As we all know, America’s shopping mall is at a crossroads. Some of these last remaining struggling giants were brought down by the Great Recession. Many of them had been weakened by the construction of “lifestyles centers” or glorified strip malls. I was able to watch Chesterfield Mall, which is located in the populous and affluent suburb of West Highway 40, continue its business as usual, with no sign of the retail disasters that have ravaged the United States.
That all changed a few years ago. Every Chesterfield resident I spoke with knew why. Two new outlet malls opened in Gumbo Flats, almost within a few steps of each other. To be clear, I spoke to most Chesterfield residents and they thought it was terrible to flood the city so heavily with retail. David Nicklaus explained that retail growth has been very slow in St. Louis for many decades. All developers who continue to build shiny new storefronts and reorganize the deck chairs at the Titanic of St. Louis retail.
Chesterfield Mall’s fortunes plummeted within one year of two new outlet malls opening. Then, on cue, Dillard’s suffered a flood, reminding everyone that the shopping center wasn’t brand new but was in danger of becoming obsolete. Dillard’s reopening date kept being pushed back. Finally, after weeks of predicting it would not reopen, the departmental store chain made it clear that it would remain closed, with insurance payments received. It is now a sad sight to walk the halls of one of the largest shopping centers in the area. The critical mass of abandonment is reached and retailers are racing to close the last remaining store. The closing of the American Girl’s store may be considered the end of hope at the mall.
Chesterfield’s genius decision to allow two new malls to open in direct competition with the existing mall was brilliant. It is as insane as it sounds. Open another tab and visit Google Maps. Zoom out and go to Chesterfield. What will you find? There are dozens of miles of undeveloped flood plains, all located just minutes from Chesterfield. Maryland Heights made it clear that they want to develop Howard Bend following the completion of Highway 141. St. Charles County, meanwhile, is open to developers, despite the recent controversy surrounding the construction of Howard Bend on the forested bluffs to the northwest of the Daniel Boone Bridge.
Chesterfield’s city leaders had to face one clear truth: Chesterfield Mall was doomed. Chesterfield had two options. They could allow the construction of Gumbo Flats’ outlet malls or let Maryland Heights and St. Charles County take over the malls. You can see that many of the outlets in the new malls were once tenants of Chesterfield Mall. The question is, where does the sales tax generated by those stores go? The money stayed in Chesterfield. The results are the same, regardless of whether you call them municipal Realpolitik oder Machiavellianism.
Check out the Explore St. Louis page to see if Chesterfield Mall is still around. Et Tu, Explore St. Louis?
However, I have some words of wisdom for Chesterfield leaders. You won’t be able to pull off this clever move again. Chesterfield is a landlocked city. Clarkson Valley could be annexed, but the city’s physical size is not increasing. Intelligent, sustainable development will be needed to replace the mall’s costly demise. Chesterfield is Missouri’s most populous city, but it does not have a downtown that can be called a “real” place. No matter how much you want to deny it, everyone needs validation. The choice of Central Park’s name, which is not at all coincidentally the same as Manhattan’s, shows this in Chesterfield. Its beautiful waterfalls and walking paths show that the city leaders appreciate good design.
Reston Town Center, Virginia, is an example of how suburbs can transform parts of their towns to make them more attractive. People want to be able to go outside after dinner and meet their neighbors in a safe and friendly environment. Chesterfield’s population is aging. Senior apartments could be built above the existing mall to accommodate the same clientele. The Chesterfield Mall is located on a hill, with excellent visibility, and right at the intersection of an interstate highway and a state highway. Chesterfield, if its leaders take lessons from the St. Louis region’s mistakes in the past, could build both a literal as well as a metaphorical City on a hill.