Published November 16th, 2023 at 6:00 AM5 minute read
More people on the Country Club Plaza, whether arriving on the new streetcar extension or walking from big apartment projects in the works, are considered critical to the district’s future.
“We think we’ll be driving thousands of people to that district on a daily basis and someday maybe tens of thousands,” said Tom Gerend, executive director of the Kansas City Streetcar Authority.
“That means many eyeballs, many bodies, many potential customers. We know physically from what we’ve seen downtown there will be a significant ridership demand.”
The Main Street streetcar extension, which will feature a major Plaza stop, is scheduled to begin running in 2025. That initiative and hundreds of new apartments joining the Plaza area’s already sizable population base are reasons for optimism.
“I do believe that looking to heightened density, particularly for residential development, is going to be key for the Plaza long term,” said Kansas City Mayor Quinton Lucas.
It’s not that the Plaza doesn’t already have lots of nearby residential. It always was part of the original development plan.
The grand apartment buildings overlooking Brush Creek envisioned by J.C. Nichols, the developer of the Plaza, coupled with newer residential developments like the Sulgrave, Alameda Tower and Kirkwood Circle, have been a part of the scenery for decades.
The old Brookside trolley also connected the Plaza to downtown, Midtown and the Brookside neighborhood.
Now, a modern replacement is nearing completion on Main Street with Plaza-area stops planned not only at Main Street and Emanuel Cleaver Boulevard, but nearby at 45th Street and 51st Street at the University of Missouri-Kansas City.
“Many think about the Plaza as the first auto-centric shopping experience in country but it also was built around a robust transit system and streetcar spine on Main Street and Brookside Boulevard,” Gerend said. “We’re bring that connectivity back.”
The new Plaza station will be larger and have more amenities than any other on the streetcar line, he said.
“The Plaza stop is going to be 200 feet long … with four shelter frames and a canopy that spreads 140 feet to provide cover and protection for people waiting there,” Gerend said.
Streetcar service is expected to run every 10 to 12 minutes. The stop also will provide bus connections, bringing in transit passengers not only from downtown and Midtown, but areas to the east, west and south as well.
Lucas observed the streetcar extension will be the realization of the River-Crown-Plaza concept first outlined by his predecessor Mayor Kay Barnes more than 20 years ago.
“I think it makes it part of what is now a more continuous city from the river down to Brush Creek,” he said. “The one that we’ve been seeking for years, but one that finally we truly have.”
The streetcar extension also should make the Plaza an easier destination for tourists and visitors to the city, said former Mayor Sly James.
“It would constantly bring more local people in, but will also bring people from hotels and things downtown to the Plaza in an easy way as well,” he said.
There is a concern, however, that since the streetcar runs both ways, some people may simply park at the Plaza and hop on it to go downtown destinations including the T-Mobile Center, River Market, new KC Current soccer stadium and potential Royals ballpark.
“If riders want to come to the Plaza and they live downtown or Midtown, well then, that may be a plus for the Plaza,” said Ken Block, managing principal at Block Real Estate Services.
“I think it’s more moving people to the big event places. There’s a high probability that if I don’t want to drive downtown … and I’m living in the suburbs, I’m going to park somewhere around the Plaza and I’m going to get on that streetcar.”
Shoppers at the Country Club Plaza already are helping pay for the streetcar extension even though its not scheduled to run for two years. That’s because it’s part of the Transportation Development District established for the new line.
The TDD adds a one-cent sales tax on purchases and also a property tax surcharge. Gerend believes it will be a good investment.
“We’ve seen a strong trajectory building on the incredible growth that we saw in terms of economic impact and sales tax growth in the downtown district,” he said.
“After a few years, sales taxes went up 56 percent in the downtown TDD versus 16 percent citywide over same period,” Gerand said. “Downtown small businesses are benefiting from movement of people up and down Main Street.”
Main Street also is being reconfigured in a way that should make it easier for pedestrians to access the Plaza from the new stop.
“We’ll be significantly shrinking Main Street over Brush Creek from six-plus lanes and turn lanes to four transit lanes with dedicated crossings that will be more focused on pedestrian experience and shorter distances to cross,” he said.
As for new residents, there are three large apartment projects totaling almost 800 units approved for development near the west end of the Plaza. Builders are awaiting favorable interest rates before proceeding.
Aaron Mesmer of Block Real Estate Services, the developer of the 15-story The Madison project planned for Roanoke Parkway and Madison Avenue, and a nearby project at 4627 Madison, said his firm believes in the future of the Plaza.
“I think that having additional residential development is a good thing, bringing more people to restaurants and shops,” he said. “It demonstrates the long-term viability of the Plaza with more investments.”
The top executive at Block Real Estate said there are sites in the Plaza area for more than 2,500 additional units of apartments and more than 1 million square feet of office and medical office space and other uses.
“There’s no question you have to have more residential, you have to have a better mix,” said Ken Block.
“You need more density in the best communities for shopping and restaurants and living and working. That was the (J.C. Nichols) model. You didn’t do shopping centers, you built communities.”
Many Plaza area observers are watching to see what happens after an expected change in ownership with the development of the now-vacant lot that was once targeted for the development of a Nordstrom store. Some say the tennis courts at the east end of the Plaza also offer a tempting development site.
Kate Marshall, president of the new Plaza District Council, believes additional residential will help at least partially return the Plaza to its early roots as a neighborhood-oriented shopping district.
“There’s a 300-unit space (the 4711 Belleview project) that’s going up on the west side of the Plaza and all that will bring the density that’s actually necessary to make those shops thrive,” she said.
“It would create an opportunity to put a department store or a grocery store or a drugstore back around the Plaza because it requires people, it requires the foot traffic, it requires consumers and spending.”
Mayor Lucas has had personal experience talking to younger employees at City Hall about where they choose to live in the city.
“I hear things like the River Market, Midtown, increasingly the Crossroads area, but I don’t hear the Plaza much,” he said.
“I think there will be a realization that building good, multi-family opportunities there of different affordability levels is going to be key.”
Flatland contributor Kevin Collison is the founder of CityScene KC, an online source for downtown news and issues. Emily Woodring and Cody Boston of Kansas City PBS/Flatland produced the videos.