Panel given history lesson on Watson Road Corridor

Brancaglione outlines factors in Crestwood Plaza’s decline

By Mike Anthony

A Crestwood panel received a history lesson last week about the rise and fall of the Watson Road Corridor from a longtime planning consultant for the city.

John Brancaglione, vice president of Peckham Guyton Albers & Viets Inc., or PGAV, outlined the history of the Watson Road Corridor from the early 1980s to the present during a June 30 meeting of the city’s Economic Development Commission.

The panel, with recently appointed Chairman Grant Mabie, met for the first time since March 2012.

Brancaglione, who has been involved with Crestwood and the Watson Road Corridor since the early 1980s, outlined how in 1981 Crestwood Plaza’s owner, Hycel Properties, proposed a major expansion of the shopping center, which opened in early 1957.

“… Crestwood Plaza was the place to shop. It consistently bested the annual sales of South County (Center) and West County (Center) by a significant margin. Only the Galleria beat it …,” he said.

The mid-1980s redevelopment of Crestwood Plaza transformed the mall into a fully enclosed shopping center with more than 1 million square feet of retail space. After the redevelopment, the mall became a driving force behind other redevelopment along the Watson Road Corridor, with the city formally adopting the Watson Road Corridor Plan in 1984, according to Brancaglione.

Crestwood Plaza thrived because Hycel continually reinvested and upgraded it.

“Crestwood Plaza was the premier shopping location and it had been nurtured over the years by a good property owner. Hycel really took care of it. They kept investing. They kept improving things …,” he said.

The decline of Crestwood Plaza began shortly after its 1998 purchase by the Westfield Group, which paid $106.4 million for the mall. Westfield, an Australian company, purchased the Crestwood mall as part of its American investment push in which it acquired every mall in the region that had been part of the May Co.’s shopping centers portfolio, Brancaglione said.

“… (Westfield) acquired Crestwood Plaza and Northwest Plaza from Hycel in ’95, but they didn’t really want either property — they don’t want them,” he said, adding that Westfield’s purchase of Crestwood Plaza was done to buy out Hycel’s participation in a landmark tax-increment financing lawsuit involving West County Center.

“… (Westfield) bought Hycel out of the lawsuit, and so now Westfield owns a property that they didn’t want. And they really invested nothing …,” Brancaglione said.

By 1995, Crestwood Plaza was 10 years into its last renovation, he said, adding, “Both the Sears and the Dillard’s stores were tired. Westfield lured Sears to open a new store in south county — at the same time they owned this, which I thought was very telling. They began quietly trying to sell the property in about 2000 …”

Though Westfield officials approached the city to obtain incentives to improve the mall, Brancaglione said, “… It was clear when you looked at what they submitted from a plan standpoint, they really weren’t serious — or at least it was clear to me. So it was all about bolstering the price while they had it on the market.”

In the meantime, the mall was deteriorating. While it’s a popular belief that redevelopment projects in Sunset Hills and Kirkwood were principal contributors to Crestwood Plaza’s decline, that’s not true, Brancaglione said, noting revenue data from all three locations “proved that everyone was doing fine.”

Commercial properties have to be rehabbed or reinvented to maintain their desirability, and for retail, a good owner will freshen a property 10 years after it opens, and perform a major reinvestment or reinvention after 20 years — something that didn’t happen at Crestwood Plaza.

“… If you think of the Watson Road Corridor like an over-the-road tractor/trailer truck with the mall as the engine, if the engine breaks down and isn’t repaired, the truck doesn’t go anywhere except to the junk yard,” he said. “… When the truck breaks down … another truck comes along and hauls it off. And that’s what’s happened to Crestwood’s retail base …”