Cedar Rapids Council Ecstatic with Plan to Transform Westdale Mall

By Rick Smith, Reporter

An entrance to Westdale Mall in Cedar Rapids on Wednesday, February 15, 2012. (Nikole Hanna/SourceMedia Group News)

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By Aaron Hepker

CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa — Martians didn’t land, but you’d think they had after City Council members Tuesday night finished thanking and applauding Realtor Scott Byers and developer John Frew for jumping in to do the near impossible — bring new life to the long-failing Westdale Mall.

Byers, a Realtor at Gibbs Lamb Drown Commercial, is leading a group of local investors in buying the 72-acre, 33-year-old, half-empty mall from two out-of-state owners and Frew, president/CEO of Frew Development Group, will lead a $90-million effort to redevelop the site.

Both were at last night’s meeting to ask the council to back city incentives for the project, which the council eagerly supported.

Afterward, Frew said he has signed a deal with Byers to lease the Westdale Mall land from Byers’ investor group for redevelopment. Byers said he expects to close on the purchase of the property by Dec. 31.

"It’s been a long time coming, and it needed that private-sector group to step forward," council member Kris Gulick said. "And both (Byers and Frew) are here in Cedar Rapids with some local flavor."

Council members Don Karr, Chuck Swore and Justin Shields are longtime west-side Cedar Rapids residents and they were particularly thrilled with the Westdale developments.

Swore said they city has watched for some 20 years as the Westdale Mall property, which opened in 1979, had fallen into decline.

Shields credited City Manager Jeff Pomeranz for his work in helping in the Westdale Mall deal, which Shields called the "crowning jewel" of Pomeranz's two-plus years with the city.

Christine Butterfield, the city’s Community Development director, noted that the first meeting she attended five years ago when she joined the city was one about a plan to revitalize Westdale Mall. "It’s exciting" to see something finally happening, she said.

Earlier on Tuesday, Pomeranz estimated that the city’s financial incentive for the Westdale project was worth about $15 million, all of which is coming via tax increment financing. This means that the $15 million will come in the form of a reimbursement to developer Frew Development Group of property-tax revenue for 12 years that is being generated only because of the increase in the property’s value from the developer’s investment. The city will provide $5 million of the $15-million incentive to the project in an upfront payment for site preparation and improvements designed to benefit the public. The initial property-tax reimbursements to Frew will go to pay off the upfront help.

In return for the financial help, Frew agrees to invest at least $90 million in construction dollars on the site between 2013 and 2022 to create a mix of housing, office and retail and "to stabilize and revitalize" the site and make it an asset to the community. The City Council also will review Frew’s master plan for the site and approve design standards for it, Pomeranz said.

Frew told the City Council last night that he is at about step three or four with 96 or 97 to go to accomplish the entire $90-million transformation of the Westdale property.

On Friday, he said that the mall and its 50 or so lease holders will continue to operate for now as they have. His plan, though, is to demolish most of the mall, keep anchor tenants Younkers and J.C. Penney’s in place as well as the former anchor space once occupied by Von Maur. Around the three anchor spaces he wants to build a "multiuse destination" and neighborhood of housing, office, stores, restaurants, a park, trails and a hotel. It might be called simply Westdale, he has said.

"It’s a wonderful way to end the year," he told the council last night of the Westdale developments. Frew, who is based in Denver, Colo., and is the city’s project manager on its convention complex and hotel projects, said the Westdale project will keep his company busy in Cedar Rapids for many, many years to come.

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