Santa Claus. That’s the first thing Carol Feldman thinks of when she recalls her childhood memories of the mall known then as Crestwood Plaza off Watson Road.
“Mom would bring me and my brother, and Santa Claus would be flown in by a helicopter, and there’d be a little bitty house in the middle of the parking lot,” the lifelong Crestwood resident said. “We’d be there with our coats, and we’d go visit Santa Claus every year.”
Feldman — who also once memorably bought a parakeet at Woolworth’s — said the mall has been a “staple of Crestwood forever.” But it’s been on a march toward what the city calls “a slow death” for years.
First opened in the late 1950s as an open-air strip mall, the shopping center was the first major mall in the St. Louis area. It reached a hey-day of expansion when it was converted into an enclosed “Ultra Mall” in 1984. But that development also marked the last significant investment made to the space, which over the decades fell into disrepair and vacancy by 2013. The following year, it was put up for auction.
“Until the recent demise, everybody would come here on a Saturday,” Feldman, said. “We’d save up our babysitting money and go to Woolworth’s and have lunch with a lot of girlfriends. It was just a common place for everybody to come and visit and have a good time.”
But new life may soon be breathed into the mall, also formerly known as Crestwood Court. The city has selected a proposal by UrbanStreet Group of Chicago to redevelop the site into a mixed-use development. First, though, the current buildings must be demolished, which may start by the end of the year.
That’s why thousands of residents gathered in the mall’s parking lot on Saturday to say one last goodbye to the beloved community landmark.
A “Food Truck Party at the Plaza” — hosted by the St. Louis Food Truck Association and the City of Crestwood — featured food from dozens of eateries and live music by Joe Dirt and the Dirty Boys Band.
Meanwhile, kids — like 2-year-old Jack Hennessy — had the chance to play in bounce houses and climb into the cabins of bulldozers and trucks, a reference to the coming demolition.
Dad Kevin Hennessy of Crestwood said he was just about Jack’s age when he first started coming to the outdoor incarnation of the mall. He said he hopes the new development is kid-friendly and “maintains itself.”
“And makes money so they don’t tear it down again,” he said.
The new plan received approval for tax-increment financing approval last month by the Crestwood Board of Aldermen. The plan calls for stores, restaurants, entertainment options such as concert venues, senior living apartments, and green space with community gardens.
That’s exactly the kind of “town center” that Crestwood resident Matt Green wants.
“It used to be a place you could come and you would always meet your friends, and I’m looking forward to that again,” Green said.
Green has good memories of the mall. Back in the 1970s, he said a caring manager made sure the mall had plenty of handicapped parking and curb cuts so Green had easy access with his wheelchair. He also recalled fondly the afternoons he used to spend with his kids there.
“To give my wife a break, I’d come home from work, I’d put the kids on my lap in my wheelchair and I’d bring them to the mall and take them around and look at all the good stuff,” he said, laughing.
Wife Josie said she shopped at the mall since she was a child and ticked off names of stores long-gone: Scruggs-Vandervoort-Barney, Famous-Barr, Dillard’s.
“It really was a community; people from all over came here,” she said. “You always would see your friends at the mall and restaurants. There were interesting places to go and have a cup of coffee. I think everybody didn’t realize how great that was until it wasn’t here anymore, and people really miss it.”
Both Greens believe the mall's failure was due to neglect. Matt Green said he blames in large part Westfield Corporation, which bought the mall in 1998.
“I had the impression that back in the late '80s, the emphasis was on development in west (St. Louis) County and at the Galleria, and Crestwood was no longer developed, kind of forgotten,” he said. “Now all of a sudden everyone’s going to Galleria.”
Ken Cottin of Crestwood said he agreed that “Westfield really let it go to pieces.” Wife Marilyn said she is “so sick of looking at it slowly deteriorate that it’s nice to know something finally is going to happen.”
For the Cottins, like many others, the mall is a touchstone to memories from their personal pasts. As newlyweds, the Cottins bought their first appliances and rugs at the mall's Sears.
For Marilyn Shepperd of Webster Groves, Crestwood Plaza brings back two shoe-related memories. She got her first pair of penny loafers while shopping with her mother at the mall. It’s also where her now-husband of 10 years, Kevin, got the first gift he ever bought her during their engagement: a pair of red boots.
The Shepperds said they wanted to come out to the food truck festival not just to enjoy the barbecue sandwiches, but also to show how much they loved the mall and “wish it wasn’t closed.”
Meanwhile, Angelina Livia, too, helped herself to some nostalgia as well as a build-your-own pizza with bacon from Pyro Pizza’s food truck. She and childhood friend Jamie Baker recalled visiting Santa as kids, going to the Exhilarama arcade with their middle school friends, and buying — and perhaps regretting — a pair of “green shorts with a ruffle from 5-7-9.”
Mostly, Livia said she came out “just to get together with my friend that I’ve known since I was 4, and (for) memories of the mall.” Baker said she wanted to “hang out one last time at Crestwood mall before it’s gone.”
“It’s nice to come back and just pay your respects,” Livia said, making the event sound in some ways like a festive, food truck-filled funeral.
Baker added: "It kind of is — it’s getting torn down."
(A previous version of this story stated the redevelopment plan would require approval of a tax-increment financing district. The Crestwood Board of Aldermen approved a TIF measure for the project last month. The story has been changed to reflect that fact.)