Twenty years ago, a national business magazine headquartered in New York City described Kansas City’s suburbs as being rife with shopping malls, a landscape where “consumerism has run amok.”
This examiner, then a first-time visitor from the East Coast, remembers marveling at the number and size of Kansas City’s indoor and outdoor shopping malls, each mall surrounded by enormous parking lots—in an expanse of asphalt retail real-estate that rarely happens on the East Coast.
During the booming 1990s the Kansas City metro area was home to a least five thriving indoor malls. Two of these malls are now gone, one is nearly a ghost town, one is struggling to reinvent itself with new upscale retail stores, and one—Oak Park Mall, the largest mall in the KC metro area, with a truly immense parking lot—still thrives through a recurrent updating of trendy upscale shops.
Meanwhile, a newer outdoor mall, Town Center Plaza in Leawood, Kansas, completed in the mid-1990s, has also thrived. Town Center Plaza was developed as sort of a Country Club Plaza South—only it’s located on the Kansas side of the state line and is situated on a giant parking lot rather than being spread over city streets.
Kansas City has a rich history of pioneering shopping-mall development. The Country Club Plaza, completed in 1924 in KC’s then-suburban Country Club District, was arguably America’s first outdoor mall and the first shopping center in the world designed to accommodate shoppers arriving by automobile. The Plaza, a 55-acre shopping district built by Kansas City titan J.C. Nichols , was designed architecturally after Seville, Spain.
(Incidentally, painting J.C. Nichols as an architectural visionary—as some do in the latest “Plaza rules” development-standards imbroglio—is laughable. Nichols was a developer first and foremost. He gladly would have later razed the whole Plaza district and paved it over into a parking lot or replaced it with tacky strip malls if he could have profited from the deal. In the late 1940s, J.C. Nichols also built the post-war-boom homes of Prairie Village, Kansas, which were the cheapest-built homes in America at the time.)
During the last decade, new outdoor shopping districts such as Zona Rosa, Power & Light District, and the Legends Shopping District at Village West have all caught fire with Kansas City shoppers. None of these new outdoor malls is truly an outdoor shopping district with street life, ala the Plaza. Rather, the stores and restaurants included in these new outdoor malls each stand like mini-islands on a sea of asphalt.
Meanwhile, most of Kansas City’s suburban indoor malls have been relegated to the terrain of dead malls or ghost-town malls. The fate of each of these indoor malls follows:
Bannister Mall, located in southeast Kansas City, closed on May 31, 2007, after being open for nearly 27 years. The mall originally was anchored by Dillard’s (formerly Macy’s), JCPenney, The Jones Store, and Sears. The area was once the site of the Three Trails (Santa Fe, California and Oregon). The mall was one of the largest malls in the Kansas City area in a previously vital and vibrant shopping area.
Mission Center Mall. This 350,000 sq-ft shopping center in Mission, Kansas, opened in 1989, replacing the former Mission Shopping Center that was destroyed. In 2006, Mission Center Mall was closed and demolished and the property sits vacant at this time. A mixed-use development, The Gateway, is proposed to eventually take its place.
Metcalf South Shopping Center is a “dead mall” in Overland Park, Kansas. The mall opened in 1967 along with a nearby strip center that is anchored by Kmart and Hancock Fabrics. The mall itself once had major stores such as Victoria’s Secret and Waldenbooks. Today, Sears and Macy’s are the current anchor stores.
Ironically, Metcalf South has somewhat been revitalized by the Glenwood, an “art house” movie theater, during the past decade. The new Glenwood rescued a 1950s-style marquee from the original Glenwood Theater, which was demolished a half-mile away on Metcalf Avenue. With the recent closing of the 1950s-style White Haven Motel, and its welcoming iconic sign, Metcalf Avenue is now without a 1950s icon of its past.
Oak Park Mall remains the anomaly—an enclosed mall that still thrives a decade into the twenty-first century. The Overland Park shopping center contains 200 stores in a covered area of 1,562,679 sq ft (145,177.6 m2). It is the largest mall in the Kansas City Metro Area, and has attracted many high-end stores, including Nordstrom, Sephora, Coach, Puma, and XXI Forever (owned by Forever 21), and the now open American Girl Place.
Ward Parkway Center, located between State Line Road and Ward Parkway in Kansas City, was once a two-floor mall with a food court, but it now has one floor with the first floor enclosed. The mall itself is currently in a redevelopment phase, but has been but has been open to Kansas City customers since 1959. Ward Parkway Center is the location of the first modern movie multiplex, with its original two screens (since renovated and expanded to 14 screens) still operated by AMC Theaters. More recently the mall has been revitalized by a Trader Joe’s store.
Merriam Pointe Center. Developed through an ill-conceived eminent domain scheme 15 years ago, in an effort to “gentrify” a struggling neighborhood, this poorly planned outdoor mall in Merriam, Kansas, struggled from the start. Its developer is now seeking bankruptcy protection. The “Pointe” (nobody calls it that—because there is no point) lacks its own website, but it does offer the cheapest first-run movies in town—in big stadium seats.