This is the first in a seven part series on the Great Mall of the Great Plains.
In January of 1987, in a very different Olathe than the one we know and love today, the Olathe-Santa Fe Partnership – a group of local investors led by retiring City Commissioner Larry Huckleberry – announced plans for a retirement community, an executive hotel, offices, and a 700,000 square-foot mall that they wanted to build in an area near Interstate 35. The area was bound on the north by US 56, on the east by K-7, on the south by 151st Street, and on the west by Lone Elm Road. The project was called Southpark, and although plans for the mall would change quite a bit over the next ten years, this appears to have been the first official step in the creation of The Great Mall of the Great Plains.
The Southpark developers had secured about $100 million in financing for the first phase of their project by May, and wanted to break ground in June. However, it seems that waiting for the city to review and approve the plat – coupled with the lack of a sewer line in the area – held the project up. At the time there were some lawsuits between landowners and the city that were delaying the construction of a sewer line, and until those suits could be resolved, the Southpark project could not be approved.
In early 1988, Jordon Perlmutter & Co., a Denver developer (which I will occasionally refer to as JP&Co. for brevity’s sake), agreed to buy 70 acres from the Olathe-Santa Fe Partnership with plans to build a $50 million indoor shopping mall called the Southpark Plaza. The initial plan was for a two-story, 550,000 square-foot mall, and there were hopes of breaking ground in the spring of 1989 and having the mall completed as early as 1990. As far as I could tell, the sewer line situation remained unresolved until a few years later, but it does not seem to have been holding back JP&Co.’s plans in 1988. Within months of announcing their first plan, they announced a revised plan which upgraded the mall to 900,000 square-feet.
The City of Olathe was excited about the potential for the project to bring in new business, feeling it would complement the Olathe Medical Center and the new Holiday Inn very well. On top of that, JP&Co. estimated that the mall would create 1,650 jobs and generate $6.7 million in sales tax plus $1.5 million in property tax annually. Olathe quickly began plans to build an estimated $30 million interchange with an overpass taking 151st St across I-35, which developers felt was crucial to the success of the project. (Olathe would share the cost of the overpass with the Kansas Department of Transportation, I believe.)
Next, probably inspired in part by looming property tax reappraisals, JP&Co. requested that Olathe grant them ten years of property tax abatement, saying that it would be necessary in order to attract anchor stores given Olathe’s population and demographics. The Kansas City Star’s real estate editor, Chris Lester, was not alone in observing that Olathe could not sustain a mall alone. Most of the shoppers the mall would need, he said, lived north and east of Olathe, closer to Oak Park Mall and Metcalf South Shopping Center. However, he might have been alone when he wisely noted, “Miscalculations about the pace of future growth have hindered Independence Center and Metro North Shopping Center, two malls at the outer fringes of the metropolitan area where vacancies remained high and sales volume low for years after completion.” I mean, he probably wasn’t completely alone, but maybe he wasn’t the most popular fellow in the room.
In June, Olathe granted JP&Co. a seven-year, $11 million dollar property tax abatement. There was some grumbling in opinion columns, such as Michael Grimaldi noting in the Star that, “if the Olathe market is such that it will support a mall, then a developer should recognize the profit potential and build one without tax abatements.” But many also noted that tax incentives certainly weren’t unheard of, and since they enabled Olathe to get their mall and start winning back sales tax dollars from other municipalities, the strategy made good sense.
Then the economy dipped a bit. The Federal Reserve’s battle against inflation tightened monetary policy, and the Tax Reform Act of 1986 eliminated several tax shelters for real estate investments, causing many investors to sell their assets, thereby lowering real estate prices across the country. News about the mall became very scarce until a full year later in June of 1989 when it was reported that the Olathe-Santa Fe Partnership’s sale of 71 acres of land to JP&Co. was complete.
The plan was now for a 950,000 square-foot mall, presumably still two-stories. In October Jay Perlmutter, a partner with the company, told the Star that they were focusing on securing tenants, and that once that was settled, construction would take about 2.5 years, meaning the mall would open by late 1992. But the economy didn’t improve for another couple of years, and plans for the Southpark Plaza seem to have petered out.
Thank you for reading this history of the Great Mall of the Great Plains. I hope you enjoyed reading it as much as I enjoyed researching and writing it. I would like to thank all of the journalists at the Kansas City Star, the Kansas City Business Journal, and The Olathe News whose hard work I drew from. I would also like to thank everybody who provided pictures and/or anecdotes. Special thanks to Bryan for research tips and spending countless hours walking malls with me. And finally, thank you to all of the people who made the mall possible, and everybody who worked and shopped there and made it what it was during its all-too-short existence. If you have any memories about the mall you would like to share, please leave us a comment, or shoot me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Also, if you have any pictures of the mall you’d like to share, please send them my way!
-Mike Keller, Johnson County Library