What Should Be: A Downtown Crestwood

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{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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  • Scott Austin

    Funny how residential and retail are seen as the only saviors of a failed economic situation in this country these days.. However, at least the folks in the Akron / Cleveland area are building a rail and road-served industrial park where their defunct mall stands. I think industrial-use is an excellent idea, but one that folks seldom mention around here. Expanding the Watson Industrial Park to include the mall site would provide stable jobs and a solid economic footing for the city. Once the existing buildings are razed, they could erect a state-of-the-art warehouse and logistics center, serving south county with transloading available for everything from lumber, aggregates, general merchandise, steel pipe, etc. Grant’s Trail, which was at the time of the mall’s failure, still an active railroad spur, could have been extended to serve this site, with Watson Road providing trucks access to I-44 for local and regional freight deliveries. Because the rail line’s abandonment was well after the Rails-Trails Act, NIMBY resistance aside, it would be VERY easy to re-lay two miles of track from the former mall site to connect with the BNSF main line near the intersection of Holmes Ave. and Leffingwell.. Crestwood’s central location would make perfect sense for such an operation, but again, the NIMBYs…

    • STLEnginerd

      Well that and the fact that industrial properties generate very little revenue for the city. Part of the problem with having 90 municipalities is they all want the highest property tax and sales tax generating uses to be the dominant land use in their city. Which means retail first, then commercial office, then residential, then industrial. If Crestwood was part of a larger municipality then they could seek a better balance.

      That said given its proximity to two of the best tourist attractions in the County (Laumeier Sculpture Park, and Grants’s Farm) as well as the exposure to the heavily traveled Watson Rd, the fact that there are already constructed unerground parking facilities, and the generally hilly topography, I really don’t see Industrial as the highest and best use for the site. Especially with so much industrial space available in Fenton. In this case a mixed use “downtown” Crestwood makes a lot of sense to me.

  • wump

    we don’t need any more boring little suburban downtowns stealing all the energy for urban development from the city (see mapleHOOD). just come to city already, stop faking it in the county

  • Hugezane

    I have lived in Crestwood since 1954 and know more about the area than most because I remember all the old stuff as well as the new. I love when someone who has been in Crestwood 10 years has all the answers. Here is the reality Location location location. The property across 44 from Sams is the spot. take out 2 blocks of homes. move those people over off of East Watson in home that come up for sale. while that is beiong done with a developer paying the diffrence in home values. Put a road in that connects Big bend /44 with the nesment Crestwood ownd at the bottom of the hill between St Elizabets and the creek. have that conect to watson industrial park and swing it around to mak a loop back to Sapington and the new road By Reco Rd. Now you truely have Crestwood Loop and a downtown distrect we can call home. This procees will take probably 20 years but its our best shot at becoming theSt louis Hills of South County.
    Otherwise shut the city down and become unicorporated like Concord. We need to revitalize our city and use our assets.

  • Ted Yemm

    Also, the overlay of the Maplewood commercial district onto the mall site was very helpful in giving some perspective to the size of the mall site.

  • Ted Yemm

    Thank you for posting this article about Crestwood! Even though this article does not address the 800 pound gorilla of financing this project, it does articulate new way of looking at this property that should at least be considered. I also agree that the City of Crestwood has not been a great development partner in this process. Perhaps a public private partnership with the chamber of commerce could be formed to flesh out some development ideas that could be presented to developers. I am not opposed to TIF in this project, but the city should get some say in development if it is investing in it. Having said that, the city needs to be ready with concrete, attainable proposals to present. I personally favor approaching William Busch about putting a Kraftig Brewery, Brewpub, Biergarten, and brewing school at this site as an anchor!

  • tpekren

    You can insert Jamestown Mall in place of Crestwood Mall and have the same exact discussion. To me, these two sites need to bulldozed or partially bulldozed for residential development to be re introduced. Retail alone can not support these sites and existing office market is more than adequate. Most likely the cost of Crestwood infrastructure would require multi unit residential which I don’t think is a bad addition considering that not much is being built outside the city and can be built to the varying grade differentials. In other words, you don’t need to level the whole site. Just need to decide on the housing to put back and the structure to pay for the streets/plumbing you need to support it.
    Which comes to a valid point being raised. Local leadership of land locked city really do lack vision of a future. Instead, they seem in a state of denial to the reality that the retail and office market is already overbuilt in the region for the foreseeable future.

  • Jane Hake

    Such a smart article…I’m afraid we will first have to get rid of the book of local ordinances that discourage small business and diversity. Who agrees with this article and wants to run for Mayor of Crestwood? I will get right behind you and support your run! Historic rt. 66 is a good theme to begin

  • MikeCrestwood

    This lofty vision of a downtown Crestwood is great. I agree that the use is
    great. One question – HOW DO YOU PAY FOR IT? I think you should do it yourself. You have the vision. You can do it!

    • rgbose

      Unfortunately the Megamillions didn’t work out for me! Point is don’t rely on one person/company. Make some public expenditures to create a platform where many want and can risk smaller amounts. That way if some don’t work out it won’t sink the whole thing.

