As the Country Club Plaza celebrates 95 years in business this year, its current owners face a daunting task: How to keep the historic and iconic outdoor mall thriving during an era of mall decline?
When Taubman Centers Inc. and the Macerich Co. bought the Plaza in early 2016 for $660 million, they hinted at a few possibilities: bringing some first-to-market tenants to the shopping center while also striking a balance between upscale and mid-range, national and local retailers.
Two and half years later, it seems the strategy is coming to fruition. And none too soon — a May Business Insider story noted that U.S. mall vacancies hit a six-year high in the first quarter of 2018.
Earlier this year, Plaza officials announced that Nordstrom was relocating to the Plaza from Oak Park Mall — the biggest Kansas City retail shakeup, well, since Halls left the Plaza to consolidate with its Crown Center store.
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Also new to the Plaza: locally owned Made In Kansas City Marketplace.
Some first-to-market tenants have indeed signed on, including New York-based cult-favorite Shake Shack.
Along the way, however, some longtime tenants have gone — Zoom Toy Store, Houston’s, Talbots, St. John Knits, Swirk Jewelers, Plaza III the Steakhouse — leaving about a dozen empty storefronts.
But Plaza officials say they are being deliberate about how to fill its 804,000 square feet of retail space to keep the center vibrant — through its centennial anniversary and beyond.
Meredith Keeler, general manager of the Plaza, said the right tenant mix will ultimately include “beloved local businesses, popular national brands and emerging retailers with an emphasis on those that are unique to market. With differing lease terms and other business considerations, this type of change takes time — we are not in a business that transforms overnight.”
Longtime Kansas Citians know the Plaza has gone through several rebirths, including a time when the Plaza boomed with upscale locally owned department and specialty stores — Halls, Harzfeld’s, Swanson’s and Woolf Bros.
Today, about 35 percent of the Plaza’s storefronts are leased to Kansas City-based companies.
Colby Garrelts, co-owner of Rye with his wife, Megan, said the Plaza is a special place for people who grew up in the area. He remembers heading there for special family dinners and window shopping in the glow of the multicolored Plaza lights during the holidays. He sees it as Kansas City’s beachfront property.
“As a restaurateur, being on the Plaza is an honor. It kind of solidifies our legacy,” he said. “Our restaurant isn’t trendy. We hope families will be coming here for generations to come.”
Still, while sales have been growing since opening in November, the Plaza restaurant isn’t yet doing as well as the Leawood location.
“We hoped it would be a gold rush. But it has been growing and growing and growing. We had 300 people for brunch on (a recent) Sunday,” Garrelts said. “I can’t wait for the holidays, to get a full dose of that.”
Made in Kansas City, with several shops around town, just launched its Marketplace on the Plaza, showcasing Kansas City vendors as well as offering one of the hottest trends in retailing — a food hall that will have four options. One restaurateur will be Aixois, which plans to offer French sandwiches and sweet and savory crepes.
“Being on the Plaza allows us to share Kansas City with visitors,” said Tyler Enders, a partner in the 3-year-old Made in Kansas City. “We want to be a cornerstone in Kansas City, a place to go for recommendations and resources. And you can’t do that without being on the Plaza.”
That personal connection to the nation’s first outdoor shopping center, modeled after the architecture of Seville, Spain, was evident among some recent shoppers.
Some of Mindy Lally’s favorite memories were made on the Plaza. She tossed coins in Plaza fountains for luck as a child, had her bachelorette dinner at Buca di Beppo and her rehearsal dinner at the former Figlio the Italian Restaurant & Bar.
While in town visiting her mother, Vicki Stanton, at the end of July, Lally wanted to show off the Plaza to sons Liam, 6, and Emmett, 4.
While the women talked about prom on the Plaza, the eye-popping Skyscraper ice cream treat at Winstead’s and the tourists taking in the Plaza on horse-drawn carriage rides, the boys couldn’t get enough of splashing their hands in the same fountains that captivated their mother as a child.
“The Plaza is nostalgic. Last week I came with my high school friends for dinner at the Oliver and then we went to the Granfalloon and then posted photos on Facebook,” Lally said.
For Steven and Linda Shelley of Springfield, the Plaza is worth a monthly trip. On their latest visit, they shopped at a variety of stores and price points — including national chains such as Chico’s and Michael Kors as well as locally owned Pinstripes.
“The higher-end and medium-end shops, the architecture, and just the experience of this beautiful, creative place,” Linda Shelley said, “there’s nothing like it.”
But things started more humbly in the early days.
In 1945, in addition to stores, a much smaller Plaza was home to apartments and a half dozen service stations, a Safeway grocery and a bowling alley. By 1960, a national retail expert said the area was a “striking example of what careful planning can accomplish.”
Then, from 1975 to 1980, the Plaza was on a mission to “upgrade” and “modernize,” particularly the 400 and 500 blocks of Nichols Road. Woolworths, the Embassy II Theatres, V’s Pasta Parlor, Sears auto garage, the Muehlbach Thriftway and King Louie Plaza Bowl left as their leases expired — some not willingly, much like today.
