Picture it: Kansas City, 1985. Crowds of kids gathered around cheap tables and chairs. Parents corralling their kids as they beg to go on the merry-go-round. Men carrying bags upon bags from a variety of stores for their girlfriends or wives. All the while the smell of Cinnabon and greasy pizza wafting through the air as Madonna’s hits play over the speakers.
This is life inside a shopping mall, and it is good.
At their height, local shopping malls were not only hotspots of community commerce but also gathering places. Kids skipped school to hang out in the food courts, families descended upon them in the fall to shop for back to school and people spent untold hours in December going store to store for holiday gifts. But malls have been on steady decline nationwide for decades now, and Kansas City is not immune. At the height of mall culture in the 1980s, Kansas City had over fifteen enclosed malls scattered around the city. But now that number has dwindled to just four—Oak Park, Crown Center, Independence Center and The Landing—and they’re fighting to stay alive by grabbing the few bucks otherwise headed to Jeff Bezos. The global pandemic has not helped matters, and the remaining malls are fighting tooth and nail to stay alive and relevant. A recent study by Coresight Research even predicts that recent economic challenges could trigger at least a quarter of the remaining U.S. malls to close over the next five years. We talked with KC’s surviving malls to see what their futures entail and how they plan to stay in business.
The Early Days
Many people see malls as an icon of 1980s culture, but they’ve been around a lot longer. Jeff Hopkins, an associate professor of cultural geography, specifically public places, at Western University in Ontario, says American shopping malls as we know them originated in the 1950s.
“After WWII, you had this big demographic boom,” Hopkins says. “Lots of babies were being born, and that fueled the economy and set the scene for massive economic growth for the next several decades. With that came the need for housing, and this is where you see the rise of suburbia. Well, those people living in the suburbs need a place to shop and, thus, the shopping mall.”
Hopkins says that in addition to all those factors, the growth of massive department stores—like Dillard’s and Nordstrom—as well as the rise of TV all created the spark that would flame into the phenomenon of the mall.
“Now you’ve got this rise of consumer culture,” he says. “It’s this idea that to be successful you need things. The more the better.” However, Hopkins says, for mid-century suburbanites, malls were more than just a place to shop.
“They were one of the few public places where people could come together as a community of strangers,” he says. “It was a gathering place, and in a consumer society that makes sense. You go to the place where consumption occurs and you get to eat, walk around, engage in shopping. You see and you get to be seen.”
Then the internet changed everything.
The Death of The Mall
As the internet boomed, in-person shopping slowly began to die off. This is not news. Everyone knows that online shopping has been killing retail. But economist Chris Kuehl, managing director at Armada Corporate Intelligence, says there’s more to it.
“The consumer never really changes,” he says. “The consumer is always interested in low prices and convenience. That drives the decisions they make more than anything else.”
Kuehl says that over-saturation of the market and a lack of store diversity also contributed to the death of malls.
“They used to have a lot more unique stores that you couldn’t find anyplace else, but over the years they have become too much like one another,” Kuehl says.
The surviving malls of Kansas City have always been home to unique attractions—the ice rink outside Crown Center, the selfie studio at Oak Park, the art installations at Independence Center, the one-of-a-kind stores at The Landing. The malls that have survived and even thrived have only done so because they stood out among the crowd.
Kuehl also points out that this change in the retail market is not new. “Ironically, the malls killed off Main Street, and now they are being killed off, and it’s really the same process,” he says. “It’s a constantly moving target.”
Kuehl again emphasizes that for a consumer, it’s all about convenience. Main Street was killed off because it was more convenient to go somewhere that had everything you needed rather than twelve different storefronts, and now you can buy everything you need from the comfort of your house.
“I think I actually got an Amazon package delivered while we have been talking,” he says. “It’s just so easy. Why would I leave my house when I can get the same thing without having to leave my couch?” Whatever follows the era of online shopping is yet to be seen, but Kansas City’s surviving malls will have to keep innovating to avoid living on borrowed time.
Located in the heart of Overland Park, Oak Park Mall opened in 1975 with four stores: Macy’s, Montgomery Ward, JC Penney and St. Louis-born Stix, Baer & Fuller. Since then, the mall has become an icon of retail in the Kansas City area, and its success has pushed out a number of competitors. Stacey Keating, the PR representative for CBL Properties—owners of Oak Park Mall and ninety other retail properties around the country—attributes the longevity of Oak Park to its willingness to change with consumer trends.
