Longtime Kansas Citians love to talk about how much better the historic Country Club Plaza used to be, back when the J.C. Nichols Co. owned it. The Plaza featured local retail outlets and amenities such as a drug store, movie theater and bowling alley.
By contrast, current owner Highwoods Properties is blamed by many for bringing in national chains, driving out the locals, ignoring the Plaza’s history and basically ruining a wonderful Kansas City institution.
Since the late 1960s, I’ve watched the Plaza change for the better, the worse and, in recent years, the better again.
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As a result, I’m not one of those celebrating the news that Highwoods wants to sell the Plaza.
No one knows who’s going to step up to buy it. But whoever does, let’s hope they generally follow in the footsteps of Highwoods.
The Country Club Plaza has faced all kinds of competitive pressure since Highwoods took it over in 1998.
Johnson County retail establishments created the most angst for Plaza lovers. Remember when Town Center Plaza opened in the mid-1990s in Leawood and was supposed to be the “new Plaza?” (It wasn’t, not by a long shot.)
And then came the prettified Zona Rosa in the Northland, opening just over a decade ago.
Yet after all the intense competition, the Country Club Plaza is still thriving.
Public incentives, including an extra sales tax, helped support some of the crucial Plaza redevelopment projects over the last few decades and to provide the free parking that Plaza shoppers enjoy.
In 2015, the Plaza features a wide variety of restaurants that are more popular than many of those that operated in the area years ago when a single operator ran too many of the eateries that people were avoiding.
Yes, the national chains have come to the Plaza, but the shoppers have continued to show up in droves, too.
Highwoods has taken care of the popular fountains, which are attractions for people of all ages.
It has promoted the 84-year-old Plaza Art Fair into an extremely popular fall tradition.
Highwoods has continued the world-famous Plaza Lights, maintaining it as a beloved institution.
Oh, and the movie theater is not a small, cramped facility in the basement.
Criticism of Highwoods has occurred off and on for good reasons during its long ownership of the Plaza. But that’s not surprising, given how much people deeply care about its spot in Kansas City’s history.
The real question is whether the Country Club Plaza is better or worse than when Highwoods took control of it.
The answer is more positive than negative, and for that fact the company deserves praise, not scorn, from Kansas Citians.