Realtor, Developer Looking to Transform Struggling Westdale Mall
By Rick Smith, Reporter
CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa - Local Realtor Scott Byers and developer John Frew are joining forces to transform the long-beleaguered, half-empty Westdale Mall with a plan to buy it, demolish most of it and build a commercial/residential village around the existing anchor stores.
Under the proposal, Byers and a group of local investors will buy the property and lease the land to Frew, who will lead what he said on Friday would be a $90-million redevelopment effort.
Byers, a Realtor at Gibbs Lamb Drown Commercial in Cedar Rapids and developer of the successful Marketplace on 1st retail center across First Avenue East from Lindale Mall, cautioned that a few details need to be worked out before his investor group closes on the property purchase.
However, Frew, president/CEO of Frew Development Group and the project manager of the city's downtown convention complex and hotel projects, said Friday that he and his group have signed the land lease deal with Byers, adding, "Our company is certainly expecting the project to happen."
"I think it's all going to come together," Frew continued. "At long last we're in a position to move this project forward."
Frew, who is based in Denver, Colo., came close to buying the mall earlier this year before last-minute problems over existing tenant leases caused him to set his purchase offer aside.
Frew said the current redevelopment plan is the same as the earlier one. That is, to create a "multiuse destination" around the mall's anchor stores with a development of apartments, condominiums, retail stores, offices, restaurants, a park and a hotel.
The site, he said, will come to be known as Westdale, not Westdale Mall, and he said it will not be unlike the transformation that turned Southglenn Mall in the Denver area into The Streets at SouthGlenn.
"It will be a city within a city, a place where people shop, eat, work, play and sleep," Frew said.
On Tuesday, Frew and Byers will be in front of the City Council to secure support for city incentives upon which the mall purchase and redevelopment is conditioned.
Mayor Ron Corbett on Friday said the incentives made sense and would come via tax increment financing which means from property-tax revenue the city is not now getting but will come in as a result of the value of the property's redevelopment, which Frew put at $90 million.
"There has been a lot of false starts as it relates to the redevelopment of the Westdale Mall property over the last 10 to 15 years," Corbett said. "We're finally off and running now. I think people are going to say, 'Finally. It's about time.'"
City Manager Jeff Pomeranz on Friday said the city and the developers have been working for months on a development plan that provides incentives to the developers and guarantees to the city that the redevelopment at the Westdale site will occur.
"I think it's very positive," Pomeranz said. "Westdale has been struggling for a long period of time. It's unfortunately been a dead mall, and this is going to give it a new life. This will not be the Westdale that we are familiar with."
The mall's two current owners are Tremont Capital Corp. of Oak Park, Ill., which owns most of the mall, and City Gate LP, Arcadia, Calif., which owns the anchor space that once housed the Wards store before it left the mall in 2001.
This summer, Frew said his intent was to buy and close the mall except for the two anchor stores, Younkers and J.C. Penney's, on the day of purchase.
"This thing bleeds money," Frew said in August. "And we're not interested in buying something that would lose money on the very first day."
On Friday, Frew and Byers both said the new redevelopment approach will move more slowly. Frew said current tenants will remain in the mall in the near-term, and he said he will be meeting with those tenants in the next couple of weeks.
Currently, the 750,000-square-foot mall on a 72-acre site has 59 active leases in what Frew estimated were some 125 storefronts. The mall opened in 1979.
Byers said both Younkers and J.C. Penney's anchor stores have about two years remaining on their existing mall leases, and Frew said he has talked to both about the redevelopment plans.
"We'd love them to stay," Frew said. "Younkers and Penney's are critically important. They've told me that doing nothing at Westdale is not preferred and doing something is a great idea. And doing something dramatic, they want to work with us."
He said the inside of the mall between the Younkers and Penney's stores eventually will come down as will the former anchor space that once housed Wards. The plan is to keep the former Von Maur anchor space in place and fill it, Frew said.
Byers said the plan to build a multiuse neighborhood around the anchor stores was "similar to nothing in the state, which is kind of neat and exciting." He thought the new development could be built out in 10 years.
The the Westdale project makes sense, he added, because the "demographic footprint" around Westdale Mall has improved in recent years and will continue to improve in the coming years. Southwest Cedar Rapids is a growth area, he said.
He declined to say how much he and his partners are paying for the Westdale property.
At the same time, he said the investor group believes it will be a profitable investment even if it is what he called a "complex and risky proposition."
"But that's kind of the fun, too," Byers said of the risk. "If we succeed, two things happen: We will make money and we will have a better city.
"And the better-city part of it, at age 62, is a huge part of how I now spend my time."