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The original proposal of the Nichols Co. is 186 pages long, much of it lawyerly detail. But some of the documents tell a more interesting story.
Objective No. 16 stands out the most: "To assist in retaining the special character of the Country Club Plaza as a unique outdoor shopping area which attracts local residents and visitors."
Nichols Co. officials relied on Objective No. 16 back in 1997, when they appeared before the City Council to convince the city it should kick in tax money. Barrett Brady, then CEO of the Nichols Co., emphasized the singularity of the Plaza, calling the publicly aided renovation "a classic case of preservation of an older area, this crown jewel of the city," according to The Kansas City Star.
Thirteen years later, residents — the same residents who have been paying for the preservation all these years — are making the same argument to stop the Highwoods-Polsinelli proposal.
The Historic Kansas City Foundation is among the groups that have spoken out against the Polsinelli building, calling it an encroachment on the heart of the Plaza. The foundation's message board is filled with alarm that the Plaza may lose its "special character."
Highwoods Properties thought the Plaza was special, too. It paid $570 million to acquire the Nichols Co., eight months after the TIF plan was approved.
Based in North Carolina, Highwoods is viewed by many in Kansas City as an inadequate caretaker of J.C. Nichols' vision. The abundance of national chains on the Plaza is one of the most frequent complaints, although the locally owned stores were disappearing well before Highwoods came on the scene. Saks Fifth Avenue replaced the bowling alley in 1982. The Cheesecake Factory arrived in 1996, taking over a spot that Swanson's, a women's clothing store, had vacated four years earlier.
But tenant mix is one thing. A wrecking ball is another. Critics of Highwoods say the area, and the company, will suffer if it starts messing with the buildings that give the district its character. "The only reason for anybody to seek out the Plaza, really, is the architecture," says Paul Minto, a West Plaza resident and former neighborhood leader.
Officials at Highwoods and Polsinelli know that their initial proposal went over like a brisket recipe at a PETA meeting. (Councilwoman Jan Marcason called the design "hideous.") So last Thursday, representatives from both companies went to City Hall with a revised rendering that leaves intact the balcony-building tower and makes other attempts to maintain "architectural and thematic integrity." The law office itself looks much like the original design but is now set back 70 feet from the curb.
Members of the City Council cooed in appreciation of the second effort. Scott Lane, president of the Historic Kansas City Foundation, was less impressed. After the meeting, he promised petitions and protests as long as the "massive" Polsinelli building looked like something that belonged next to a freeway interchange. Which it still very much does.
I explored the balcony building last week, running my fingers over the decorative tile work on the façade and gazing at the hand-painted flourishes on the tower. As I toured the office space on the second floor of the building, I noticed that one of the spots belonged to Barrett Brady, the former J.C. Nichols CEO, who joined Highwoods Properties as a vice president after the company acquired J.C. Nichols.