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Posts Tagged ‘the Country Club Plaza’

The Cowardly and Lame Duck City Council of 2007-2011 on Thursday presented Highwoods Properties, owner of the Country Club Plaza, with a plump, belated Easter egg.

Color it green.

If the rezoning of the Neptune Apartments at 46th Terrace and Broadway stands, paving the way for an eight-story office building, it’s probably going to generate hundreds of millions of dollars for Highwoods over a period of 20 years or so.

The whole thing left me feeling empty and blue.

I share the view expressed by Mayor Mark Funkhouser, who voted against the rezoning, when he said: “I’m afraid (with approval of the rezoning) we will hit a tipping point that will unalterably change the nature of the Plaza.”

I think that with the council now having opened the door for construction of a high-rise office building east of Broadway, Highwoods will seek to continue the commercial march right on down — or behind — 47th, perhaps all the way to J.C. Nichols Parkway, where Commerce Bank and P.F. Chang’s are located.

Councilwoman Jan Marcason, left, listened to Councilwoman Beth Gottstein at Thursday's City Council meeting

The opponents, a group called Friends of the Plaza, still have a chance to defeat the rezoning, if they can mount a successful initiative petition and then defeat the measure at the polls.

To force an election, the opponents need the signatures of at least 7,144 registered voters — a number equal to 10 percent of the number of people who voted in the March 22 mayoral election.

They now have nine days to file a notice of petition with the city clerk, and then they will have 30 days before they have to submit their first round of signatures. After that, they will have an additional 10 days to gather more signatures.

I said in Wednesday’s post that I thought such a petition and ensuing vote would be successful, but after what I saw and heard Thursday, I think the opponents are bucking strong head winds. More on that in a minute.

Thursday’s rezoning took two actions. The first was passage of a resolution amending the 1989 Plaza Urban Design and Development Plan, which essentially limits commercial development to the west and northwest parts of the Plaza. The council approved that on an 8-3 vote.

The second was passage of an ordinance rezoning the Neptune site from residential to commercial. That also passed on an 8-3 vote.

Voting yes were Deb Hermann, Bill Skaggs, Ed Ford, Russ Johnson, Melba Curls, Jan Marcason, Cindy Circo and Terry Riley. Voting no, besides Funkhouser, were John Sharp and Cathy Jolly.

Opponents had expected Jolly to vote “yes,” and if that was her intention, she was the only person the opponents were able to swing around.

Fourth District at-large Councilwoman Beth Gottstein “recused” herself because her fiance, a physician, has an office on the Plaza. Third District Councilwoman Sharon Sanders Brooks also recused herself but didn’t say why. Both are outgoing council members.

The council acted three days before its term concludes. The new council, which includes seven new members, will be sworn in Sunday.

Marcason, who, like Gottstein, lives in the 4th District, where the Plaza is located, defended the timing of the vote, saying: “The council has been dealing with this issue since August. I think the council felt it was appropriate that we were the ones to vote on this. We’re the ones with the information on this.”

In addition, she said, by not passing the hot potato to the new council, the outgoing council would give the newcomers “a period of tranquility.”

Highwoods, based in North Carolina, has been paving the way and anticipating this outcome for months. The firm has stopped renewing leases for residents of the Neptune, which are slated to be razed. The apartments could be empty within a couple of months.

Highwoods has a prospective tenant in mind, the Polsinelli Shughart law firm, which is currently housed a block or two west of Broadway. However, Polsinelli Shughart said on April 4 that it was dropping plans to inhabit a new building on the Neptune site because it has to be out of its current offices by the fall of 2013. In light of the possible referendum, the new building probably can’t be completed by then. And Highwoods cannot proceed until the matter is finally resolved.

The reason that Thursday’s approval was such a fat egg for Highwoods, however, is that if the ordinance stands, Highwoods can recruit another tenant and proceed with the Polsinelli Shughart plan, even if Polsinelli Shughart does not go into the building.

Council reconsideration is not needed as long as the plan stays the same.

And Highwoods should have no problem lining up another tenant, mainly because the Neptune site comes with 468 additional Easter eggs — ready-made, mostly below-ground parking spaces. The parking structure — the first Tax Increment Financing project in Kansas City — extends from the Neptune all the way over to Wornall, behind Houston’s restaurant.

The fact that the council rammed through the rezoning with Polsinelli possibly out of the picture was particularly galling to the opponents.

“There was no need to rush this through on the last (meeting) day of the council,” said Vicki Noteis, a paid adviser to Friends of the Plaza.

***

Now, about that initiative petition and possible referendum.

I think the opponents could be in a lost cause for three reasons:

First, the Plaza is not the go-to place that it once was for many area residents.