The 1980s was the era of its upscale retailers — Gucci, Polo Ralph Lauren and Bally.
But in the 1990s, the Plaza was rapidly becoming more mainstream, signing such tenants as the Gap (now leaving the Plaza), Eddie Bauer (recently closed) and Banana Republic. Plaza ads touted it as a quick shopping trip for young working women, or the “Plaza Quickie.”
Taubman and the Macerich are only the third owners of the Plaza, which was opened in 1923 by Kansas City real estate magnate J.C. Nichols.
The Plaza raised some eyebrows when it announced in February that it would be home to the area’s first Shake Shack, a fast-casual burger and milkshake chain.
“Yess! Maybe I begged them enough on Facebook, had it in Chicago and St. Louis, amazing both times,” said one commenter on The Star’s Facebook post about the news.
“Another high profile classy restaurant for the Plaza,” another commenter snarked.
In 2019, Oprah Winfrey-backed True Food Kitchen will open in the former Plaza III the Steakhouse space — the first of only six openings for the chain next year. The Phoenix, Ariz.-based chain focuses on healthy, chef-driven, seasonal menus.
As more sales head online, retail experts today are looking more at restaurants as a mall’s new anchors, along with grocery stores and fitness centers.
According to a study released in June by Foursquare titled “Surviving the Retail Apocalypse,” adding more food options seems to help increase mall foot traffic.
“The single venue type that has correlated universally with increasing foot traffic to malls, including those on the low-end, is burger joints, attracting 5% more shoppers on average,” the report said.
William Taubman, COO of the Michigan-based Taubman Centers Inc., said the trend is a direction the Plaza is taking.
“I think you’ll see a little bit more food than there has historically been and we’ve put a number of new restaurants in,” Taubman said. “I think the other thing we are going to look to do is to enhance our designer merchandising, you know, which will take time. These things take time. Nothing happens overnight.”
Arguably the biggest coup for the new Plaza owners was enticing Nordstrom to exit rival Oak Park Mall.
Nordstrom will continue to operate in the Overland Park shopping center until 2021, when it will come over the state line to a smaller, two-story Plaza location that will anchor the west side, Plaza officials said.
To make way, the Capital Grille will continue to operate at its current location until it relocates to the former Williams-Sonoma and Tesla spaces. A Bank of America with drive-thru will move to the former Standard Style space. Nordstrom also will take a site formerly occupied by Blanc Burgers + Bottles — dark for more than four years.
“I’m absolutely overwhelmed that Nordstrom is coming and it is going to be an ‘A’ store. They’re going to build it from scratch, not reconfigure the space,” said Trent Slusher, co-owner of Pinstripes menswear on the Plaza.
Nordstrom typically attracts other upscale retailers who want to locate nearby. Retail sources said a Nordstrom Rack also is looking for a spot in the Plaza area,, though Nordstrom officials would only say they have “no Nordstrom Rack store openings to announce in Kansas City.”
Still, all has not been smooth for the Plaza’s new owners.
The decision to close its Customer Service Center earlier this year raised public outcry.
The center, which was staffed and had private toilet stalls, free coffee and dog treats, opened in 2010. Lululemon, a high-end athletic apparel store, announced Friday that it would be relocating and expanding into the space.
Plaza officials say a customer service center will open again in 2019.
In late May, the Plaza’s website still listed tenants that had closed in January. The site has since been updated.
The new owners also continue to deal with the issue of crime in the area.
Compared to four years ago, crime was up in certain areas — there were 110 reports of stealing in 2017, compared to 96 in 2014; five weapon violations compared to two in 2014; and 29 simple and aggravated assaults, compared to 19 in 2014, according to the Kansas City Police Department.
But the Plaza has not had the problems with teen “flash mobs” seen in recent years.
“The thing that has been an issue on the Plaza historically over the summer on the weekends has been the unaccompanied minors that have congregated and on some occasions caused issues like peace disturbance, property damage, or fighting,” KCPD spokesman Jacob Becchina said in a statement. “There have been minimal if any issues like that this summer. The curfew in place has seemed to help that.”
On the Plaza’s wish list: an upscale movie theater and internet retailers branching out into showroom-only or brick-and-mortar stores.
Officials with Cinemark Palace at the Plaza did not have a comment on the idea.
Sources say Untuckit — which sells casual men’s shirts designed to be worn untucked — is eying part of the St. John Knits space. Another internet retailer, Bonobos, recently opened in Leawood and has taken out a work permit for a space in Plaza 211.
Plaza officials said they are in final negotiations for several empty spaces — Houston’s, Zoom toy store and the former Baldwin which relocated to become Baldwin Market.
“I think it is going to be a terrific looking Plaza,” said Slusher of Pinstripes. “It’s going to take them awhile. People drive-by and see the empty stores and think ‘oh my god.’ But these guys, the new owners, carry a big stick and can make this really something.”
Michael Berenbom, vice president-investments for Lane4 Property Group, which has offices on the Plaza, said: “It’s too soon to say what the Plaza will look like in five years, but it’s clear that it won’t be the same Plaza that it was five years ago, or even today.”