“As consumer preferences have changed and certain retailers have fallen out of favor with customers, we replaced them with new retail and other uses,” Keating says. Some of these changes have included renovations. In 1984, the food court was added. In the mid-to-late-1980s, Dillard’s brought in their stores. In the late nineties, the mall underwent expansion and renovation with the addition of Nordstrom. Then in the mid-2000s, the mall expanded with Barnes & Noble and completed another full renovation.
“The shopping center continues to be a modern and vibrant epicenter of Johnson County’s retail market,” Keating says. Although Oak Park is one of the few malls to survive closure, it’s had struggles. Recently, the company that owns the mall, as well as retail properties in twenty-six other states, announced they were entering a financial restructuring agreement with shareholders as the threat of bankruptcy looms. The agreement will hopefully eliminate up to $1.5 billion in debt for the company and would allow them to avoid closing a significant portion of their properties—mostly malls. However, to implement the terms of the agreement, the company will be filing chapter 11 bankruptcy by Oct. 1. Even without these new financial troubles, Oak Park is still going to lose one of its anchors: Nordstrom. The Seattle-based department store announced it would be closing its Oak Park location by 2022 and moving to a new space at Country Club Plaza. Oak Park also recently lost unique attractions like the American Girl Doll store and Microsoft.
The founders of Hallmark opened Crown Center in 1973 as the Crown Center Hotel. In 1981, they converted part of the complex into a shopping center now known as Crown Center. Currently, the Center’s biggest draw isn’t the stores but the entertainment options, including an aquarium, Legoland, a winter ice rink and two theaters. It’s even home to the iconic Fritz’s, which delivers your food via a complex miniature train track system.
“The Crown Center Shops has never been a typical mall,” says Anne Deuschle, marketing manager for Crown Center. “It was an early adopter of an entertainment strategy to bring customers to our destination. We are now home to live theater, four attractions and a variety of shops and restaurants that are uniquely Kansas City.”
Although the center has remained relevant with new entertainment opens that appeal to families, it’s likely the mall’s location near downtown and connection to Union Station that has saved it from the same fate as other malls in the area.
This million-square-foot shopping center opened its doors in 1974 with Macy’s, Sears and Stix, Baer & Fuller’s as its anchors, along with over a hundred other storefronts. Independence Center has seen many renovations over its lifetime, the last of which was completed in 2015. It’s also created a number of events to get patrons through its doors. There’s a rotating art display on columns throughout the mall, and there are special walking hours on the weekend to encourage people to get their exercise. Independence Center did not respond to Kansas City magazine’s multiple requests for comment.
In 1960, at the intersection of Troost Avenue and 63rd Street, The Landing Mall opened as an open-air shopping center with inspiration from the story of Noah’s Ark woven into the decoration. It was home to a Macy’s and Radio Shack, as well as a few local stores. In 1970, it was renovated into a small enclosed shopping center. The Landing—also known as the New Landing Mall—is still thriving in its east-side neighborhood.
“It markets to all types of demographics and draws from a very large area in KC,” says owner David Block, president of Block & Company Realtors. However, instead of trying to be home to a massive amount of department stores, the Landing has leaned into being a home for more one-of-a-kind stores, such as the Deep Rooted Clothing Company and Monteils Skincare & Aromatherapy.
“The tenant mix is very diverse,” Block says. “We want to give entrepreneurs the chance to be successful.”
To do that, Block says they have a much lower rent than other malls in the area and they are working to get smaller store-fronts up and running within the mall to give up-and-coming minority-owned businesses a chance.
“Our focus is on meeting the needs of the surrounding community,” Block says. Unlike other mall owners, Block doesn’t really have many concerns about the Landing. He says redevelopment in the area—new apartments and restaurants—will be good for the mall.
“We see it as being a long-term driver for the area,” he says. “The future is bright.”
HEYDAY: Located at the foot of Ward Parkway, the mall opened in 1959 with a Kroger’s Market and Montgomery Ward store. It later became one of the first malls with a movie theater, two screens owned by AMC.
NOW: While a small indoor section remains, it’s been redeveloped into an open-air shopping center anchored by Target, Trader Joe’s and TJ Maxx.
