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Kansas City Shopping Malls at an Economic Crossroads Country Club Plaza, Oak Park Mall and Independence Center Face Similar Challenges and Starkly Different Futures

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Above image credit: Oak Park Mall is the most successful enclosed regional mall in the Kansas City area. Most of the others have been demolished to make way for other uses. (Joyce Smith | Flatland)
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10 minute read

The Country Club Plaza’s new owners last week offered an early peek at plans to restore the iconic but struggling shopping district.  

They mentioned an office building, a boutique hotel, a small grocery store, higher-end entertainment, and the “best of the best” local restaurants and retailers to bring back shoppers. They also promised to address decades of deferred maintenance. 

“I know a lot of things that are wrong with sewers and roofs and other things and we’re going to spend over $100 million just upgrading the basic infrastructure of the Plaza,” said Ray Washburne, president of HP Village Management. 

Workers repairing curbs on the Country Club Plaza.
The new owners of the Country Club Plaza, among other things, plan to invest more than $100 million in repairing decades of deferred maintenance. (Joyce Smith | Flatland)

Long considered Kansas City’s crown jewel, the Plaza once dominated the local shopping scene. At its peak, the Plaza competed successfully with nearly a dozen enclosed regional malls and other major shopping centers dotting the metro. 

Those regional malls throbbed with commerce from the 1960s until the mid-1990s. Since then, though, household names like Metcalf South, Bannister Mall, Indian Springs, Metro North, Blue Ridge, Antioch Center and Mission Center have been closed and demolished for new uses in the face of changing retail habits and the rise of online shopping. 

Today, only two enclosed regional malls remain intact in the Kansas City area — crosstown rivals Independence Center and Oak Park Mall. 

And they are on starkly different paths. 

‘A Place to Gather’ 

Alexandra Lange, design critic and author of the new book “Meet Me by the Fountain: An Inside History of the Mall,” said for many people memories of the mall are deeply personal. The mall was a place where many people got their first jobs, their first taste of independence, made a romantic rendezvous or simply bought their first hot dog on a stick.  

“They offer community, connectivity, a place to gather, for youth to explore their identity and independence,” she said. “We want to have places for people to walk, to chat, to be together. That is an important service over and above the fact that they are a commercial service. They take on these other qualities that are equally important.”  

The first traditional American mall opened in 1956 in suburban Minneapolis. Within a decade there were hundreds. Metcalf South, which opened in Overland Park in 1967, was the first planned enclosed mall built in the Kansas City area. 

They typically had two department stores — one higher-end, one lower; one a national chain, one local — along with a mix of stores and services.  

When Oak Park Mall joined the mix in the mid-1970s, it was already a competitive retail landscape. Over the past 50 years, Oak Park has contended with the rise of online shopping and the emergence of then-trendy new lifestyle centers such as Town Center Plaza in Leawood and Zona Rosa in the Northland that allowed on-the-go consumers to park in front of or near their favorite stores. 

Malls typically prioritize national anchor stores and a range of retailers, offering a one-stop shopping experience, while lifestyle centers curate a specific tenant mix, typically to create a more experiential and community-oriented environment, according to the International Council of Shopping Centers in New York (ICSC).  

A map of major Kansas City area shopping centers in 1980.
A map of major Kansas City area shopping centers in 1980.

Many retail experts said the metro ultimately became over-malled and has only recently been right sizing, leading to the demolition of most of the area’s enclosed malls. 

Why were there so many malls in one metro? 

Area commercial real estate experts have their theories. 

Some note that a few of the country’s top mall developers — including Frank Morgan and Sherman Dreiseszun and the firm of Copaken, White & Blitt — were based here. Others say Kansas City’s historically affordable cost of living and lack of natural amenities such as oceans and mountains encouraged shopping as a form of entertainment. 

The metro is also spread out over two states and crisscrossed by interstate highways and rivers, creating pockets of customers who tend to stick with the mall close to home. 

“People tend to be mall loyalists,” Lange said. “The Plaza really has to draw people out of their hole – homes – into the city proper.” 

Oak Park Mall’s Success Story 

Copaken, White & Blitt, in conjunction with Morgan and Dreiseszun, developed Oak Park Mall near 95th Street and Quivira Road in Overland Park on a ground lease from the J.C. Nichols Co., developer of the Country Club Plaza. 

Designed by renowned shopping center architects the Ramos Group, plans for Oak Park called for skylights, white walls and angled ceilings to give it a bright, airy feel. Shoppers would stroll between potted plants, sparkling fountains and contemporary sculptures by Kansas City artist Rita Blitt (the wife of one of the developers). 

It opened as the largest mall in the metro and would boast four anchor stores — JCPenney, Macy’s, Stix, Baer & Fuller and Montgomery Ward. Local favorites included Eddy’s Loaf ‘N Stein. The mall offered parking for 7,000 cars. 

