Another one bites the dust.
A few weeks ago, Crestwood Court, a super-regional enclosed shopping mall located in southwest-suburban St. Louis, kicked most of its tenants out amid speculation of forthcoming redevelopment, which has been on hold for several years due to the sluggish economy.
Crestwood Court’s latest blow is part of a series of problems for the mall, which opened as a 550,000 square-foot, L-shaped outdoor center in 1957. Back then, Crestwood was on the outskirts of suburban development for St. Louis. The city of St. Louis itself was a booming metropolis with over 800,000 residents, and suburban St. Louis County had half as many residents as today. Things couldn’t have been sunnier for Crestwood Plaza, as it was officially known until the late 1990s, before a series of rebadging efforts due to new ownership changed it to Westfield Shoppingtown Crestwood and, finally, Crestwood Court. For our purposes, we’ll just stick with the name Crestwood.
Since Crestwood opened 55 years ago, times have changed, shopping patterns have changed, and so too have the dynamics of retail in general. When Crestwood opened, it was located on the precipice of newer developments heading westward from the city of St. Louis. In fact, Crestwood was once located directly on the famous and storied Chicago-to-Los-Angeles Route 66 until the section from Chicago to Joplin, Missouri was decommissioned in favor of Interstates 44 and 55 in 1979.
Over time, Crestwood’s location turned from a boon in its favor to an Achilles’ Heel, as it went from having prime Route 66 frontage to being located on a regional secondary side road. And, unlike several other successful St. Louis-area shopping centers like the Galleria, South County Center, Chesterfield Mall, West County Center, St. Clair Square and Mid Rivers Mall, Crestwood did not have direct access from the Interstate system. Despite being a mile from Interstates 44 and 270, the exits to access the mall involve making several awkward turns and going through busy intersections.
Crestwood was also a pioneer, establishing retail history firsts for both the St. Louis region as well as trendsetting innovations for retail site design nationwide. Designed by regional shopping center pioneer Louis Zorensky, Crestwood was the first truly regional mall in the St. Louis area, and also one of the first of such centers with more than one major anchor. Both Sears and St. Louis-based Scruggs-Vandervoort-Barney anchored the mall, opening in 1957 and 1958, respectively. A smaller Woolworth also operated on the south end of the center. It was previously thought in shopping center design school that two anchors in the same mall would hurt, rather than complement, each other. Zorensky’s Crestwood proved that this was not the case, as the mall had instant success with two competing anchors. In addition, Crestwood was the first mall with a split-level parking lot, providing access to both levels of the mall.
Interestingly, Zorensky went on to build a bigger and better shopping center in St. Louis. When it opened in 1963, Northwest Plaza was the largest shopping center in the world. It was finally enclosed in the 1990s, and enjoyed success until around 2000 when it began to slide downhill, eventually closing in 2010.
Crestwood’s first expansion in 1967 brought a third anchor and a new enclosed retail corridor, featuring St. Louis-based Stix Baer & Fuller, on the mall’s eastern end. Then, in 1969, St. Louis-based Famous-Barr purchased Vandervoort’s, bringing its venerable name into the Crestwood mix. Meanwhile, in the 1960s and 1970s, St. Louis-area retail developers were busy at work building many new super-regional malls across the metropolitan area, providing competition to Crestwood. However, Crestwood held its own against these new malls for decades.
Take a look at the massive, hulking Stix structure via the VanishingSTL blog:
In 1984, the entirety of Crestwood was fully enclosed due to pressures from competition as well as consumer trends. Competition included three nearby super-regional malls within 15 minutes: West County Center, South County Center, and Chesterfield Mall. A fourth super-regional mall, St. Louis Galleria, opened in 1986 just 5 miles away from Crestwood, in Richmond Heights, expanding to become the best mall in St. Louis by the early 1990s.
During the 1984 enclosure a basement food court and 5-screen cinema were added to Crestwood between Sears and Famous-Barr, and the short Woolworths wing was demolished and replaced by parking. That same year, the Stix chain was purchased by Dillard’s and converted. The food court was a pretty neat design feature at Crestwood. Entrance to the basement food court was accessed via escalators and stairways which went perpendicular from the main mall corridor into the food court area, giving it the vibe of a secret underground space. The food court, which was gigantic, also had a direct exit to the back of the mall, which is at the same grade. It was one of the mall’s best design features, in addition to the fact that the mall seemed to wrap around Sears on three sides. Also, the entire mall is cantilevered over a road which leads to the back of the mall between Sears and the former Dillard’s store. Pretty cool?
Another neat design feature was added in 1992, with the addition of a second cinema behind Dillard’s, (the one in the food court closed soon after and was replaced by an arcade) as well as a short mall corridor expansion which went up and over the top of Dillard’s, resulting in Dillard’s having two separate mall entrances. After all was said and done, the mall felt even bigger than it was due to all of these features.
Here’s what the layout looked like after all was said and done. Macy’s was the most recent anchor on the left, and Dillard’s was on the right. The underground food court, unseen here because it has been permanently closed for a couple years now, is located beneath this level between Sears and the former Macy’s at left:
Crestwood continued to hold its own into the 1990s, even as St. Louis Galleria captured the nuanced glitz and glamor of the St. Louis-area retail scene. Crestwood was purchased in 1998 along with several other St. Louis-area centers by Australian mall magnate Westfield. Crestwood was never marketed as upscale, and was always a mid-level everyday suburban shopping mall. This positioning, which continued during the Westfield-owned years, combined with even more competition and a changing retail marketplace in the 2000s led to Crestwood’s eventual demise. While other nearby centers underwent continuous expansions and renovations, Crestwood did nothing to differentiate itself from its competition and, combined with its less-than-ideal location, proved to be too much to overcome.
