The former Dillards building at Crestwood Court
Last week I had to go out to my dentist at Gravois and Sappington and on my way back to the City I decided to stop by Crestwood Court (formerly Crestwood Plaza) to check out ArtSpace. It was almost noon on a Tuesday morning when I arrived. What I found was somewhat erie. It reminded me of the last days of St. Louis Centre. Of the 110+/- spaces, only about a dozen to 15 retail stores remain open. Sears is the only of three anchor tenants remaining.
Of the vacated retail spaces, about half have been filled with arts organizations through the ArtSpace program where artists and arts related groups can lease storefront spaces for the bargain rate of $100 per month. Many of the spaces are rented to small theater groups, so they are only open for limited times for shows and rehearsals. A few storefronts were open as studio/galleries for artists, but the general level of activity was very low. More than half of the few dozen people I saw while walking the entire length of the center and back were obviously mall walkers.
While I find the concept of ArtSpace very interesting and the efforts of the center's owner, Sol Barket of Centrum Properties commendable, I wonder what is sustainable at the site for the long term? To be fair, Centrum has let the arts tenants know that this could be a temporary situation. Centrum bought the mall in March 2008 with the intension of demolishing it and building a new open air pedestrian friendly lifestyle shopping and entertainment center with about half a million square feet of space. With the fallout of the economic crash though don't look for this to happen any time soon. The retail marketplace is way over built and financing for additional retail centers is highly unlikely.
Building a large amount of new office space or new a couple thousand residential units also seems unlikely for at least the next few years if not longer. What then do you do with a million square feet of space sitting on 48 acres? Some of the statistics about the mall are staggering. According to an article in the St. Louis Business Journal, the market value of the center plummeted from $99.3 million when Westfield bought it in 1998 to $17.5 million when it was sold to Centrum 2008. In terms of filling the million square feet, the ArtSpace initiative has filled about 200,000 s.f., and according to the article has actually helped attract about half a dozen new non-arts tenants, although it seems that others have closed in the last year.
Instead of demolishing the mall and starting over to create an outdoor center, Centrum could simply turn the front of the mall (the stores on the Watson side of the center corridor) inside out by building new storefronts on the exterior and marketed to typical mall retailers. The vacant Macy's and Dillards building could be subdivided and marketed toward mid-sized retailers or altered for users looking for large blocks of open & relatively inexpensive office space. Remaining retailers on north side of the mall corridor would be relocated to face Watson and these spaces could remain for ArtSpace tenants with the mall corridor itself being transformed into a linear gallery. This type of transformation would cost far less than a tear down & re-built, and with the relatively low acquisition cost (less than $20/sf), would be far more feasible to finance.
For an interesting history of the evolution of Crestwood Plaza from its beginning in 1957, take a look at Mall Hall of Fame (pan down past the Northland entry). Also interesting to note, on Monday there was a story in the Post about Chesterfield Mall offering a smaller number of spaces to arts organizations. Also, yesterday, Macy's announced it would close its store at Northwest Plaza, so like Crestwood, only Sears will remain as an anchor.