About 200 people attended the August 1975 ribbon cutting. Dreiseszun used a pair of $15,000 diamond-encrusted scissors as celebrity guests Dick Wilson (“Mr. Whipple” of “Please don’t squeeze the Charmin” toilet paper commercials), and Al Lewis (Grandpa on “The Munsters” TV show) looked on.  

“Johnson County is a good, solid, progressive growing area and we’re happy to be part of it,” Dreiseszun said at the time.  

Macy’s rolled out a double-decker London-style trolley to pick up residents from as far as 75th Street and Lamar Avenue, promising an oak tree seedling to the first 4,000 riders. There were clowns and a chance to win a trip to Las Vegas. 

The 100-acre center was to be part of a community that would include offices, apartments and townhouses.  

In 1982, Oak Park Mall was spotlighted on a CBS News special report, “The Mall,” on the rise of shopping centers in America. 

Mall Culture

But with consumers’ tastes ever-changing, Oak Park Mall continually scoured the nation’s new retail offerings for the next big thing, said Keith Copaken, principal with Copaken Brooks, who was in fifth grade when his family developed the mall.  

Maid-Rite loose meat sandwiches was replaced by Quiznos. Quiznos was replaced by Chipotle. The hot Thomas Kinkade Gallery made way for Icing fashion jewelry and accessories.  

The metro’s only Rainforest Cafe offered a simulated tropical rainforest with thunderstorms crashing overhead as diners — surrounded by animatronic crocodiles and chest-beating silverback gorillas — chowed down on pizza and charbroiled salmon.  

But Rainforest Cafe typically went into high traffic tourist spaces with a constant flow of new customers to be wowed. When locals grew weary of the concept, it was replaced by American Girl (one of only nine in the country). Now Giselle’s Bridal KC operates in the space. 

Giselle’s has expanded several times, and the family also took the former Panera Bread across from Giselle’s for Los Abuelos Cantina. They own Acapulco Paradise ice cream in the food court. 

“It is a little tough on the weekdays, but the weekends are very good,” said Graciano Martinez of the family-owned businesses.  

Footwear phenomenon Crocs opened (one of only three under its new store design) along with the 20th Microsoft Store in the world in 2012.  

This year’s additions include Miniso — Forbes calls it “the next Chinese super brand.”  Oak Park Mall’s directory simply puts a “Kansas City Exclusive Retailer” by its name, among others highlighted. Aur Society will soon join that list. 

The House of Miri, a locally owned contemporary women’s clothing store, is remodeling in the Nordstrom wing.  

“The Internet is so great, and we do a lot online. But it is really nice when you can try something on to take advantage of that, especially because a lot of places are closing and going online only,” said Miriam Houfaidi, owner. “We put the whole look together and help you style it for your body type, the event – and then accessorize it.” 

The deal that ensured the long-term success of Oak Park was with Nordstrom.  

A 200,000-square-foot Nordstrom anchored a new wing with room for 25 shops that opened in 1998. The exclusive luxury department store is still there, drawing from across the region, despite efforts by the Country Club Plaza to woo it away.  

“That really solidified it at the time as the mall in Kansas City for the next 30-plus years,” said Copaken, who was lead developer for the Nordstrom expansion. “It has that certain panache that few other department stores have. When it put its stamp on the mall as the place to be, Oak Park could appeal to other high-end retailers. It was a good solid mall to begin with, but Nordstrom made it great.” 

Oak Park Mall also still has Macy’s, JCPenney, and two Dillard’s stores as anchors. While there has been online chatter in recent years that one Dillard’s would close, the retailer only closed its third floor in the south store, moving home goods to the second level. 

Oak Park Mall has been owned by Chattanooga, Tennessee-based CBL since 2005. Stephen Lebovitz, CEO of CBL, calls it a “fortress” mall. It has a huge traffic count, strong sales across its varied retailers, and strong anchors committed to the market, he said.  

The mall generated $3.6 million in sales tax revenue for Overland Park in 2016, nearly 7% of the total city sales and use tax receipts for that year. Recent figures weren’t available. 

Occupancy was 98% at the end of 2023.  

Lebovitz said experiential retail continues to be on the rise as consumers want to socialize in a post-COVID world. District Eat & Play, family entertainment, plans to open this summer with arcade games, laser tag, a karaoke room, an escape room, mini golf, pool tables and darts.  

Lebovitz said LEGO is among the stores that “continue to crush it and Abercrombie & Fitch has made a strong comeback.”   

“Retailers want to have a store and an online presence so that bodes well for Oak Park,” he said.  

Another Story in Independence 

Across the metro, Independence Center is struggling.  

A monument sign at the entrance proclaims such tenants as Macy’s and Forever 21. But those retailers no longer operate in the mall. Inside, a large Sears sign is still over the space it vacated in 2019. Independence Center now has about 20 empty spaces. 

