A sweeping zoning policy proponents claim will protect the character of the Country Club Plaza passed a City Council committee Wednesday and is on a fast-track toward a final vote.
Members of the Planning, Zoning and Economic Development Committee voted unanimously to approve the change, known as a zoning overlay, or an instrument to guide future construction in areas with unique qualities, like the Plaza. It gives the force of law to height restrictions recommended in an earlier plan to guide development in and around the historic shopping center.
The committee’s vote comes after the City Plan Commission, which makes recommendations to the council, rejected the proposal earlier this month.
It could come to the council for final action as early as Thursday.
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Plaza advocates and neighbors showed up in droves to push for the ordinance as Legacy Development pursues a 12-story mixed-use project that would involve tearing down the Seventh Church of Christ, Scientist’s building at 47th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue.
Councilwoman Katheryn Shields, 4th District at-large, sponsored the ordinance and said it was important to codify the Midtown/Plaza Area Plan, a guiding document the city developed in conjunction with neighborhood groups and adopted in 2016. A previous plan for the plaza was adopted in 1989.
The committee’s chair, Councilman Scott Taylor, 6th District at-large, who is running for mayor, also supported the ordinance.
“We all agree that the plaza is a crown jewel of Kansas City, and we want to make sure it stays that way,” Taylor said.
The area plan detailed height restrictions aimed at maintaining the plaza “bowl.” It means that buildings at the heart of the shopping center are to remain small to keep its historic charm, but developers can pursue taller projects around the edge of the district.
“It actually gives the status of zoning to the plan that we’ve had in place since 1989 and then reaffirmed in 2016,” Shields said.
Though work on the area plan began years ago, Legacy’s proposal sparked a heated debate over the future of the district. Plaza advocates vowed to fight the plan worried it will alter the character of the plaza.
Carol Thrane, who lives on the plaza, said residents were “pleading” for guidelines with some teeth to avoid developments that don’t comply with the principles of the area plan. Thrane worked on the steering committee to help develop the plan.
“One developer mentioned at the (City Plan Commission) that the plaza architecture doesn’t matter,” Thrane said. “I think people were blown away by that. It absolutely matters and that is why people come down there — as well as controlled density.”
Developer Steve Block, of Block Real Estate Services, said the ordinance was necessary to preserve the “carefully curated development” that has occurred on the plaza.
The measure lays out rules for developers and investors, Block said, protecting the plaza against a project that runs against the plan and “destroys” investments others made in the district.
“That will be the time that you will end development at the plaza, and we don’t want to do that,” Block said.
The Block company, a major plaza developer, caught heat at the meeting from opponents who argued it had been able to develop plaza towers that exceeded the area plan. Some also raised alarms that Block’s company was put in charge of sending notices to plaza stakeholders ahead of scheduled City Plan Commission discussions of the proposal.
The city didn’t have the funds to send out the notices and first turned to Historic Kansas City, which also didn’t have the money. Block’s company stepped in, but many stakeholders said they didn’t receive notice.
Shields said staff had apparently turned to outside sources in the past to help send notices.
“But I think as we can see from the result here, that’s not a good idea,” Shields said.
City Plan Commission members were originally expected to hear the proposal in November, but Shields said she requested that it be held until December because opponents said they weren’t informed. It was held again until earlier this month, she said, and the city took charge of sending out subsequent notices.
“So there’s been three City Plan Commission meetings — one in November, one in December and one on Feb. 4 — and at each meeting, the people opposed to this have come in and said, ‘We didn’t get notice about the meeting that we’re standing here at,’” Shields said.
Pat Daniels, a member of the church involved in the deal with Legacy, said the church found out about the proposed ordinance “by word of mouth” in November.
Doug Price, a fellow developer who lives on the plaza, said he didn’t have a dog in this fight but opposed it as a resident. He argued the existing plan has worked for years.
“Number two, the messaging coming out of this ordinance is, ‘We don’t want change. We don’t want density,’” Price said, adding that ensuring the plaza’s success requires density.
Price went on to call the process “corrupt,” and asked the committee to unanimously deny the ordinance. For reasons that were unclear, he called “at a minimum for Ms. Shields to recuse herself from this process and, at a maximum, to resign from City Council.”
She retorted: “Where’s a piece of paper and pen? I feel so motivated now.”
Representatives for several commercial property owners on the plaza also took issue with the plan and pushed for taller caps on their buildings. They, too, said they weren’t given enough notice.
Daniels opposed the plan, and said the church supports the tower envisioned by Legacy. He told the committee numerous developers have offered the church opportunities to sell in the past, but the congregation wanted to stay at 47th and Pennsylvania. Then, Legacy came along with a plan to redevelop the site and include the church.
“They not only included us in their proposed new building, they embraced us,” Daniels said.
Daniels argued that the Legacy project fit with other modern high-rise office buildings on the west end of the plaza. He acknowledged the church is a historic-looking structure some might want to preserve.
“For the people that do want to preserve it, I don’t see them coming to help us with our maintenance costs,” Daniels said.
In an interview, he said he was “very disappointed” the overlay passed the committee, but that he expected the church and Legacy would press on with their plan. Developers can appeal the zoning policy and ask council to make exceptions, but there’s “no question” this makes the project more difficult.
If the Legacy project doesn’t happen, Daniels said, the church would remain on the plaza as long as it can.