JT August's Commentary

Posted May 3, 2011 (user submitted March 4, 2010)

Once a spectacular outdoor shopping center with four anchors (one of which was incorporated into another so that one anchor had two huge stores), this shopping center had three fountain plazas of architectural note from historic landscape and fountain architect Lawrence Halprin, including the landmark Genesis fountain. This destination changed under the ownership of Paramount Group, a retail property holding firm that claimed no relationship to Paramount Pictures, although records indicated some founding investors were from the like named studio.

Paramount Group rebuilt NW Plaza to put a roof over it, and double the retail space. Their design did facilitate a potential to dramatically revise the look of the mall to keep it fresh, to potentially update it for multiple movie/TV show use, a potential never realized. St. Louis had appeared to be a potential growth point for tv/movie production, but that collapsed on itself in 1989.

The post roofing footage was 2.2 Million square feet, and at one point, the mall was 97% occupied. Anchors were Dillards, Sears, JCPenney and Famous-Barr. The one time second building for Famous (pre-remodeling) was then a three story feature, with a 14 screen cinema on top, a 100% occupied food court at mall level, and the third of four Tilt Superstores, a 40K square foot entertainment center with a mini-golf, kiddie land, carousel, two carnival features, a popcorn truck, a simulator theater, nearly 300 video, pinball and arcade games, and six huge party rooms.

The mall remained king for about 5-8 years, then declines began. Slow until after 2003, but the rates increased as the ownership of Westfield wore on. Paramount Group bailed ownership in the mid-90's and sold to a forgotten company. That company was bought out completely by Westfield in their quest to take over the mall world. Under Westfield (who owned all but 2 of the area's biggest malls), all StL malls slumped, but NW suffered the most. NW was eventually spun off to another forgotten owner, who contracted General Growth to manage the site while they explored a TIF redevelopment.

St. Ann robustly supported the TIF, but the owners fell on hard times before the recession, and never got investment to redevelop. They eventually defaulted on their $45 million mortgage and was foreclosed at a value of $30 million to current bank owners. A big part of the devaluation was the discovery of hundreds of code violations that would result in far more reconstruction costs than was originally expected.

Serious structural flaws, plumbing violations, electrical shortcuts that could lead to potentially fatal risks were found, and an investigation was launched to track down and punish those who allowed these dangers to be built and pass inspection at the time of putting the roof on. The investigation died quicker than the mall when the liable parties were all found to be non-existant; Paramount group had been sold out to two tiers of now forgotten owners before they were bought out by Westfield, who no longer exists in the USA, so all records of liable parties on the ownership side no longer exist. Also, the Mayor, Code Enforcement Officer and Fire Marshall for St. Ann and its associated fire department have all three passed away in the years since. Put simply, there is no way to punish those who allowed this to get by.

As to today at NW Plaza, the 2.2 Million square feet is largely empty, with the only foot prints being 1 anchor, Sears, a gazebo type shop inside, five store fronts inside, and four store fronts outside. The lst of the food court units closed in the fall of '09, and all the tables were then removed from the food court. The center court fountain was covered over in 2008 with a carpeted cover. These days, most of the lights inside are turned off, so the place looks closed and empty at night.

Sears does surprisingly well despite, but recent advertising practices bring locals to wonder if that store is going to close this year. Many expect the mall to shutter before summer, as the volume of revenue cannot justify the cost of a/c. Those stores still open are holding out for leases to run out, or the owners to buy them out and shutter the place. The banks that own the place already have taken a financial beating on the place, and are trying to avoid buy back expenses that they would have to pay to close out leases early to allow shut down.

And the city of St. Ann is in dread of the place going dark, as they have a significant amount of vacant retail space in their city limits, and don't want more.

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