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Goodbye, Jamestown Mall - Hello, Lindbergh Place?

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Sept. 25, 2009 - Goodbye, Jamestown Mall -- hello, Lindbergh Place, the new Spirit of St. Louis County?

That's the vision presented by a group of urban planners Friday morning that would demolish the moribund north county shopping mall and replace it with a lifestyle center that could feature everything from restaurants to housing to green space.

What the planners did not do is present any notion of how such a center could be financed. That, according to Ray Brown, an urban designer from Memphis who chaired the weeklong visioning exercise, is up to the community.

"This is a conversation that has to take place after we have jumped in our cars and gone to the airport as fast as we can," he said, "so we don't have to answer those questions."

That lack of a specific plan or even a blueprint for moving forward was made clear by St. Louis County Executive Charlie Dooley. He told a crowd of about 100 at the Shalom Church City of Peace that "Jamestown Mall has failed," but when he was asked afterward where things go from here, he was noncommittal, both in terms of how a new center could be paid for and what the next steps would be.

"This is just the first step," Dooley said, "but it gets people thinking about what the possibilities are. That's the most important thing to me."

The plan was presented by a panel of the Urban Land Institute, which was brought to town by the St. Louis County Economic Council to study what could be done with the 142-acre site whose future has appeared bleak. Anchor stores Dillard's and Sears have moved out, leaving only Macy's and a Penney's outlet as large retailers; the smaller stores that remain have little traffic.

Brown joked that the group even thought of photoshopping a group of zombies wandering through the mall to dramatize how bad the situation has become but thought better of the idea.

He said the experts wanted to come up with a concept that was world-class and game-changing, and they hit on the idea of ditching the Jamestown name for one that represents both the street where the site is located and the man whose heroic spirit symbolizes what they are trying to achieve.

With Charles Lindbergh, he said, St. Louis "is the home of his audacious ideas, courageous people whose deeds and accomplishments set the course of American history."

Lindbergh, added Philip Hart of Hollywood, Calif., had what St. Louis County is going to need to get the plan done: vision, a goal, the right equipment and persistence.

Lindbergh Place, Brown said, could become "an authentic town center, where you, your children and your grandchildren can start to write your own outrageous, illustrious histories."

Such high-flying rhetoric is far from the reality of the 1 million square feet of retail space at Jamestown Mall today. The parking lots are cracked, much of the maintenance has been deferred and the exterior presents a depressing picture.

That appearance reflects the fate of malls all around the country, Brown said. Instead of going to locations where they find the same stores as they can find anywhere else, shoppers are flocking to places like the University City Loop or the Central West End, where unique shopping and other experiences await.

"Nationwide," he said flatly, "malls are on the decline. The heyday of the suburban mall is over. It's done."

Other members of the panel spelled out just what Jamestown Mall is missing -- and what Lindbergh Place could offer to revitalize the area.

The area from which the mall draws shoppers is bounded by the Missouri River and Highways 67 and 367, said Abby Ferretti of Washington, D.C. But that slice of the county does not have enough residents, workers or traffic to sustain a mall the size of Jamestown.

She showed the shortcomings graphically with maps that show the overlapping customer bases of other malls that have opened since Jamestown debuted in 1973, including St. Clair and Alton in Illinois and Chesterfield, the Galleria, Mid-Rivers and St. Louis Mills. The resulting saturation has spelled doom for Jamestown, she said. "Everyone is taking everyone else's customers."

She also sought to dispel notions that Jamestown is failing because it is too dangerous or it doesn't have the right mix of stores. Neither is the reason for the mall's problems, she said.

Instead, she and the rest of the panel said, Jamestown Mall should be demolished and St. Louis County should take over the land from its current private out-of-town owners, by eminent domain if needed. Replacing it on the site could be a center that appeals to a wide variety of area residents with a similarly varied array of attractions.

The list of possibilities included: restaurants, furniture and home stores, a pharmacy, an urgent care center, a specialty grocery featuring beer and wine, small business and professional offices with lofts on the upper floors, recreation venues with family-oriented and youth-oriented activities, child day care, a satellite office for county offices, an entertainment venue, even possibly a lake that could be used for ice hockey in the winter or some agricultural land with a farmer's market -- what one planner called "agriburbia."

The list is exhaustive and the possibilities are almost endless, panel members said. It's up to the residents and their elected representatives to decide what should be in the final plans and how it fits into the surrounding community, but according to Arun Jain of Portland, Ore., "whatever comes out has to have a sense of place and a reason to be there. At some point, you want to be able to say, 'I can't imagine it not being here.'"

Panel members said their job, though intense, was easier because they could come in as outsiders, take what Brown called a "clear-eyed, hard-nosed look at what's going on," then leave the details for those who will have the responsibility of turning the vision into reality.

How to determine those details is the next step, and this is far from the first proposal made to redevelop the site. In March, the County Council withdrew its support for Carlyle Group's $120 million plan to convert the former Dillard's store to office space, consolidate retail space and open senior living units.

Based on audience questions, final plans for the latest vision won't be easy in coming. Residents and others immediately homed in on questions of eminent domain, financing, timing and the fate of existing retailers in the mall. They also wondered whether it's necessary to start over from scratch instead of trying to attract places like Ikea or Rainforest Cafe.

Dan Parnell, who owns the Charley's franchise in the mall and has been there for 14 years, said previous owners had come up with similar plans, but nothing ever happened. He is skeptical about the fate of the new proposal -- and worried at the same time.

"They're not taking into consideration the existing businesses," he said. "Some of us have quite a bit of money invested in our business here, and if they take the land from the landlords, what do we get?"

He said business has been down, and he is concerned about the plans he had to turn the former Krieger's restaurant location there into a more family-oriented eatery.

"It appears to me they took the easiest way out by recommending demolition," Parnell said. "It's easy for anyone to say just tear it down and start over."