      • T-Leb

        Or, never get off the ground b/c small players have small amounts of $$.

        • rgbose

          That’s why you divide into small parcels and don’t mandate parking, which raises the barrier to entry.

          • T-Leb

            That’s a fantasy I bet no developer would entertain.

    • tpekren

      MIke, curious if you are resident of Crestwood considering you take on that in your name? Also curious about your opinion beyond the obvious. What is your vision, solution? The city has a big significant non revenue space that is past the prime. Personally, I think you have very valid point but the vision being proposed can be done incrementally and like all street infrastructure was paid for and is maintained by taxpayers including the street you live on, if you live on a street in Crestwood.
      Back to the valid point, Streets of St. Charles is probably the model that best suits. The scale I believe is larger. I also think of Pleasant Hill, CA near my new home, where a downtown was built development, again smaller and lacks a residential mix is another example of developing a small but doable downtown. The anchor for Pleasant Hill downtown is a movie theater and a couple of hotels. The local area supports a mix of retail, services and eateries nearby. This site can support residential. It is the tax structure that will matter at end of day. I also believe this is were TIF’s are valid. Bond the work and pay back on future tax revenues on new housing, etc. The key in my mind, Suburbs like Crestwood need to get beyond more retail period.

      • MikeCrestwood

        I think that it definitively needs to be a multi-use development with the focal point being affordable, aesthetic residential (fairly similar to Streets of St. Charles).

        Realistically, the only way you’re going to get a developer to consider it is by implementing the publicly-dreaded TIF (I’d say publicly misinformed)! Otherwise, no developer is going to put forth the risk and/or capital after seeing what happened to the previous plan. Additonally, you will have some Crestwood residents that would be offended if you called the site “blighted.” Let’s see, what would a politician call it instead of blight? What about “historic beauty”?

  • Anne

    This type of creative thinking is exactly what is needed in Crestwood. I believe that a large majority of residents of Crestwood –and residents of neighboring communities–would embrace such innovative approaches to redevelopment. Unfortunately, Crestwood’s current government IS incredibly divided and dysfunctional. The only hope for progress is a new mayor and for some of the current aldermen to be voted out of office. The citizens of Crestwood need to create a task force or economic development committee on their own because the only thing happening up at city hall is budget cuts and the outsourcing of services. The mayor and city administrator have not given any thought to what happens next….what are they going to do when they run out of jobs to eliminate and budgets to slash?

  • T-Leb

    The author seems to believe a road diet and mixed use without parking mins is a silver bullet for Crestwood. Urbanist one size fits all?

  • The Sheriff

    “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.” Like the idea, but the topic of funding such an endeavor is conspicuously absent from your article. How does one pay for demolition, site work, utilities, roads, and building this downtown vision? TIF? Mana from heaven?

    • rgbose

      Indeed it won’t be easy or cheap especially if parking has to be a big priority. I think what’s easy, but riskier is to go for one big redevelopment plan whose profits, if any materialize, will leave the town and whose losses will be on Crestwood’s back. I’m encouraging a slower home-grown incremental approach which I think will be more resilient. Crestwood should primarily muster resources within to redevelop the site into a place for Crestwood. Reconfiguring Waston is a key piece. Should it be a street that serves Crestwood or a road that let’s people pass through Crestwood as quickly as possible? Perhaps for that MoDOT will be a partner. Another thing to do is vote against a highway sales tax this fall which will suck even more wealth away from Crestwood.

  • Megan

    As a young resident of Crestwood, I would love to see something like this! When I moved to the area, I missed having a downtown like Kirkwood’s. Since the town was built on Route 66 back in day, it didn’t exactly happen. We have an incompetent board who sadly can’t see the value in doing something like this. I was all for the open-air development, even if it did mean a TIF. Hopefully it won’t stay a defunct mall forever.

  • Mike Balles

    As a Crestwood resident I think this sounds great and is exactly the sort of thinking these site deserves. Too bad no one associated with the city posses this sort of vision. As a resident that has sat through the travails of the Board of Alderman meetings over the Centrum proposalI, I can say that the current Board and Mayor lack the understanding of how to develope the site, lack the cohesiveness and cooperation to see a project like this through, and completely lack the leadership to partner with anyone to get such a project underway. There is no economic development board within Crestwood anymore. A major change in the city leadership is the only hope for something like this to come to fruition. Hopefully that change begins in April.

  • Christopher Miofsky

    It’s unfortunate that the outdoor mixed use space was shelved. This would have been a great use of the derelict space. I live in Affton, but I am over that way all the time shopping, eating, and socializing. It would have been great to have a space like that. It is unfortunate that the older residents found a way to stop this development. It just means that more and more people are going to move closer to these developments (further away from the city) and thus the flight is going to continue. Such a shame.

  • Jeff King

    As a resident of Crestwood, I’d love nothing more than to see this happen! I’m not certain how many long time residents would agree, as most of them want the mall to be like a mall again. Of course, that is never going to happen. Lets just hope that whatever happens at the mall site will attract residents as well as non-residents and give this otherwise excellent community a place to be proud of.