Prognosis good for city’s mall ‘if some of the right things can happen,’ Crestwood panel told

By EVAN YOUNG

Crestwood Court officials remain mum on a possible redevelopment of the mall more than a year after confirming a six-month timeline for unveiling plans to do so.

But an urban consultant told the Crestwood Economic Development Commission last week he believes the prognosis is good for the troubled property and the surrounding area — “if some of the right things can happen.”

Peckham Guyton Albers & Viets consultant John Brancaglione, who has worked with Crestwood since 1982, presented commissioners with a history of economic development and planning along Watson Road at the committee’s Feb. 16 meeting.

It was the group’s first meeting since Aug. 19. Chairman Forrest Miller and Commissioner Sonny Brockman were absent.

Jones Lang LaSalle Vice President/General Manager Tony Stephens, whose firm manages the shopping center, confirmed in January 2009 that mall owners Centrum Properties and Angelo, Gordon & Co. would unveil plans to redevelop Crestwood Court within six months.

“We are moving forward with architects and engineering firms to try to get a plan in place,” Stephens said a year ago. “… We’re looking at various options and various layouts and trying to understand the best uses.”

In the summer of 2008, Jones Lang LaSalle marketing manager Leisa Son told the Crestwood EDC that the mall’s redevelopment could include a streetscape quality similar to the Promenade in Brent-wood. This would open such possibilities as retail and restaurants and also an entertainment center that could be used for activities and possibly outdoor concerts.

Contacted last week for any update on redevelopment plans, Stephens told the Call there was “nothing that we’re ready to announce.”

In the meantime, the mall — Crestwood’s prime sales-tax revenue source — has continued to lose business. Many of the mall’s retail spaces are vacant, and only one anchor store, Sears, remains open after Macy’s closed its doors in April, taking with it hundreds of thousands of dollars in expected sales-tax revenues for the city.

Another anchor store, Dillard’s, closed in 2007.

In late 2008, Crestwood Court teamed up with the Regional Arts Commission and began leasing some of the mall’s empty spaces as part of ArtSpace, a community for local artists, musicians and performing artists.

The mall’s current state sharply contrasts what used to be “the place to shop,” Brancaglione told commissioners last week.

In the 1980s and 1990s, sales numbers for Crestwood Court — then named Crest-wood Plaza under owner Hycel Properties — were the best in the St. Louis area, outpacing those of both West County Center and South County Center, he said. Only the St. Louis Galleria in Richmond Heights and St. Clair Square in Fairview Heights, Ill., were more successful, he said.

The mall was redeveloped in the mid-’80s, and the project was the “driving force” behind the other economic activities along Watson Road that were part of a development plan adopted in 1984, Brancaglione said.

“It was really a driving force behind the other economic activities,” he said. “Once the development community and the retail community saw that happening, I think it was much much easier to interest parties in those other targeted sites.”

Westfield Group acquired the 1.3 million-square-foot mall property from Hycel in 1998 for $106.4 million. Westfield did so, Brancaglione believes, “with no intention of doing anything except making money off it until they could ultimately market it to someone else.”

“They made virtually no investment,” he said, adding that Westfield began “quietly” trying to sell the mall in 2000. “And efforts to get the city to provide incentives for various plans were, in my opinion, not real but were intended to prop up the value of the property because they’re running around behind the scenes trying to sell it.”

That lack of interest in the property — not necessarily its location — contributed to its decline, Brancaglione said, rejecting the notion that the mall’s distance from a major interstate is a factor.

“(P)art of the issues you’re facing today resulted from the fact that … Westfield was stringing you along,” he said. “… The fact that (Interstate) 44 went by and Watson Road wasn’t the through route anymore, made no difference because people found their way here, shopped here and in fact, you had a mall that was doing better than the ones that bookend it and almost as well as the glittering new thing in Richmond Heights.”

Nevertheless, Crestwood Court “sort of got away from you,” Brancaglione told commissioners, and making the property “productive” again will be a “much bigger task” today.