In 2000, nearby West County Center embarked on a massive renovation and expansion project, demolishing the entire existing mall except for JCPenney (which was extensively remodeled), adding Nordstrom, Lord and Taylor, a food court, and numerous parking structures. When the practically brand new mall opened in 2002, it was double the size of the original mall and noticeably more upscale, reflecting the high incomes of its neighboring suburbs. Crestwood was an aging 1980s mall by that time, and took a major hit from this new competition.
In addition to that, South County Center, which is the same distance from Crestwood as West County Center but in the other direction, began its own renovation and expansion project in 2000, adding a new two-level southwest wing and a giant Sears store. This repositioning solidified South County’s place on the map. South County is the most convenient mall to south St. Louis city, as well as the corridor of suburbs along I-55 heading south and also to nearby Illinois suburbs across the Mississippi River.
It wasn’t long after the West County and South County renovations before signs of failure began to appear at Crestwood. The aging center was poorly located, hemmed in between better and glitzier malls as well as lacking direct freeway access from I-270 or I-44.
A 2003 crawl on the Wayback Machine indicated a healthy mix of stores at Crestwood, though it wasn’t long before these stores began to slowly disappear.
In 2005, Famous-Barr considered closing their Crestwood location and moving to a newer lifestyle center development called MainStreet at Sunset, located just a few miles away in the suburb of Sunset Hills at Route 30 and I-270. However, this development was cancelled and Famous-Barr remained open, changing to Macy’s in the Fall of 2006.
In October 2007, the aging Dillard’s store threw in the towel and closed its 240,000 square-foot mid-century modern behemoth of a store. Side note: Does anyone remember the frozen-in-time Dillard’s Garden Room restaurant at Crestwood? It was obviously never renovated, and had this really old-school motif. I remember walking past it not too many years before the store closed, and it instantly tunneled me back to a place in the not-so-distant-past when shopping was a more formal affair. I could just see the ladies-who-lunch crowd all done up for a day of serious 1970s shopping. I guess the Garden Room had other locations too, and were a holdover from the Stix era in St. Louis. Are any of them still open?
In March 2008, Westfield realized Crestwood was going downhill fast and dumped it off to Centrum Properties, a Chicago-based retail development group in partnership with investment adviser Angelo, Gordon & Co. of New York. Centrum decided to rebrand the mall as an “arts space”, leasing the increasingly vacant retail stores to community arts groups, dance studios and the like, at insanely cheap below-market rents ($50-$100/month). This was a novel but obviously temporary solution to the mall’s vacancy problem, like putting a band-aid on a gunshot wound, as the remaining traditional retailers flowed out of the center even faster than before. Centrum was well aware that the ArtSpace was temporary. It became an innovative solution for finding short-term leases while giving back to the community. Most regular stores wouldn’t accept short-term leases, and Centrum just wanted to fill the space while the economy recovered so it could begin a larger-scale revitalization of the site.
Another brutal blow for Crestwood came in 2009, when Macy’s finally called it quits and closed their store, leaving Sears as the mall’s only anchor. Meanwhile, Centrum’s ArtSpace signed upwards of 70 tenants for their experiment, providing local arts groups the opportunity for a lot of space on the cheap. These groups were told from the beginning that this was a temporary situation while redevelopment was planned; however, the response to the experiment was phenomenal. Crestwood management was quoted as saying if they got a dozen arts tenants, they would have been surprised, but having 70 and leasing out over half the mall was astounding to them.
In December 2011, more bad news came from Crestwood as Sears announced it was closing its store. Sears is having financial difficulties of its own and has announced dozens of store closures nationwide, so it’s not crystal clear whether the Crestwood store would have been closed by a healthy company or not. Either way, Sears’ departure was not anticipated, as redevelopment plans were to be crafted around their store. It’s not clear whether this is a good or bad thing, as perhaps being able to start over completely is a boon to revitalization.
This turn of events seems to have set Centrum into motion, and in February 2012 they announced the ArtSpace tenants would have to move out, and that parts of the center would be closing permanently. A LensCrafters store and the AMC Movie Theater are still open inside the mall, however. This appears to be the final death knell for the current incarnation of Crestwood. Maybe renovation plans are coming to fruition, or perhaps Centrum was losing a lot of money keeping the place open.
Tired shoppers (in this case nobody, because the mall is practically devoid of retail stores) can stop for some art libations at the Art Bar, housed in the facade of shuttered Dillard’s:
Either way, it’s a bittersweet end to a 55-year history and a neat place. When it finally closes, it will be the fourth major mall in St. Louis to close, after River Roads in 1995, St. Louis Centre in 2006, and Northwest Plaza in 2010. It’s not clear when Crestwood will permanently close, as the AMC Theaters and a LensCrafters store are still operating. Are any other stores still open?
We look forward to seeing what’s in store for Crestwood’s redevelopment. Hopefully it will be something inspired, and not just some bland strip mall. I’ve visted Crestwood many times over the past decade and a half, and watched it crumble from a perfectly viable B-tier suburban mall to a mostly empty shell. As always, please share your own stories and reactions in the comments, and let us know when the mall closes for good and what, if any, redevelopments take place on the site.
Elsewhere on the web:
- The Google Maps car drove around Crestwood in 2007. If you go to the back, you can see vestiges of the original 1958 center. They also drove under the mall between Sears and Dillard’s, and strangely into the Dillard’s parking structure. Did they get confused?
- Post about Crestwood on the VanishingSTL blog (from 2010)
- Mall-hall-of-fame article
- The mall’s official website
- City-data chatter about Crestwood (from 2007)
Photos from January 2002, when the mall was still viable:
Photos from March 2010; not so viable. Interestingly, Gap was one of the last retail stores to stay open, finally closing in August 2011: