In truth, it is much more akin to the kind of mixed use, town center development many communities are trying to build today. It combines retail shopping, office space, theaters, and a substantial amount of residential housing all in close proximity. Indeed, when I met with planners in the Kansas City suburb of Lenexa, they mentioned the Country Club Plaza as part of what they were drawing on in planning for their own new downtown center.
Here's some of what I wrote last year for a sidebar to an excellent article by planning journalist Philip Langdon, Creating the Missing Hub: How Today's Suburbs Build Town Centers (the article can be downloaded for a small fee from our web site by using the link).
"When Nichols first planned Country Club Plaza in 1922, many Kansas Citians felt the 55 acre project far too big -- and remote -- from the city’s core. In fact, before opening it gained the moniker “Nichols’ Folly.” But the Plaza was an immediate success -- and has, if anything, grown more popular over the years.
At least three factors have been integral to this outcome. The first was Nichols’ role as a real estate developer. The Plaza served as an important selling point for nearby subdivisions and apartments built by the J.C. Nichols Company -- and these residents became regular patrons of the Plaza’s establishments.
Second was the attention Nichols gave to aesthetics, adorning the Plaza with fountains (a Kansas City tradition), murals, decorated tiles, and many pieces of sculpture. Also the buildings, designed in a Spanish style but with distinctive features, don’t have the bland, homogeneous feel that sometimes results when a project is controlled by a single developer.
A third key factor was the flexibility of the J.C. Nichols Company in adjusting the mix of businesses to reflect changing market demand, while preserving the Plaza’s distinct local identity. Not only have many Kansas City-based retailers long been part of the Plaza, but the Plaza has become home to several important events in Kansas City’s seasonal calendar, including its annual art show and the seasonal lighting of the Plaza’s buildings.
[there's plenty of parking at the Country Club Plaza, but it doesn't seem obtrusive -- in large part, this is the result of careful siting and attention to design details]
Interestingly, while the Plaza was designed in the 1920s primarily to attract the new automobile-owning suburbanites (with its ample parking garages), it has evolved into a much more urban, pedestrian-oriented district. In part, this is due to suburban development having far outspread the Plaza’s now central location. But the Plaza’s design and amenities have made for a delightful area to walk, shop, work, or reside. I can personally attest to this, having worked in the early 1980s in an office located in the Plaza area."
In revisiting the Plaza during this trip on Route 50, I was struck by how much the Plaza remains a hub of activity for Kansas City.
There were groups of people walking; sitting by the magnificent J.C. Nichols fountain; window-shopping; and stopping for a meal, a cup of coffee -- or a more intoxicating brew. Yet it's an atmosphere that's clearly "family-friendly," as evidenced by the number of mothers (and grandmothers) pushing strollers, or holding their young child's hand.
While some might argue that the Plaza draws activity that might otherwise occur in downtown Kansas City (downtown is about four miles north of the Plaza, and fairly quiet after business hours) it's hard to be critical of what's such an enjoyable place to be.