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               CRESTWOOD PLAZA: ST. LOUIS, MO

KC Dierkes' Commentary

Posted June 3, 2006 (user submitted)

Crestwood Plaza (or Westfield Shoppingtown Crestwood as it is officially named since Westfield's buyout several years ago) is an interesting subject. It was created in it's current form in about 1983 from an existing mostly outdoor shopping center, much like the now defunct Northland Center in Jennings, that was built in the 1950's

The original "mall" had a Famous-Barr store [which actually started as another retailer, but is still in place and basically unchanged except for interior renovations], a Sears [also still open] a Stix Baer and Fuller [now Dillards] a Walgreens [which was relocated further up the road to another strip mall in 1983/84] and a grocery store, that was replaced by a Tipton electronics and appliance store when I was very young. There were a few small shops that I do not recall specifically.

At the time of it's 1983 grand re-opening, it was the largest super regional mall in the area I believe, surpassing even Northwest Plaza which is another St. Louis area mall that seems to be in a bit of trouble as of late. The St. Louis Galleria was not yet open in it's current (massive) state at this time.

Interestingly, both Crestwood and Northwest Plaza were initially developed by the same local company, Hycel Properties. Both are now owned by Westfield, though Northwest appears to have been sold to another investment company as of this writing based on local business news accounts.

In any case, Crestwood thrived for many years as probably the second busiest mall in town, after the St. Louis Galleria, several miles away in Richmond Heights. It started to decline in the early to mid 90's though, as the demographics changed and other malls were redeveloped while Crestwood became dated and somewhat run-down for lack of major updates in over a decade.

Crestwood is a second ring suburb of St. Louis that historically has had a very stable population - perhaps too stable. It is the kind of place that people move into when they start a family and don't leave until they pass on. Thus, they have had a population with a higher than average median age and fewer children and teenagers. This is but one factor that has hurt the mall. Another is location.

When the orignal center was built in the 1950's, it was at the corner of Watson and Sappington roads, the two major streets in Crestwood. Obviously, this predates the interstate system (at least in St. Louis) so this was deemed to be a wise, highly visible corner for a shopping center. As suburban sprawl occured, and the interstates 44 and 270 were built, this slowly but surely helped take the wind out of their sails.

The most affluent suburbs of St. Louis are now either well west of Crestwood, such as Chesterfield, or in older central suburbs that have always been highly affluent like Ladue and Frontenac.

The middle class, average families that make up most of the population in Crestwood and similar surrounding towns have largely turned to the so called "lifestyle center" for most of their shopping needs.

Sam's Club and discount retailers have taken a big bite out of mall business, but of course this is true just about everywhere. Indeed, too many of these centers now exist and it is doubtful that all will remain profitable in the long term. Someday we'll undoubtedly be reading a site titled "dead lifestyle centers.com"

Anyway, Crestwood Plaza seems to be in a good deal of trouble. I would estimate their vacancy rate at over 30% now (based on square footage, not number of spaces) with a nubmer of large spaces that were formerly restaurants or other large [but not anchor sized] tenants now unoccupied. It is also evident that chain stores have begun an exodus, as many clothing stores are one-off mom and pop places. The ubiquitous Eddie Bauer closed their store over a year ago. The mall has shed 3 or 4 jewelers in the past several years.

The food court is a total disgrace. When it debuted, it was 100% leased and had a lot of unique eateries with really good food, as well as an old-world style market with fresh coffee and candy by the pound. As of May 2006, there is a McDonald's, Subway, Sbarro and an Athen's Cafe, a locally owned Greek restaurant. That is four spaces leased out of probably 20+ as originally configured.

There is a 10 screen AMC theatre that was awkwardly placed in a back wing of the mall, no where near the food court, probably 10-15 years ago. The original 5 screen theater that was in the food court was later converted to an arcade after a long vacancy.

Under Westfield's direction, the mall received a minor remodeling inside to make it a bit more contemporary, but this "freshening up" was minimal and is now several years old. It seems that in desperation, they have leased a multitude of "kiosks" that are crammed up the middle of the mall concourse - mostly selling cell phones or body piercing or cheap costume jewelery and watches.

Meanwhile, many of the retail spaces that line the mall corridor are boarded up with the signage showing the Westfield red-coated lady, or in some cases a static display of bathtub liners or mailboxes or other silly, non mall-worthy merchandise. One large space formerly occupied by retail is now a call center for a telemarking firm - a rather strange use of the space in my opinion.

To their credit, the anchors are still there - Famous Barr, Dillards and Sears. The Dillards store has been an underperforming store it seems, and is rather dated in it's appearance. I would not be surprised to see this store elimated by the company in the forseeable future. The Sears seems to hold it's own, still relying heavily on the lower-margin hardlines goods (appliances, lawn & garden, tools etc.) and the Famous-Barr seems to do a decent business.

With the impending conversion of Famous to Macy's, it will be interesting to see how the store fares, and how much money and effort Federated will invest to remake this location. If this store gets a minimal amount of remodel work after the offical changeover, I would guess that it is on the black-list.

There is a 5 year old Famous store at the much newer West County Center just a few miles away in Des Peres, which could certainly absorb the business done at Crestwood, as this much newer mall has not performed up to expectations either since it opened. West County also has a more desirable demographic base with younger families and higher incomes, placing it in a better position to begin with.

So, what will become of Crestwood Plaza? Westfield had hinted at a redevelopment some time back, somewhat on the order of what did at West County a few years ago, but there has been no public mention of this in several months now. Additionally, with the apparent sale of Northwest Plaza, there is speculation locally that Westfield may also divest themselves of Crestwood Plaza.

Honestly, I would say that Northwest was probably a better perfoming center financially, and was in nicer condition given it's more recent major remodeling and lower vacancy. Their key issue was crime there, and the St. Ann Police have made progress at combating that. If Westfield was concerned about the long-term viablity of Nortwest Plaza, then they surely have doubts about Crestwood as well.

Given the lackluster performance of other area malls that are newer and have much better occupancy, I think Crestwood's days are numbered barring a major re-thinking and investment. I'm not sure Westfield has the stomach to take that risk, as they seem to have a very cookie-cutter approach to developing their locations and choosing their tenants.

Then again, that is part of what has killed malls this past decade - they are all virtually identical by design. The formula has become homogenized to a point of inducing boredom and disinterest in the shoppers. Without much of anything unique to offer, people have gone off in search of better deals elsewhere.

I'd be disappointed to see Crestwood go, as most mall visits of my childhood were there and I do still shop there once in a while. In it's current state however, it is a shell of it's former self in the heydey of the 1980's. Maybe it's time to put a fork in it and save us the indignity of watching it die slowly and painfully.

Links

The Death Of Shopping Malls?
Indoor Shopping Malls Are Scrambling To Find Creative Ways To Stay Afloat During Tough Economic Times

News story from CBS news 3/23/09.










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