The Sears anchor store at Crestwood Plaza near St. Louis closed in May 2012. It was a long, slow decline, and nobody knew what was next. More than five years later, there’s still nobody who knows what’s next.
I went there a couple of weeks before it closed, 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 was mostly empty. The last of the smaller tenants left in 2013.
Crestwood Plaza: the Ultra Mall
Crestwood Plaza dated to 1957. In 1984, its owners enclosed it, since closed-in malls became more popular than open-air malls.
In the 1980s, Crestwood Plaza was a big, big deal. It called itself the Ultra Mall and nobody argued. 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 (not just Kay-Bee). And if the other malls had two of something, it had three. Crestwood Plaza also had Exhilirama, the area’s biggest arcade.
At its peak, Crestwood Plaza accounted for 20% of the city’s revenue.
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. When they finished, both were at least as big as Crestwood Plaza had been, and both were near large interstate highways that didn’t exist in 1957.
Crestwood Plaza followed the fate of its main artery, the old Route 66.
Crestwood Plaza’s slow decline
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. That 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.
In the 1980s, many of St. Louis’ outer-ring suburbs, such as Fenton, lacked much in the way of shopping amenities beyond a Wal-Mart and Radio Shack. Crestwood Plaza and Crestwood as a whole attracted shoppers from those growing suburbs. But once those suburbs built up their own commercial districts in the late 1990s and early 2000s, traffic to Crestwood decreased.
Sunset Hills’ sucker punch
Then, in 2005, the neighboring city of Sunset Hills announced its intent to demolish a residential district of 254 homes near the intersection of Lindbergh and Watson roads, scarcely a mile away, and build an open-air outdoor mall there in a sales-tax grab. 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 the houses via eminent domain, but two of its anchor stores, Macy’s and Dillards, decided not to renew leases anyway. Dillards closed in 2007 and Macy’s closed in 2009. And without the anchor stores as a draw, the rest of the mall didn’t stand a chance. One by one, the smaller stores left too.
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 starting in 2009. Some of those businesses proved extremely viable. But even that plan included an end date, and the owner ended the program in December 2011. 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.
The last holdouts
By 2012, the last operating businesses in the mall were an AMC movie theater, a Sears store, a Lens Crafters, and a US Post Office. The movie theater closed in May 2012, but with less fanfare than Sears. The Lens Crafters and Post Office soldiered on, on opposite wings of the mall, until 2013.
Crestwood’s sales tax didn’t help
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.
Crestwood Plaza was demolished in the spring of 2017, a sad end to a 60-year run. When demolition started, the new developer planned to build a mixed-use facility, including residential and retail space. As of September 2017, however, it had still not signed up its first tenant.