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Kansas City's upscale plaza has scaled its image down

There used to be a pricey Bonwit Teller department store in Country Club Plaza. There used to be Tiffany's, the exclusive jewelers, too, and the store that is now Dillard's once was owned by Macy's. But as retail goes, so goes Country Club Plaza, Kansas City's Mediterranean-style shopping district created nearly 70 years ago by the J.

C. Nichols Co., the same company behind St. Petersburg's Bay Plaza plan.

The once-exclusive plaza has changed. Its tenants are high-end and moderate now, with the likes of McDonald's, the Gap and the Limited alongside a sidewalk cafe and stores including Saks Fifth Avenue, Alaskan Fur and Polo Ralph Lauren.

And while Kansas City's upper crust sometimes bemoan the changed faces in the elegant plaza, they also recognize the ways of the business world. The Nichols Co., they say, is doing as well as anybody in adapting to retailing's new order.

"Years ago, they would have never had a Gap or a Limited here, never in a million years," said Ron Ruback, owner of Ruback's Fine Jewelry. "There's nothing wrong with a Gap or a Limited, but they position the wrong image for the plaza.

"But when you can't get your first choice, you've got to fill your buildings. . . . I really believe they've (Nichols) done everything they could to make this shopping center as good a shopping center as they can."

Not that Country Club Plaza, which serves as a model for what Nichols subsidiary Bay Plaza Cos. hopes to develop in St. Petersburg, is an ordinary shopping center.

Five blocks long and three blocks wide, it is lined with old and new European sculptures, fountains and an upscale-and-trendy store mix similar to that at Tampa's Old Hyde Park. Old Hyde Park even has some of the same merchants: Crabtree & Evelyn, The Sharper Image, Banana Republic, the Gap and the Limited.

But Country Club Plaza is more than three times larger, making it a tourist as well as local destination. Merchants say that 26 percent of all shoppers come to the plaza from out of town.

Last month, Nichols installed seven new street lights made from the same wooden patterns used in making San Francisco's old "Path of Gold" street lights. Touches like these are important to Nichols, retailers say, because they create an image.

And image, merchants say, is very important for Nichols and the plaza. "The plaza is very unique, and they try to keep it that way," said Mark Newman, manager of Bake's of Kansas City, a jeweler.

"They control it very much," said Scott Jerwick, owner of Jordan Windsor, a men's clothing store. "They control the kinds of stores that come in here. . . . They're the kind of landlord that doesn't like big sale signs in the windows."

Nichols is also the kind of landlord that wants control over retailers' hours. Because suburban shopping malls attract customers on Sundays and holidays, Nichols wants the plaza merchants to stay open those days, too _ and is insisting on it as it renews leases, merchants say.

Not everyone in the plaza is happy about that. Yet complaints are peppered with a sense of understanding _ a feeling that, with retailing bad all over, Nichols is doing all it can to fight back. And if that means McDonald's and the Gap, so be it.

"I don't think the Nichols Co. can get the type of tenants it used to," Ruback said. But he added: "The Nichols Co. has given us the location, they've given us the beautiful boulevards and fountains, they've given us everything they possibly can."

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