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Reader panel: Plaza building debate

Ink

Highwoods Properties wants to build a $57 million modern looking glass tower for law firm Polsinelli Shughart in the heart of the Country Club Plaza.


The plans call for a historic structure to be demolished, a move that’s outraged some Plaza devotees, who say the design of the new eight-story building doesn’t mesh with the Spanish architectural look of the shopping district.


The development proposed for the northeast corner of 47th Street and Broadway would require razing a 1920s vintage Plaza building as well as the more modern 96-unit Neptune Apartments at 333 W. 46th Terrace.


W. Russell Welsh, the law firm’s chairman and chief executive, said last week that several locations, including a vacant downtown development site near the Sprint Center and the bankrupt West Edge project on the west edge of the Plaza, were considered before settling on the location offered by Highwoods, the North Carolina company that owns the shopping, entertainment and office district.


“I think it would be very shortsighted to not study the impact of this project to the fabric and environment of the Plaza,” said Scott Lane, president of the Historic Kansas City Foundation.


The Plaza, built in the 1920s by visionary developer J.C. Nichols, is widely considered one of the most distinct shopping districts in the United States, but it does not have landmark protection. Nichols and Highwoods have resisted having the area listed with the National Register of Historic Places.


“There’s no question, it destroys a sense of what the Plaza was and what it has been,” said William Worley, the author of the 1990 book “J.C. Nichols and the Shaping of Kansas City.”


“At one level, not having anything sacred in the Plaza would fit in with J.C. Nichols’ thinking,” he said. “But in his lifetime, he resented office buildings on the Plaza. He said they blocked parking for shoppers.”


Worley said the 4,000-square-foot retail structure that would be razed is known as the “balcony building” and features the tile work and decorative flourishes that distinguish the Spanish-influence architecture of the Plaza.


He added that construction of a large office building at the corner could increase traffic congestion in the area, not only in the Plaza, but also in the residential neighborhood north of the intersection.


Welsh said other parts of the historic Plaza have been demolished in the past, noting that a section was razed to accommodate the former Saks Fifth Avenue department store.


“It’s just a part of that corner that’s being affected,” he said.


“I have no regrets about that. I’m pleased we can keep 500 employees in the center of Kansas City. There were a lot of incentives we could have used on the other side of the state line.”


The site is on one of the busiest intersections in the heart of the shopping district.


The proposal didn’t sit well with Peggy Johannsen of Leawood, one of the hundreds of people who expressed their displeasure Friday in e-mails, phone calls and web postings, both locally and from as far away as Los Angeles and New York.


“I think it’s one of the most horrendous acts for a law firm with tons of money and Highwoods to even consider tearing that down,” Johannsen said.


“Why don’t we just put glass boxes all over the place and forget the Plaza atmosphere?”


City planners say the Kansas City Council will have to consider the rezoning required for the Highwoods office project, as well as the development plan.


The city’s Plan Commission will have a hearing Oct. 5 on the rezoning request.


The city planner working with Highwoods on its proposal said the present building design doesn’t appear to conform to Plaza development height restrictions approved in 1989. It calls for taller buildings to be on the perimeter of the hills forming the Plaza “bowl” and heights no taller than three stories along 47th Street, closer to its low point along Brush Creek.


One block north, along 46th Terrace, buildings can be as tall as 10 stories.


“They understand the design still needs tweaking,” said planner Larry Stice. “They understand to be compliant, they’ll have to push the eight stories back.”


Welsh of Polsinelli said it’s up to Highwoods to pursue city approval for the plan. Officials at North Carolina-based Highwoods, the owner of the Plaza since 1998, could not be reached for comment.


“We’ve gotten a lot of very positive reaction about us staying in the city and we’ve gotten some negative comments about preserving the streetscape on 47th Street,” Welsh said.


“We’ve had continuing input on that. How it interacts with the street is up to Highwoods.”


Welsh said he understood concerns that the building design would disrupt the historic integrity of the Plaza, but added “some change is inevitable.”


He also was confident the city will approve the rezoning for the $57 million project, which is intended to accommodate 500 Polsinelli Shughart employees.


And if the council turns it down?


“I think it would be very unfortunate when Highwoods is spending this kind of money and we’re keeping jobs when so many people are leaving town,” he said.


Councilwoman Jan Marcason, whose district includes the Plaza, plans to meet with Polsinelli officials next week to discuss the plan.
“I think the architectural integrity of the Plaza is where the starting point will be,” she said.


The other council representative for the Plaza, Beth Gottstein, also wants to discuss the project. She has raised concerns with Highwoods in the past.

“I’ve had conversations with Highwoods about protecting the original vision of the Plaza. That’s what makes it an international attraction,” she said.


Eric Heitman, vice president of the Plaza-Westport Neighborhood Association, said a preliminary sampling of opinion found that while people appreciated the decision by Polsinelli Shughart to remain in the area, they’re not sure about the development plan.


“We’d like to know more about it,” he said. “A lot of people are attached to the historic context of the Plaza and the Spanish style. There are people opposed because of the planned building’s architectural style and the project’s effect on traffic.”


The project would displace Churchill, an upscale specialty shop in the balcony building. The business has a lease that expires in February 2011.


“I had no clue, no warning. It hit me out of left field,” said owner Sally Hilkene. “Polsinelli is my counsel, but they could have been real Kansas City champions by taking over the West Edge development.


“It’s going to bring in a lot of jobs in a distressed market, but it’s unfortunate that it is a prime corner and historical building. … I’ve been barraged by e-mails. It’s a hornet’s nest. They’re unhappy.”


Historic preservation advocates said they’ll be out in force at City Hall to protest the plan.

 

What J.C. Nichols’ heirs think of the debate.

Star editorial board: Law firm building won’t fit in with its neighbors.

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