AIA Kansas City: The American Institute of Architects

Monday, September 27, 2010

AIA Kansas City’s Position on Plaza Highwoods Building

This summer has seen a storm of controversy surrounding a new building to be developed and built by Highwoods Corporation, and occupied by the law firm of Polsinelli Shughart, PC. The proposed building not only marks a potentially significant new structure in Kansas City, but its design will also have a prominent impact on one of Kansas City’s great treasures – the Country Club Plaza.

Over the last couple of decades, the area immediately adjoining the historic core of the Plaza has seen a number of new structures, some of which are of a significant size. Because the Plaza is such a desirable location for many activities, and thus a magnet for development pressure, in 1989 the City of Kansas City pursued and adopted the Plaza Urban Design and Development Plan (aka the Plaza Plan). While the Plaza Plan has guided a number of new development projects over the past 21 years, the proposed Highwoods development project differs in one main respect: instead of a project located on the periphery of the Plaza’s historic core, the new structure occupies a location virtually at its center.

It’s rare for the Kansas City chapter of the American Institute of Architects (AIA Kansas City) to take a public position that would be in opposition to a building proposal. As a professional association of architects, we certainly have a diverse set of opinions as to building aesthetics and design. But we also have a civic duty as professionals that occasionally should be exercised, especially in cases where unique Kansas City assets are involved.

In this particular instance, AIA Kansas City believes the proposed building design needs to be significantly reconsidered. Architects by nature are problem-solvers, and let us state emphatically here that we believe there is a design solution possible where all parties feel comfortable in proceeding. Because of the legacy that the Nichols family has given us, however, and the international stature that the Plaza has given Kansas City, the current design proposed for this location is simply not good enough.

AIA Kansas City believes that in this debate it’s vitally important to return to the basic principles of the 1989 Plaza Plan, which have served us well. These are:

• The “Bowl” concept should be enhanced, pushing the proposed building further north up the hill, roughly in line with the Townsend Place building to the west.
• The retail core along 47th Street should be preserved, not replaced by office uses
• The pedestrian experience should be of the highest quality on all sides, including 46th Terrace. As one of the most walkable areas of the City, this is critical.
• The architecture should complement the character of the historic Plaza architecture, as the Plaza Plan’s Design Guidelines suggest

The Plaza Plan actually recommends two other key items for this particular block – a) that it should not be rezoned, and b) that it should remain residential on the north side. In fact, following the Plan would allow for a 10-story residential structure on the footprint of the existing Neptune apartments. AIA Kansas City believes there’s room for compromise in these areas, with the proper design solution. A key obstacle to redesigning the block is the existing parking garage, and the ingress/egress needed for future development. In order to create a great solution, AIA Kansas City believes the proposed re-use of the garage is too restrictive, and a solution that considers removing the current garage should be evaluated. Such an approach could result in a more appropriate urban design solution that develops a public amenity/entry space worthy of a public-private partnership.

Like many American cities, Kansas City has few special places that make it unique. The Country Club Plaza is certainly one of them, and all of our efforts must be undertaken to enhance and improve these unique qualities. It’s the very nature of the Plaza with its architecture and urban design that sets it apart, and makes it the international attraction that it is. We should take great care to protect this valuable asset.

Polsinelli Shughart has been a valuable leader in our business community for a very long time, and we believe an office building for them on this block could enhance the Plaza if thoughtfully designed. Highwoods Corporation has also undertaken numerous physical improvements since they took ownership of the Plaza that have clearly resulted in its betterment. In our desire to keep the local economy moving forward, however, we cannot overlook the impact that decisions made today will have on our success in retaining and attracting business and visitors in the future. We urge Highwoods to take a fresh look at this block in the heart of our city, as we believe there is a design solution that will allow all interested parties to move this project forward in a form that improves our favorite Kansas City district.

The Board of the American Institute of Architects-Kansas City