What Should Be: A Downtown Crestwood

What Should Be: A Downtown Crestwood

{after the vacant mall, a classic neon bowling alley sign may be the most recognizable landmark in Crestwood – image by Flickr user Wampa-One}

How do you know you’re in Crestwood?  For several decades you knew because of Crestwood Mall. As the TIF retail sprawl ball keeps on bouncing farther out, older communities must confront what to do with their dead malls and empty big boxes. Crestwood is facing this dilemma. It has wisely rejected a gamble on a heavily subsidized silver-bullet game-changing redevelopment of the mall site.

Named the Best place to raise kids in Missouri by Bloomberg Businessweek magazine in 2011 for its high-performing school district, good city services, and low taxes, it doesn’t face high crime, negative perceptions, abandonment, poverty, or dysfunctional government that other St. Louis communities struggle with. Crestwood has a stable population of nearly 12,000 and a median household income of $68,101. Crestwood is in a strong position to tackle the empty mall site.

{the Crestwood Mall, now vacant, long served as the community’s epicenter}

While the lost sales taxes the mall generated may tempt the town to enter the sales tax chase that incentivizes municipalities to bet their future on retail TIFs, the expansive retail in Sunset Hills and a new Walmart in Shrewsbury indicate that it would be futile to join in. Watson is choking with retail from the St. Louis city limits to I-44. An attempt to create a regional shopping destination is simply too risky; there is too much competition in that space. Crestwood should look within to support development rather than hope that a developer will build that next big thing and “they will come” from all around.

While Crestwood looks good now it must avoid a spiral downward brought on by a blighting dead mall, lost revenues impacting city services, and aging housing stock, population, and infrastructure. How can Crestwood create a more resilient tax base that can support its city’s services? How can Crestwood keep current residents and attract new ones? How can Crestwood have a comfortable gathering place as the mall used to be? Create a place. Without a sense of place it will be undermined by the sprawl rip tide. Build what Crestwood lacks: a traditional downtown.

I’m afraid it is going to take some fresh ideas to bring the area back and that might take some time for people to forget what we had and start thinking creatively about what could be.  -Crestwood resident

Crestwood is a post-war car-oriented bedroom community which never built a traditional downtown. Other older suburbs, that were lucky enough to be built before the war, have embraced their downtowns. Kirkwood and Maplewood are good examples. These are meant to serve the town and to be supported by the town. They are more resilient because they aren’t meant to compete with the next town over’s downtown. Also if a business fails or leaves it won’t leave as big a hole in the community either physically or financially. A traditional downtown development pattern will be more financially productive per acre and unit of infrastructure than a big box with a giant parking lot could ever be. Also with a focus on locally owned and operated businesses, more of the money going through them would stay in Crestwood.

{a proposal to modify the mall into an outdoor lifestyle center has been rejected}

The site and the car-oriented development pattern of Crestwood present challenges to creating a traditional downtown. The topography of the site is tough. It is important that storefronts be level with Watson. Rather than filling in with a lot of dirt the sunken parking lots could become a level of underground parking. The streets off Watson could gently slope down to meet storefronts facing side streets.

Connections of all modes of transport to the rest of town are very important. Few neighborhoods have sidewalks. There isn’t much of a street grid to tie the downtown streets into. While Sappington and Watson should be the main streets of Crestwood and their intersection the center of town, they instead are 35 and 40 mph stroads that divide the community. They each need a road diet with two traffic lanes, street parking, and wide sidewalks. Only by converting them to streets can they act as a generator of value for Crestwood by supporting the complex environment of a downtown.

OMG, what about the traffic?  Watson carries almost 25,000 vehicles per day, where will they go? What is better for Crestwood, speeding thru traffic passing by your businesses, running over pedestrians and bikers, dividing the town like a rushing river or a humane slow-speed street that enhances your community? I-44 runs parallel to Watson.  It can and would absorb most of the thru traffic. Watson is a state highway and in exchange for the state subsidies that maintain it, bureaucrats demand a level of service commensurate with a road meant to connect two places efficiently. This could be a hurdle for building a traditional downtown, but given what the state did on Manchester, they may be more open to a road diet. It is imperative to create a human-scaled street environment that has slow traffic and is comfortable for pedestrians to have a successful downtown. Residents must feel comfortable crossing Watson. Contrast Delmar in the Loop with its wide sidewalks and Hampton with its speeding traffic to see which better supports a traditional development pattern.

{the mall site provides Crestwood with a central location to create a downtown}

The mall site could be divided into 1.5 x 5 blocks with a connection to Watson Industrial Park and Grant’s Trail. Put city hall and a library in places of prominence and built to be prominent buildings. That way they add value to surrounding parcels. Hidden one-story buildings like the current city hall and the Oak Bend branch library don’t. Zone the rest for mixed-use 1-3 story buildings with no parking minimums. Requiring parking creates a barrier of entry for small business and drive up housing costs. Let the market decide. Cultivate local businesses like what Rob Birenbaum does in Maplewood. Development should be patient and incremental. Doing one big thing risks missing the mark in a big way, potentially leaving an albatross like the mall has.

{Maplewood commercial district overlayed on Crestwood Mall site}

OMG, but the parking! Parking needs are significantly reduced if a substantial percentage of patrons are not driving there or live there already. Also for drivers only one parking spot is needed to go downtown instead of one each to go to city hall, then the library, then the dentist, then the florist, etc.  Or perhaps keep some of the structured parking at the eastern end.

OMG mixed-use, does that mean poor apartment dwellers? No, they could be the owners/employees of the small businesses in downtown, the son or daughter you don’t want living in your basement anymore, or the senior citizen who has lived in Crestwood for decades and wants to stay there because it’s such a great place to live-especially with a walkable, human-scaled downtown.

Ultimately it’s up to what Crestwood wants. More of the same or a place that endures?

the Crestwood Mall from Watson Road
{the Crestwood Mall from Watson Road – image by Flickr user Wampa-One}

inside the Crestwood Mall
{inside the Crestwood Mall – image by Flickr user Wampa-One}

Update 4/23/2014 – The mall went up for auction, selling for $3,635,000, $3.57 per square foot, or $77,340 per acre.

Update 5/2/2014- The PD reports that UrbanStreet of Chicago has bought the mall. Some sound advice from Richard Ward= “There is a lot of other retail nearby, and nobody is building regional shopping centers anymore,” Ward said. “Its future is something other than retail, such as multi-family housing. I think building more density is the best thing they can do.”

Update 4/15/2015 – UrbanStreet’s plan for the mall site released


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