Officials with Independence Center were not available for comment. 

Just one year older than Oak Park Mall, Independence Center opened with 1.1 million square feet (then the largest mall in a five-state area, according to newspaper stories at the time) and 100 plus stores and services. 

Independence Center opened with three anchors — Sears, Macy’s and Stix, Baer & Fuller — large skylights and live trees for a park-like atmosphere. Macy’s estimated 40,000 regular customers in the first year alone. 

Independence Center still boasts such national brands as Build-A-Bear, Kids Foot Locker, PacSun, Visionworks and Zumiez.  

But mainstay Gloria Jean’s Coffees recently closed after 35 years, replaced by a local brand. And original tenant Helzberg Diamonds recently moved to a new multi-tenant building on the outskirts of the mall, along bustling East 39th Street.  

Vacant stores at Independence Center.
There are about 20 empty stores at Independence Center. Many of those vacancies are clustered near the former Sears store, which closed in 2019. (Joyce Smith | Flatland)

While Independence Center struggles, at least it’s still standing. Most of the area’s other enclosed malls are long gone. 

Metcalf South in Overland Park made way for 95Metcalf with such freestanding tenants as Andy’s Frozen Custard, Chick-fil-A, Lowe’s, Texas Roadhouse and Whataburger, along with senior living. 

In the Northland, Macy’s is all that remains of the demolished Metro North Shopping Center. But the redevelopment, Metro North Crossing, has many freestanding buildings with the hottest restaurants from Hawaiian Bros Island Grill to Whataburger. And locally owned Third Street Social is now an anchor tenant of the 7,000-square-foot Woodstone mixed-use luxury apartment building with 250 units (98% leased) in Metro North Crossing. 

Bannister Mall was demolished for an office park. Mission Center was demolished for a redevelopment project that has been in limbo for years. The site of Indian Springs still seeks a redevelopment spark. 

Oak Park Mall and Independence Center may be the last of their kind in Kansas City. 

“I think the days of new construction malls are behind us,” said Dan Horn, development manager for IAS Partners, owners and redevelopers of Metro North. 

“It is important to understand what the community you serve is missing and that’s why we have had success — local restaurants and more coming next year. A need for more quality dining options.” 

Changing Times 

There’s no stopping the surge in online sales. But in-store shopping remains embedded in our routine. 

According to a May survey of 1,000 consumers between the ages of 18 and 64 fielded by the SPAR Group, more than 80% prefer to buy groceries in-store and more than 45% choose to shop in-store at apparel, convenience, discount and home improvement stores.  

But discretionary spending is shifting. 

A recent report by the International Council of Shopping Centers (ICSC) in New York on The Rise of the Gen Z Consumer (16- to 26-year-olds) found 60% don’t want more stuff. They would rather pay for an experience. 

The Country Club Plaza recently opened The Escape Game, and its new ownership group wants to bring in higher-end entertainment. Metro North Crossing has T-Shotz Golf & Entertainment. Summit Fair shopping center in Lee’s Summit recently signed Craft Putt, an indoor mini golf and taphouse complex, for an early 2025 opening.  

In 2023, Scheels opened a whopping 250,000-square-foot store in a Chandler, Arizona, mall. It includes a 45-foot Ferris Wheel, a 16,000-gallon saltwater aquarium, a “wildlife mountain” and a massive candy store and 75 mini-shops. 

Malls also are adding more fitness centers ranging from boutique operators such as Pure Barre and Club Pilates to Genesis Health Clubs to drive traffic by bringing in regulars — who live or work in the area — through the week. Bookstores still have them lingering. 

ICSC also is seeing increased consumer demand for needed and discretionary services, such as wellness offerings, traditional healthcare and childcare.  

The pandemic left landlords scrambling for rent and tenants, but the edge is shifting back in their favor. 

Commercial real estate company Cushman & Wakefield said demand for retail space continues to be robust, in part because of large retail store openings in the pipeline. Openings also continue to outpace closings and vacancies are the lowest since 2007. Meanwhile, new construction has slowed.  

Stephanie Cegielski, vice president of research and public relations for the ICSC, said retail square footage has remained virtually unchanged in the past 15 years. The current shopping center occupancy is 91.8% on average.  

“Shopping centers remain healthy with several indicators pointing to the strength of retail,” Cegielski said in a statement. “Some malls are reinventing themselves as mixed-use properties to revitalize what they offer to their communities. Combining different types of real estate, like residential, office and retail, can help transform marketplaces into vibrant communities and create new economic opportunities.” 

Flatland contributor Joyce Smith covered local restaurants and retail for nearly 40 years with The Kansas City Star. Follow her on X and Facebook at #JoyceKC, and Instagram and Threads at #joyceinkc.

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