HEYDAY: Bannister Mall opened in 1980 at the intersection of Bannister and Hillcrest roads in south KC. The two-level mall was home to Macy’s, JCPenny and Sears and was adorned in many red-brown tile foundations with plants surrounding them.
NOW: After an uptick in crime and a down-tick in customers, Bannister closed its doors in April 2007. The mall was completely demolished in 2009, and in 2013 Cerner bought the property to redevelop.
Great Mall of the Great Plains
HEYDAY: Olathe’s Great Mall of the Great Plains opened on the tail end of the mall craze in 1997 with anchor stores Dillard’s and Burlington Coat Factory. It attracted about 1.5 million patrons in its early years and had over one hundred fifty open stores, plus Jeepers Amusement Park and a glow-in-the-dark mini-golf course. After a steady decline, the DMV was the biggest draw.
NOW: Most all of the tenants were forced out in 2015, and the mall closed for good that fall. Demolition of the one-million-square-foot facility began in 2016, and today only the Burlington Coat Factory storefront—which is still in business—stands, along with a handful of restaurants. Developers spent years fighting about what to do with the one-hundred-acre space, but in 2018 Utah’s Woodbury Corporation proposed a $300 million renovation of the area, which would include a small arena, apartments, office space and, of course, retail. There are no updates on that project.
Blue Ridge Mall
HEYDAY: Originally developed as an open-air mall, Blue Ridge opened in 1957 in Independence, just off I-70. It was later converted into an enclosed mall in the 1970s with anchor stores JCPenny and Montgomery Ward.
NOW: After a jump in crime, Blue Ridge started to go downhill, and in 2004 management announced they were going to demolish the mall and build a Walmart Supercenter in its place. Demolition began in 2005, and in 2007 the space reopened as Blue Ridge Crossing.
HEYDAY: Located on Northwest Barry Road next to Highway 169, Metro-North Mall opened its doors in 1976 with one hundred and fifty open stores. At the time, it was the only enclosed mall in the Northland and the second largest in the area behind Oak Park Mall. It boasted the classic eighties style with a bright green color scheme and a center stage area. Metro-North also had four large department stores, including Dillard’s, JCPenny and Macy’s.
NOW: Metro-North Mall closed its doors in April of 2014 after years of steady decline. At the time, only three stores remained: a nutritional store, a wig shop and Macy’s. Macy’s is still open here despite the rest of the mall being demolished around it.
HEYDAY: The Northland’s Antioch Center opened its doors in 1956 with eighty storefronts. It started as an open-air mall but was renovated in 1978 to be an enclosed shopping center.
NOW: While the building still stands and is operational, Antioch Center technically closed in 2012 after it was nearly completely vacant. The center has been renamed to Antioch Crossing and is home to stores and restaurants like Vintage Stock and Five Guys.
HEYDAY: Located in KCK, this two-level mall opened in 1976 anchored by Dillard’s, Montgomery Wards and JCPenny.
NOW: This mall folded in 2001 before many of the others, in part due to the competition of Oak Park Mall. Indian Springs converted their larger stores into a USPS customer service center and office space for the KCK School District. Since its downfall in 2001, many ideas have been floated about repurposing the space—including leveling it to create an outdoor shopping center—but so far none have panned out.
Mission Center Mall
HEYDAY: Mission Center opened in 1956 off Shawnee Mission Parkway in Mission. It opened with a Macy’s and was an open-air mall until 1989, when it was torn down and completely rebuilt. The enclosed mall had fifty store-fronts and a Dillard’s.
NOW: Mission Center remained largely profitable at nearly seventy-five percent capacity until 2005, when it was announced that the mall would be vacated and demolished. In its place would be built a “mixed-use development” called Mission Gateway. The mall was demolished in 2006 and sat vacant until 2019, when developers broke ground on the area that, when finished, will include apartments, restaurants and a large indoor entertainment facility with a movie theater and ziplines. The entertainment center and the first round of apart-ments were scheduled to open in 2020.
Metcalf South Mall
HEYDAY: Metcalf is a major thoroughfare in Johnson County, and in 1967 a shopping mall opened at the 95th Street intersection in the hopes of attracting massive amounts of customers. The mall had a movie theater, a Macy’s and a Sears.
NOW: After years of renovations and expansions, the mall finally had to close in 2017. A Lowe’s and Andy’s Frozen Custard have been built in its place.