See Hear: Steve Paul on Rambling Around the Arts | There’s ongoing concern – and reason to hope – as the Plaza is reimagined

The vacant “Nordstrom hole” is both a wound and an opportunity to begin re-envisioning the potential of the Country Club Plaza. (photo by Steve Paul)

Highland Park Village in Dallas is a vehicle-choked, tony shopping center with a tiled-roof, low-lying style and a history that would put most any Kansas Citian in mind of the Country Club Plaza. I felt rather charmed recently on a quick trip to Dallas when a curbside parking space opened up as soon as my partner and I pulled in.

As we’ve known since last fall, the owners of Highland Park Village had intentions to acquire the geographically larger Country Club Plaza, though, as of deadline, the sale had not closed and their spokesperson wasn’t commenting.

To many the transfer of ownership couldn’t come soon enough. The pandemic-exacerbated downturn in the retail business of the Plaza and the inept, remote management of the shopping center by the Macerich-Taubman partnership had caused local alarm and endless pessimistic chatter about its present and future. The one-two punch also raised existential questions about what the Plaza means for the Kansas City metro area’s identity and self-image.

The racial reckoning and public protests that erupted in 2020 on and near the Plaza exposed its long-disturbing, much-undiscussed segregationist history. And reconciliation with that history remains a subtext in whatever happens with the Plaza from here on out.

The Plaza, with its mostly comfortable, Mediterranean aura, obviously has entered a period of profound change. And change is not always a bad thing. Many spaces remain vacant, yet new tenants may well be reaching new audiences.

I can’t imagine that the Highland Park Village recipe for success — luxury-brand shopping for the monied set — will be the thing that cures the Plaza. I can think of a new, largely part-time local resident who might have an interest in Harry Winston, but, still, is that what we want or need? Nevertheless, I wouldn’t rule out the exquisite vision playing at least a cameo role.

Reimagining the century-old Plaza has taken on an urgency as the general economy continues in a kind of recovery mode and as the city’s streetcar expansion project reaches the area’s eastern edge in the coming year. A year ago, development and civic-progress forces launched a Plaza District Council to foreground conversations on how to best accomplish not only the preservation of the 14-square-block, towered and filigreed shopping center, but also to help transform it with increased population density and mutually beneficial connections to surrounding neighborhoods and commercial nodes. And, of course, the equity-driven rallying cry for affordable housing is at least a significant talking point in the conversations.

Kansas City Mayor Quinton Lucas put affordable housing on his wish list when he met in Dallas last fall with Highland Park Village’s owners. And he came back from that meeting with positive feelings about the development group’s experience and what it might mean for connecting the Plaza in symbiotic ways with, say, UMKC to the southeast, Midtown to the north, and even with the Brush Creek corridor that defines its southern border.

Lucas told a press scrum that the Kansas Citians he’d spoken with about the Plaza “feel some connection and some ownership of it,” and he acknowledged, given the evolutionary upheaval of retail and the coming of the streetcar, “We have to be comfortable with change.”

Any new vision of the Plaza has to wrestle with and balance the sometimes-competing desires of its residents, its merchants, its neighboring institutions, and the tourists who traditionally have fueled so much of its economic engine.

The reckless and nearly unforgivable demolition that resulted in a three-acre empty lot on the west side of the Plaza surrounded by a flimsy temporary fence is a symbol of failure that’s hard to shake. Let’s call it the Nordstrom hole, forever reminding that retail giant how it disrupted and abandoned the Plaza’s future.

Along with signing new tenants for vacant retail spaces, reimagining this block should be job one for the Plaza’s new ownership. Will new housing fill the bill? How tall a building can the Plaza and its protectors stand? Does anyone — anyone? — have a vibrant new idea for mixed-use development that can inject human-scale and inspiring life into what serves as the western terminus of the Nichols Road spine? Can Nichols Road, or part of it, as some suggest, become a car-free zone promoting an active street life amid a shop-lined promenade?

I’m not exactly proposing something like this, but on a recent journey to Portland, Oregon, I happened to catch a local theater company’s production of a Samuel Beckett play (“Happy Days”) staged in a shopping mall’s abandoned Victoria’s Secret store. Hey, we have one of those! But, yes, I can envision performing arts spaces and other creatively inspired uses as the reimagining of the Plaza comes together. How long has it been since the Plaza has been home to a jazz club? We count the answer in pre-pandemic years. o

Steve Paul is a former board member of the preservation non-profit Historic Kansas City and editor of the Country Club Plaza Walking Guide, which it sponsored and produced in 2016.

John Beasley (johnbeasleymusic.com)


John Beasley is a much-lauded composer, arranger and pianist who won a 2023 Grammy for setting Charlie Parker’s “Scrapple from the Apple” on a German big band with strings. Now he’s been lured to lead the Kansas City Jazz Orchestra in an evening of high-priest jazz, focusing on the music of Parker, Thelonious Monk and Duke Ellington. The project is much in line with the local big band’s mission of keeping great American music by its essential creators fresh and newly alluring. 8 p.m., March 9, Helzberg Hall. kcjo.org

As a first-call guitarist, Larry Campbell spent long years on the road in bands with the likes of Bob Dylan and Levon Helm. That alone should raise your interest. But these days, his duo with his life and musical partner Teresa Williams yields a bounty of singer-songwriter passion and stories of rich and ribald experience. I happened to catch them last spring at Cain’s Ballroom in Tulsa, and I’ll look forward to hearing them again in an equivalent setting here. 8 p.m., April 30, Knuckleheads. tickets.knuckleheadskc.com

Kansas City Symphony with Tech N9ne. It’s possible the Symphony, the city’s largest and most wide-ranging performing arts organization, has been reading the tea leaves and hearing a constant refrain about reaching new and younger audiences. The Symphony’s offerings of contemporary concert music, especially by ethnically and racially diverse composers, have been frequent and enlivening in the last couple of seasons. This forthcoming, one-off partnership with the city’s foremost hip-hop artist, rapper and music producer astounded me when I saw the news. I have no idea what to expect, but bring it on. 8 p.m., May 4, Midland Theatre. tickets.kcsymphony.org/fy24techn9ne

Steve Paul

Steve Paul is the author of “Hemingway at Eighteen” and a biography of Evan S. Connell. He has been a writer and editor in Kansas City for more than 45 years.

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