favor of an undisclosed new project. The Historic Kansas City Foundation wants to add the buildings to an existing Nelle Peters Historic District, a collection of buildings designed by an important Kansas City architect. The City Plan Commission takes the subject up on Tuesday morning.
Stephenson had no opinion on the matter, but clearly he is no fan of historic preservation involving income-producing properties, including, first and foremost, his major business for the next few months, the Country Club Plaza.
“We want to be good stewards,” Stephenson said that day.
It remains to be seen how seriously the next stewards of the Plaza take on that task.