With the contraction of the urban core and expansion of the suburbs in recent decades, fewer local residents patronize the Plaza regularly. They go, instead, to places like Zona Rosa and Briarcliff Village (north), Independence Center (east), the Legends (west) and Oak Park Mall (south).

Consequently, the Plaza is not as near and dear to as many people as it once was, which means that, come election time, support for overturning the rezoning is likely to be concentrated in the Fourth District. That’s not a scenario for a citywide victory.

Second, the opponents’ ranks seem to be thinning and their will ebbing.

By the time the rezoning came up for a vote Thursday, only about 50 to 75 opponents were left in the 26th floor council chamber. That’s not enough to scare a council that has made up its collective mind; it takes busloads of raucous, angry opponents.

Frankly, the opponents looked more resigned than angry. After the first, telling vote, they put down their “Save Our Plaza” signs and quietly filed out. Why are they down? Well, the battle has gone on for months; the building plan has been revised twice, thinning the ranks of the opponents with each revision; and Polsinelli Shughart’s announcement that it was dropping out lulled at least some of the opponents into a false sense of security, as Highwoods played possum.

Third, Highwoods has time and money on its side.

Highwoods wants more density on the Plaza. That means more tall office buildings and fewer low-level retail stores. They’re shelling out probably millions of dollars to lawyers (Husch Blackwell) and others to get their way. Commercial development and office leasing is their bread and butter nationwide, and they’re dug in for the long haul.

“I think it’s an uphill battle,” Noteis said, referring to an anti-Highwoods campaign. “These people have a lot of money, and they have controlled the p.r. discussion from the beginning.”

It’s no fun watching the Yankees win, is it?

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Yesterday, I went looking for possible sites for big, new office buildings on the north side of 47th Street, east of Broadway.

I’m not a developer, let me assure you; I’m just a 4th District, Kansas City resident who is, and long has been, interested in what happens on the Country Club Plaza, the distinctive and true jewel of the city.

I went looking for possible construction sites because, if The Cowardly and Lame Duck City Council does what a lot of people expect it to do tomorrow, we could be seeing several more new office buildings between Broadway and J.C. Nichols Parkway in the coming years.

The issue tomorrow will be rezoning a site behind the Balcony Building, where the Neptune Apartments now sit, on the northeast corner of 47th Street and Broadway. Highwoods Properties, which owns the Plaza is seeking the rezoning to allow for construction of a high-rise office building, to be used by the Polsinelli Shughart law firm or perhaps another tenant, if Polsinelli Shughart can’t make the timing work.

The Neptune Apartments (background), proposed office tower site

In an interview yesterday, Vicki Noteis, a former city planning director who is advising the rezoning opponents, a group called Save the Plaza, warned that the rezoning could be precedent setting; it could mark the beginning of the end of the 1989 Plaza Urban Design and Development Plan, which essentially limits commercial development to the west and northwest parts of the Plaza.

Everywhere else, retail holds sway. Retail, which makes the Plaza a fun place to spend time and generates the bulk of pedestrian traffic, including our beloved visitors from Iowa, Nebraska and other Midwestern states.

“It’s really important to hold the line on this,” Noteis said. “It you break this line, I think you’ve got a problem. You have to respect a line someplace.”

If that line is trampled in the sand…

Well, how would you like to see a big, new office building on the site of Fogo de Chao, the Brazilian steak house between Wornall and Wyandotte? Or at the site of the Commerce Bank Building and P.F. Chang’s, between Wyandotte and J.C. Nichols Parkway?

Fogo de Chao, east of Wornall and east of Houston's

Could happen. It would take more rezoning, but, once the line is blurred, what’s to stop commercial creep from breaking into a run?

Highwoods, which bought the J.C. Nichols Co. more than 10 years ago, is primarily in the business of owning and leasing commercial properties — office buildings, that is. Its aim, said Noteis, is “higher density” on the Plaza. That means fewer low-level retail buildings and more high-rise office buildings.

And that’s exactly what opponents of this ill-conceived plan — including me — believe would ruin the character of the Plaza.

It’s true, of course, that Highwoods, which owns the place, has a right to put its vision forward. But we, the Kansas City residents who honor and appreciate what we see as the greater vision of the late Jesse Clyde Nichols and his son, the late Miller Nichols, should have something to say about what happens there.

If this deal goes through, the opponents will mount an initiative petition, which would put the rezoning to a public vote. If you’ll recall, voters rejected another grandiose plan — the Sailors project, on 47th, east of Main Street — in the 1980s.

I would expect a similar result on this issue.

