OP-ED: Protect Plaza's history by rejecting Polsinelli building

Historic preservation and development are sometimes uneasy partners, but we know that when done correctly, the results can pay back many times to both to the developer and to the community, adding new vitality as well as greater use to special buildings and places.  When redevelopment is done insensitively, the losses are great, especially when the historic place is unique and irreplaceable.

Kansas Citians know that they have a unique claim among American cities as the home of the nation’s first large-scale planned shopping district. Built in the 1920s following a Spanish Revival theme, the Country Club Plaza remains to this day a leading example of successful mixed use development. As a nationally significant landmark and one of Kansas City’s most beloved places, the Plaza deserves careful planning for the management of its civic spaces, streets and buildings.

In addition to its national reputation, the Plaza has been a gathering place for generations of Kansas Citians and their guests. Its appeal lies in its unique character, which evokes a European market place, making it an ideal location for a walkable shopping area. On any given day, you are likely to find couples strolling along generous sidewalks, families out for a special meal, or tourists posing for photos in front of the iconic J.C. Nichols fountain. 

A recent proposal to construct a high rise office tower at the center of the Plaza poses a significant threat to the character of the district. The large, office building proposed by Highwoods Properties, Inc. represents a fundamental violation of the key elements that make the Plaza a successful place. No matter how it is re-designed, the proposed high-rise office building is simply too big for the historic block at 47th and Broadway. Despite the proposed building’s architectural character, it remains fundamentally out of scale with its surroundings at the core of the historic Country Club Plaza.

A fundamental principle of historic preservation is that the best way to make sure important places retain their unique character is to enact policies that guide their growth and change. The Plaza Urban Design and Development Plan, enacted with great foresight by elected officials in Kansas City in 1989, provides exactly this type of roadmap.  Unfortunately, the proposed office-tower represents a violation of the Plaza Plan through the scale of the building, the re-zoning of the block, and the impact of traffic.”

We strongly encourage the City Council and the Mayor to fully consider the consequences of amending the Plaza Plan for this project.  If approved, this building would be the first high rise constructed on one of the district’s original commercial blocks, but almost certainly not the last. The National Trust understands that the Plaza needs to adapt to remain economically viable, and a certain amount of new development is an essential part of that process. But the out-of-scale proposal is simply not the appropriate type of development for the historic core of the Plaza. Forever altering the essential character of one of Kansas City’s most treasured public spaces is too high a price to pay.

The National Trust will continue to work with our local partners to urge the City Council and Mayor to reject this proposal, uphold the Plaza Plan, and ensure that this local landmark is maintained for the benefit and enjoyment of future generations. 

Stephanie Meeks is the president of the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

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The National Trust for Historic Preservation, a privately funded nonprofit organization, works to save America’s historic places.
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