The Sears anchor store at Crestwood Plaza–it’s called Crestwood Court now, but in its glory days, it was Crestwood Plaza–closed this weekend. It was a long, slow decline, and I don’t think anyone really knows what’s next.
I didn’t go. I was there a couple of weeks ago, and I bought a multimeter at a heavy discount, but most of the kinds of things I would have been interested in buying were long gone. The rest of the old mall is mostly empty. With Sears gone, it makes me wonder how much longer any of the rest of it will last.
Thirty years ago, Crestwood Plaza was a big, big deal. It had a larger selection of stores than anything else south of the airport. And I can’t begin to count the number of hours I spent there, even though I was hardly the mall rat. Unlike the other two malls closest to it–uncreatively named South County Center and West County Center–it had at least two of everything. Two book stores, two software stores, two toy stores. And if the other malls had two of something, it had three. Crestwood Plaza also had Exhilirama, the area’s biggest arcade and the site of a prank my classmates still talk about today.
Both of the nearby malls expanded around a decade or so ago. The owner completely demolished West County Center except for the two anchor stores and built two levels in between them where there had only been one. In South County where it’s not as landlocked, the owner added another wing. Once all was said and done, both were at least as big as Crestwood Plaza had been, and malls were falling out of favor anyway.
But the decline didn’t happen immediately. My wife and I started dating in 2003, and I remember we would go to Crestwood quite a bit. Something about it made it a nicer place to walk. Maybe it was because it was less crowded–which would explain part of the problem. But it was still a viable place at the time. We’d walk around, stop in whatever shops caught our fancy, buy a couple of things, stop off at the coffee shop and have some coffee, and if there was anything we especially needed, we’d take care of that too.
Then around 2005 or 2006, the neighboring city of Sunset Hills announced its intent to demolish a residential district near the intersection of Lindbergh and Watson roads, scarcely a mile away, and build an open-air outdoor mall there. Then they started signing up Crestwood Plaza’s tenants. The open-air mall fell through because the builder didn’t pay the owners after Sunset Hills seized it via eminent domain, but Crestwood still lost two of its anchor stores anyway. And without the anchor stores as a draw, the rest of the mall didn’t stand a chance.
The mall was on shaky ground when Sunset Hills sucker-punched it, and even though that plan never amounted to anything, it was enough to kill the mall. It survived for a while by renting space out to artists and other entrepreneurs who needed cheap space for business experiments, some of which proved extremely viable. But even when that plan was announced, it included an end date. When Sears announced its intent to close a bunch of underperforming stores, nobody was surprised the Crestwood store was on the list. If there was any surprise, it was that Sears didn’t close the store sooner.
I’m also not sure that the city of Crestwood did itself any favors. When I bought that multimeter, I noticed the sales tax rate was 8.5 percent. In a lot of the neighboring suburbs, the tax rate is a couple of points lower. And I know it’s lower at West County Center and South County Center. I don’t know when that tax rate went into effect, but if you were buying a big-ticket item, it made sense to drive somewhere else.
It really made me wonder why Sears lasted so long, given that you could buy anything that Sears sold at some other store in Sunset Hills or Kirkwood for 2% less. If you’re buying things like high-end appliances, big-screen TVs or riding lawnmowers, that 2% could amount to a difference of $20 or $30. Why buy at Sears when you can drive two miles and buy the same thing at Home Depot, Lowe’s, or Target and save the money?
The last I heard, the owners of the former Crestwood Plaza intend to tear most of it down and build some kind of open-air center. Crestwood Plaza started out that way, and then it was enclosed in 1984. Consumers are fickle, aren’t they? I guess if an open-air center seemed viable in Sunset Hills at Watson and Lindbergh, there’s no good reason one can’t be viable a mile and a half east at Watson and New Sappington–unless the city taxes it to death.