***

Keep in mind that The Cowardly and Lame Duck City Council is taking up this issue three days before its collective term expires.

Seven of the 13 council members are leaving office. They are Mayor Mark Funkhouser, Deb Hermann, Bill Skaggs, Sharon Sanders Brooks, Beth Gottstein, Terry Riley and Cathy Jolly.  The other six — Ed Ford, Russ Johnson, Melba Curls, Jan Marcason, Cindy Circo and John Sharp — are going into their second terms and will be prohibited, by the city’s two-term limit, from seeking re-election in 2015.

Essentially, then, these council members — with the exception of any that might run for mayor in the future — can jam this rezoning down the throats of the public with impunity. There will be no way for city residents to hold them accountable at the polls in the foreseeable future.

Council members who are considered almost certain to vote “yes” are Skaggs, who is sponsoring the ordinance; Hermann; Ford; Johnson; Marcason; Circo; and Jolly.

That’s seven, which is what it takes to approve the rezoning.

Commerce Bank, east of Fogo de Chao

The proponents say they want to insure that Polsinelli Shughart and its 500 employees stay in KCMO. Ironically, however, it might not be Polsinelli Shughart that takes advantage of the rezoning. The firm needs to be out of its present building, on 47th Street west of Broadway, by the end of 2013, and a referendum easily could push the completion of construction well past that time.

So what we could see, Noteis pointed out, is The Cowardly and Lame Duck Council approving a rezoning for no particular tenant, just a neatly wrapped present for Highwoods to use whenever it wanted down the road.

“The city’s responsibility,” Noteis said, “is to find a site for Polsinelli Shughart, not to rezone property for Highwoods…The city fell headlong into the (Highwoods) trap. There’s no reason to push this through on behalf of Highwoods.”

***

It’s very odd that the rezoning charge is being led by Skaggs, who lives in the Northland, as far as you can get from the Plaza and still be in the city. The two council members who should have the greatest interest in the issue — Marcason and Gottstein, who live in the 4th District — have largely been AWOL.

Gottstein

Last week, when the council’s Planning and Zoning Committee took up the issue — and recommended passage on a 3-1 vote — Gottstein abstained, saying she had a conflict because her fiance, a physician, has an office on 46th Terrace, near Wornall. To that, I say LAME!

Marcason is not on the Planning and Zoning Committee, but she, too, has been “nowhere to be found,” as the narrator on “The First 48” frequently intones when referring to missing suspects.

In a check of The Kansas City Star’s electronic library, I found only two stories in which Marcason, who was re-elected without opposition last month, was quoted on the rezoning issue.

Early this month, after Polsinelli Shughart said it was pulling out of the plan to build on the site of the Neptune, Marcason was quoted as saying, “I think we were going to have a pretty thoughtful discussion. We just didn’t have the chance to work them through to a conclusion.”

Marcason

Last summer, after Highwoods and Polsinelli Shughart came forward with a redesigned plan — one that spared the Balcony Building, which faces 47th Street — Marcason was quoted as saying that the revised plan “looks very good.”

Yesterday afternoon, I put in a call to Marcason, and I spoke with her this afternoon. (She called this morning, but I didn’t pick up her message until late this afternoon. My apologies for the belated addition of her comments.)

She said she intended to vote for the rezoning for several reasons, including her desire to stop the loss of Missouri businesses to Kansas. “For us to say no, no, no (to the prospect of business expansion and development in Kansas city), I just don’t think that’s the message the council can afford to send at this time,” she said.

To the contrary, she said, Kansas City should be holding up a sign — figuratively speaking — that says, “Kansas City is not closed for business.”

Marcason also said that if the Polsinelli Shughart plan did not go forward because of the law firm’s time frame, Highwoods would have to bring any new proposal for the 47th and Broadway site back to the council for new approval.

Marcason said that the issue has become a tinder keg because of the badly flawed, initial plan that Highwoods and Polsinell Shughart came out with last year. That plan, which called for leveling the Balcony Building, turned many of the Save the Plaza people irrevocably against any subsequent plan that came forward. (The original plan has been amended twice.) Highwoods’ initial mistake, bad as it was, should not be held against the firm, Marcason said.

I appreciate Marcason’s comments, and I think her intentions are good and that she will vote on her conviction that the rezoning is in Kansas City’s best interests.

Still, to me, the greater concern is the “march of the office buildings” across Broadway. I think it’s a bad deal. I don’t like Highwoods; I don’t trust Highwoods; and I want Polsinelli Shughart to do the right thing and go to the West Edge.

I’m convinced that the new West Edge ownership team and the Polsinelli firm could come to terms that are financially acceptable to both sides.

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