“That’s not to say that what’s there is not productive,” he said. “But what is occupying that facility at this point could occupy something a lot smaller, and everybody could be benefiting economically from something other than what sits there today.

“You’re still in the center of a demographic universe that’s one of the best in the metro area, and I don’t see anything that says to me that’s going to change. If you put a pin at the middle of Sappington and Watson and draw a five-mile radius, the numbers there from the standpoint of household income, individual income, property values — in other words, all of the things you would normally look at as indicators — appear to me as they’re not going to change.”

“So what you have to do is figure out what sort of land-use strategies you want to promote, but at the same time you have to be thinking about it in the context of: OK, what’s the market and what’s the developer likely to be interested in? And I think you’ve got to wait that out a little bit.” he said. “I don’t know where Angelo, Gordon and Centrum stand in their thinking.

“They’re some of the most creative people around, particularly in the Chicago area … So you’ve got them as the development entity here. That’s a good thing.

“On the other hand, they’re faced with the same issues that everybody’s faced with these days. We have a retail market nationally and in the metropolitan area that’s been overbuilt. And it’s been overbuilt for some time. The problem is that people will gravitate toward the quality developments … On the one hand … it’s a hell of a location. On the flip side, it’s a location that’s got a whole bunch of bricks and mortar on it that are about as obsolete as you can get.”

Shopping centers — and commercial properties in general — have milestones, Brancaglione noted.

“So at the end of 10 or 15 years at the outset is when you need to make the next big thing happen to that property. And so when it was time for that to happen at Crestwood Plaza, it didn’t,” he said. “And it was in the hands of the wrong owners who weren’t motivated. Could the city have done anything about that? Well, maybe. I’m an advocate of using the tools that are part of eminent domain in the redevelopment statutes, when you’ve tried everything and nothing else works.

“… You can sit and speculate ’til the cows come home. At the end of the day, I think the prognosis is good over the long haul, but it’s going to take creativity and it’s going to take the city’s participation.”

Centrum Properties and Angelo, Gordon & Co. bought the mall from Westfield in March 2008 for $17.5 million, according to St. Louis County records.

The companies changed the name of the mall to Crestwood Court from Westfield Shoppingtown Crestwood.

The Board of Aldermen the previous August voted to issue a request for development proposals for the property. The effort brought in no bids and drew criticism from Westfield officials. Aldermen suspended the RDP process shortly before the sale closed.

City officials previously have indicated that they would consider offering such economic-development tax incentives as tax-increment financing, or TIF, to ease the owners’ costs of the mall’s redevelopment.

That cost would be eased through the collection of an additional sales tax imposed on the mall property. In a TIF district, tax receipts for school districts, fire districts and other taxing entities are frozen at existing levels for the length of the TIF — up to 23 years. As land within the TIF district increases in value, the incremental tax revenue — 100 percent of property taxes and 50 percent of sales and utility taxes — is used to retire the TIF obligation.

Brancaglione told commissioners the mall likely would need to be redeveloped for “mixed use,” even though he estimated demolition costs could reach $8 million.

“I don’t think that million-plus square feet of retail is going to happen unless South County (Center) burns down,” he said.

Crestwood, in previous years, capitalized on communities such as Webster Groves — a “very desirable place to live” but with little retail to offer, Brancaglione said.

“You were the place they came to shop,” he said. “All of those people who live to the north of you, for example, are having to go farther away than they had before because it’s not here now … I think that if some of the right things can happen — and I’m not going to stand up here and tell you I know those answers at this point.

“But if those things happen, you’re still part of that center of the universe. And you’ve got retail areas that are good retail areas. A lot of your neighbors don’t, particularly north of you. And getting from any of those communities to Watson and Sappington versus getting, for example, to the Galleria — Highway 40 may have opened, but the ability to get from Point A to Point B north and south through this part of the county still isn’t easy, which is why I think you always had an advantage.

“But if the place they can go to shop isn’t of quality, they’re going to go elsewhere,” he added. “And that’s what happened.”