The Landing Mall: A History of Redevelopment (Part II)

(originally published 1/30/20)

Last week’s post told the history of The Landing, 1897 – 1950(ish). This week, we look at the property in the hands of the J.C. Nichols Company, which purchased it in 1946, but didn’t get around to developing it for quite some time. We concluded the last post with the official company take on why it took so long. “Many ideas were discussed and discarded, and as the years went by the site was held as an undeveloped island while the city grew up around and beyond it.”

With J.C.’s passing and the trends in social and economic patterns that followed the end of World War II, the Nichols Company’s approach to development changed, shifting away from residential and commercial, to commercial alone. As noted, the city had grown up around and beyond the property. So unlike other Nichols Company centers, this one was never part of a larger plan of connected development. In 1952 and again in 1957 the company publicly announced plans for the property, and both times had to renege. Finally, in 1959, with the acquisition of one final parcel, the company announced its plans for the center they were going to call The Landing, an homage to the riverboat landings that had been the city’s first source of commerce.

The Landing looking northwest, its original design. The open air plaza with the Noah’s Ark fountain sits in front of the white, two-story Macy’s store. The pedestrian mall ran east and west, between free standing buildings on the south side, and shops connected to the mall on the north side. Image courtesy the State Historical Society of Missouri.

The chosen design for The Landing reflected the new trend in retail development – the shopping mall. The Landing Mall opened March 1st, 1961. Its 217,000 square feet of leasable space spread over two levels. One level was at grade with 63rd Street, and the other, a full story lower, at grade with Meyer Boulevard. In all there were seven buildings. Four of them on the Meyer Boulevard side defined the outdoor/covered pedestrian mall. The middle of the four-square shape they created was the formal entrance. The top level stores were divided into two areas, each with its own parking lot. The lower level shops sat with their backs to the parking lot, their unmarked service entrances the only doors visible from the parking lot.

The Landing had space for 39 shops, but on opening day, there were only 26 under lease. Of those, only twelve were ready to open their doors the first day. The Landing would have looked rather empty on that first day, but at least Macy’s, the anchor tenant and marquee name, was open. Other eventual tenants included familiar Kansas City retail names – Adler’s, Chasnoff’s, Cake Box Bakery, and Eddie Jacobsens’s Men’s Wear.

Three of the animals in the menagerie – the buffalo on the left, and the hippo and seagull on the right. Courtesy the State Historical Society of Missouri.

Those of a certain age who were children back then most likely remember The Landing for its menagerie. The Nichols Company commissioned a local artist to design and build a concrete and fiberglass Noah’s Ark as a centerpiece of a 25 foot oval pool and fountain at the main entrance. Another dozen life-sized figures were placed around the mall for kids to climb over and play around.

It’s hard to imagine an building layout that was less in keeping with the traditional Nichols Company model of store front shops along streets dotted with landscaping, marble sculpture, and parking conveniently located for walking between shops. Other recent additions to the Nichols Company commercial portfolio, like Corinth Square, Red Bridge and Prairie Village, followed similar plans as The Landings’ with shops placed in clusters within a larger parking lot. But those shops followed the tradition of facing outward. The Landing’s faced inward, their backs to the customer.

An early Nichols Company promotional shot, when the signage over the parking lot entrances was still in place.. Image courtesy the State Historical Society of Missouri.

Despite its deficits in design, The Landing was a favorite shopping place in its early days, a good neighborhood feature but not drawing much further than that. Only seven years after opening, the company made its first major reinvestment in the mall. The nature of the changes suggest some of the problems The Landing faced. The covered interior mall was enclosed and air-conditioned, because now people favored climate-controlled shopping malls. The facades and the interior décor were changed in an apparent effort to keep pace with style trends. While the Nichols Company improved the common areas, some merchants were expected to invest in their own store fronts. This wasn’t a problem for anchor tenant Macy’s, but was certainly a burden for smaller shops. The result was an uneven appearance. The tenant turnover wasn’t dramatic, which sounds good but can be problematic. A shopping center should have some portion of turnover to stay current with the customer’s interests. At The Landing, the tenant mix didn’t keep pace. On the heels of the Holy Week Riots (see April 11, 2019 post) the mall was closed briefly. That prompted concerns, fair or not, about security. The company added more guards, which ironically resulted in heightening concerns even more. One message the Nichols Company used in courting new tenants was the estimated market growth to the southeast, as far out as Lee’s Summit. The projection stretched assumptions about the buying power of those distant households, while downplaying the fact that markets to the west and north were already saturated with commercial development – most of it belonging to the Nichols Company – and so offered no potential for sales growth.

In 1978, the Nichols Company took another stab at reinvigorating the mall with a stylistic overhaul prompted both by aesthetics and market. In the press release, then-company president David Jackson explained, “Through major reconstruction of the physical environment and a modified and enlarged merchandise mix, The Landing will have a particular appeal to today’s style-conscious shopper.” The design firm called their theme “today” and promised the mall would be contemporary and “almost like walking through a piece of sculpture…very architectural, but very human in scale.” Yet the design described is dizzying. Multi-colored canvas-covered aluminum frames hanging from a lowered ceiling. A patchwork of flooring – parquet, ceramic tile and carpeting. Wooden beamed ceilings and wood-clad support columns. Skylights covered to “control ambient lighting.. From pictures, the place looks dim, cold and empty.

The interior of the Landing following the late 70’s redesign. Despite opinions about the style, the enclosing of the mall and the absence of the Noah’s Ark animals and other familiar features made it unrecognizable to the generation that had grown up with fond memories.

The company files from 1978 contain a partial entry form for an unidentified design competition that indicates they believed the changes were getting the desired results. The form asked for a project description. The Nichols Company responded, “Backed by extensive marketing studies, we undertook a radical plan to revitalize our shopping center and make it economically viable in a trade territory marked by a changing ethnic composition. Re-tenanting was the objective.” But elsewhere on the form, Nichols also cited a resurgence in the surrounding neighborhoods’ appeal to young families. Seven tenants were gone by the time the renovations were completed, but eleven new stores had signed leases, most of them apparel shops targeted for young adults.

One more change. This new “style-conscious” setting was apparently too hip for Noah’s Ark and the fiberglass menagerie. The Nichols Company donated the fountain and all the free-standing figures to the children’s section of the Swope Park Zoo. Letters to the editor appeared lamenting their departure. The Nichols Company orchestrated an event to give them a proper send-off. Children from Troost Elementary and St. Peter’s School were given balloons and treated to cookies, candy and popcorn and entertained by a mime. Reading the newspaper account of the event, the “celebration” seems more like a wake. It may have been the last act that marked the separation of The Landing from the community it tried to serve.

The Landing continued on, and continues to this day, still struggling to find its place in a retail world that has long since passed it by. The Nichols Company long ago divested itself of the property. The current owners formed a community improvement district (CID) just for The Landing, ostensibly to use CID taxes for property improvements. If they have made them, it isn’t apparent. But from time to time, other developers express interest in the site, so who knows what ‘s next? With The Landing, neighborhood hope springs eternal. But through it all, the original 1927 Nichols Office building across Troost from the mall still stands, occupied and well-maintained.

One more thing. According to the zoo, the Noah’s Ark animals never made it to the Swope Park Children’s Zoo. In fact, the children’s section was redeveloped as an education center in 1970. It’s their belief that the zoo put them directly into storage, and it’s possible they made an appearance in some other park. But I doubt they’ve survived to this day. If anyone knows better, please let me know.

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