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Excitement About New Plaza Ownership, But History Claim a Whopper

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4 minute read

By Kevin Collison

Perhaps the biggest controversy so far about news the Country Club Plaza may be bought by the Dallas owner of Highland Park Village is bragging rights, as is often the case when it comes to Texas.

Both claim to be the nation’s first shopping center, more about that later.

As for the initial local reaction, at least according to remarks to CityScene on Facebook, the majority are optimistic that HP Village Partners will be able to rejuvenate its aging infrastructure and repopulate it with better retailers.

“This is GREAT news!!!” said Brandon Lawrence Pearson. “The Plaza at one time was filled with luxury shops, as it should be!

“Of course they should keep Gap, Banana Republic, and H&M. But the city is growing, and getting some serious recognition as of late lol, it deserves a luxury retail location and the Plaza is the perfect spot for it! Hopes this comes to fruition.”

An evening photo of Highland Park Village. Local real estate sources believe HP Village Partners will make substantial investments in the Plaza if the sale goes through. (Photo from Highland Park Village website)

People familiar with Highland Park Village are equally enthused.

“I see this as a real positive for the Plaza. The Highland Park shopping area is really wonderful,” said Virginia Harrison Dameron.

Her observation was seconded by Katrina Revenaugh.

“Familiar with this retail operator having lived in Dallas in the mid-2000’s. They were doing great things then. Let’s hope they’re just what the Plaza needs!” she said.

“Fantastic!” said Candice Cunningham. “Highland Park Village is amazing; Mi Cocina, please come to the Plaza!”

Still, it’s been many years since the Plaza’s elite retail days when shoppers from around the multi-state region were attracted to places such as Saks Fifth Avenue, Bonwit Teller and Burberry.

“My Plaza shopping has been reduced to making purchases at the beloved Better Cheddar,” said Jacqueline Clark. “We need to return to the retail excellence that was the Plaza.

‘The Highland Park development is an excellent shopping and dining venue. Been there many times on business trips.”

Highland Park has marquee tenants including Alexander McQueen, Carolina Herrera, Cartier, CHANEL, Christian Louboutin, Dior, Fendi, Goyard, Harry Winston, Hermès, Jimmy Choo, Ralph Lauren, Rolex, Tom Ford, Valentino, Van Cleef and Arpels.

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

“The Plaza may not be able to support the high end retailers to the same degree as Dallas, but getting back to more upscale would definitely be a plus,” said Gregg Laiben.  “Also, maybe Shake Shack can re-open the dining room.”

One aspect that has people excited about the potential owner is the strong influence of the Hunt Family. The partners in HP Partners are Ray Washburne, Heather Hill, Stephen Summers and Elisa Summers.

The two women are sisters and descendants of legendary Texas oil magnate H.L. Hunt, the father of Kansas City Chiefs founder Lamar Hunt.

“Best thing that could happen, a family that understands KC and is invested in the city,” said Jodi Belpedio. “Go Hunts!”

“Dallas is a much different market than Kansas City but its encouraging they have local ties and a strong track record of success,” said Jesse Hester.

“However, I want to know what their plan is for security along with how they plan to pivot towards mixed use as in-store retail continues to flounder. That is what is keeping people away whether its a fair assessment or not.”

Not everybody wants the Plaza to return to its upscale glory days. They long for a more low-key era when it was more of a neighborhood shopping district.

“The Plaza was not always only high end,” said Jennifer Field.

“In the 60/70’s when it best served the whole city, it had a bowling alley, a Sears, a big grocery store (Milgrams maybe), a Woolworths, a sporting goods store plus the other department stores.”

“As an individual who grew up in the area, the plaza isn’t what it once was,” said Ben Hyde. “It still can be. But they need retail that people can afford.”

A close-up from J.C. Nichols marketing materials touting its new shopping center in the early 1920s. (Image from Missouri historic citation)

There also is a concern the new owners may alter the architectural fabric of the Plaza, the Spanish-style architecture imported by developer J.C. Nichols that’s charmed generations of Kansas Citians and visitors to the city.

“Let’s hope they have some style and historic sensibilities,” said Andy Chambers. “It could and SHOULD be far more than a glorified mall.”

That likely won’t be a problem. The Spanish-style architecture of Highland Park Village is protected because of its designation as a National Historic Landmark.

In sharp contrast, over the years the owners of the Plaza, both local and national, have opposed historic designation because it would hamper their ability to make changes to its appearance.

Which gets us back to the question of which shopping center is the oldest in the nation.

The Plaza, which opened in 1923, has long claimed that recognition.

“The Country Club Plaza was the first shopping district designed to accommodate patrons arriving by automobile and one of the first to be located outside of the downtown central business district,” according to Missouri state historians.

Meanwhile, in Texas.

“Highland Park Village is America’s first shopping center and the prototype for shopping centers all over the country,” the shopping center website boldly proclaims.

That’s hard to swallow, since Highland Park Village didn’t begin opening until 1931.

The Highland Park Village shopping center is listed as a National Historic Landmark, Plaza owners have opposed historic designation. (Photo from Highland Park Village website)

Perhaps the devil can be found in the head-scratching qualifier included on the Highland Park Village website.

“According to the Urban Land Institute, Highland Park Village was the first planned shopping center in the United States with a unified architectural style and stores facing in toward an interior parking area, all built and managed under a single ownership.”

Quite a mouthful of caveats, even by Lone Star standards. At age 100 and counting, the Plaza takes the honors.

Respected local architectural historian Cydney Millstein, who has prepared three nominations for National Historic Landmark designation, reviewed the National Historic Landmark documentation for Highland Park Village and concurred.

“First of all, the NHL document does not call out the Dallas property as the oldest,” she said, highlighting the key sentence in the landmark application:

“This unusual combination located in a high income community made the center an important proving ground for many of the first suburban department and chain stores in Dallas…

“Thus, the complex provides an excellent representation of the role of the shopping center in facilitating the decentralization of the downtown commercial core of cities across the United States.”

Millstein added “the Country Club Plaza planned in the late teens, opened in 1923. Again, no where in the NHL nomination does it say that Dallas was the first.”

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