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Local Plaza Backers See Silver Lining in Ownership Default

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4 minute read

By Kevin Collison

The owners of the Country Club Plaza’s default on their loan has raised the possibility of new management and lifted hopes of Plaza advocates about the future of the venerable shopping district.

“For now, I am choosing to be optimistic that a new owner will bring new energy and abundant resources to the table and a new willingness to work with the city and the community,” said Kate Marshall, president of the Plaza District Council.

“I think it’s good,” said a local real estate professional involved with parties interested in the Plaza should the current co-owners, Macerich and Taubman Co. bow out.

“Right now, things aren’t happening for a variety of reasons,” he added. “I think it would allow for a clean slate moving forward.”

The decision by Macerich and Taubman to default on the $295 million loan in May, first reported last week by the Kansas City Business Journal, was the latest upheaval for the local landmark that many residents believe is a public treasure rather than a private business.

An early photograph of the Country Club Plaza shortly after its opening in 1923. (Photo courtesy Plaza District Council)

In a statement issued on behalf of the Plaza ownership, Taylor Bunch of Fleishman Hillard said the internal financial problems won’t interfere with the major civic events planned there.

“We are in discussions with our lender, Nuveen, and are actively working toward a mutually acceptable outcome,” she wrote.

“In the meantime, we remain committed to the success of the Plaza and will continue to hold the Plaza’s beloved events, including the Art Fair and the Plaza Lights, while actively engaging with potential tenants to ensure the success of the district.”

Fretting about the Plaza has been a popular local conversation since at least 1998, when North Carolina-based Highwoods acquired J.C. Nichols Co., ending 75 years of local ownership.

Over the years, there has been continuing consternation as the once vaunted tenant mix that drew shoppers from around the Midwest including such prestige names as Saks Fifth Avenue, Bonwit Teller, Burberry and Halls were lost.

A major flare-up occurred in 2010 when Highwoods proposed demolishing the Balcony Building, one of the Plaza’s original Spanish-style structures, to make way for an office building. The firm ultimately dropped the plan after a public outcry.

Social and public safety problems began to increase mostly caused by unruly groups of  teens during the summer. In 2011, Mayor Sly James was pushed to the ground by his bodyguards at one shooting incident.

The festive lights at the Country Club Plaza are a major Kansas City holiday tradition.

Just last weekend, a 15 year-old was shot during an altercation at 47th and Wyandotte. Two weeks ago, a store employee was wounded confronting a shoplifter. Two months ago, Shake Shack, a popular eatery, shortened its weekend hours because of ongoing fights.

Some local real estate professionals believe the Plaza’s current financial problems began when Taubman and Macerich bought the Plaza from Highwoods in 2016 for $660 million, a price they estimated was hundreds of millions of dollars more than it was worth.

The bricks-and-mortar retail industry in general already had been suffering from the rapid growth of online shopping, then the Covid pandemic hit in 2020, further undermining retail sales.

Earlier this year, the Plaza owners challenged a $292 million valuation established by the County Board of Equalization in 2019, and the state tax commission agreed, knocking it down to $179.6 million.

Now, with a newly-established tax valuation and a decision by the owners to default on their loan, some believe the conditions are right to move the Plaza forward past its current  doldrums.

“Despite the recent news of the default, the Plaza is still the Plaza and will always be one of the top retail areas of Kansas City,” said Brandon Buckley, vice president of Lane4 Property Group. “We think it will emerge stronger on the backside.”

The Plaza and its future has been the concern of many lately. A group called Urban Lab KC recently produced conceptual rendering of how the Country Club Plaza would look of Nichols Road and Broadway were converted to pedestrian use. (Rendering by Urban Lab KC)

Lane4 is major local retail developer headquartered on the Plaza that recently revitalized the Red Bridge shopping center. Buckley said his firm is interested in pursuing an ownership interest in the Plaza depending on how the default process plays out.

Buckley said adding more local restaurants and retailers to the Plaza would help it regain its prominence.

“National retailers have a place, but you’d want to complete the mix with unique local operators,” he said.

Whether the current ownership survives or some new entity takes over however, they’ll still be faced with the big vacant lot on Jefferson Street that was to have been the home of a Nordstrom store.

The buildings previously at the location were demolished in 2019 to make way for what was to have been a 122,000 square-foot department store. That deal collapsed in 2022 and nothing has happened since then.

A real estate professional said even new ownership may not be enough of a fresh start to land a big retailer on the site without city incentive help.

“It would take city involvement for that to move forward,” he said. “They (Macerich and Taubman) should have pursued a TIF.”

There has been no activity at the proposed Nordstrom site at the Plaza since demolition was completed in 2019.

A tax-increment financing (TIF) agreement would have allowed the Plaza owners to retain some or all of the sales taxes and other revenues generated by the store to help finance the project.

Traditionally, department stores pay a substantially reduced rent at shopping centers because they serve as a magnet for customers to the entire development.

“It’s difficult to build a building and make money without it paying rent,” the real estate source said.

On the community front, the Plaza District Council was recently formed in response to  concerns about the future of the iconic shopping district as it enters its next century.

Marshall believes a “new day is dawning” with the potential of fresh management.

“This has been coming for awhile now, and I there are a number of entities that have been looking at what kind of opportunity may present itself,” she said.

David Westbrook, a respected local communications professional who’s been involved in organizing the District Council, said the group stands ready to assist potential new owners.

“Our civic leaders are even more passionate now about making sure the Plaza’s future is not only promising, but that an exciting new day will will come,” he said.

While its uncertain whether the Plaza could return to local ownership, Westbrook observed that model was in place during the shopping district’s halcyon days.

“The Plaza has always been well served by truly local ownership and we want that possibility for the future,” he said.

“We want to assure any new owners that we will want to be partners.”

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