Mall Westdale effort hits bumps

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If the Westdale redevelopment were an HBO production, we would have watched it go from “Boardwalk Empire” to “Curb Your Enthusiasm.”

On Sunday, The Gazette’s George Ford did a great job delivering a reality check on Westdale’s prospects, pointing out April’s announcement of a Burlington Coat Factory anchor store is a sure sign that local dreams of new, high-end retailers likely will be dashed. Developer John Frew confirmed the cold, hard fact the Nordstrom Racks of the world aren’t itching to locate in Cedar Rapids.

I wrote a couple of weeks ago about Frew’s request, granted by the City Council, to remove the development’s signature central park to make way for more close-in parking spaces. This came at the request of a still-unnamed potential tenant for part of the old Von Maur store. And it seems like a pretty clear sign that filling Westdale has been no picnic in the park.

I visited the site Friday with my colleague Lynda Waddington. She’s been riding city buses to explore the transit system’s challenges and meet its users, and I tagged along for a midday trip to Westdale. If you haven’t checked out Lynda’s terrific online diary of her experiences, you should at her Exact Change blog on thegazette.com.

I hadn’t been to the development in a few months, and it remains largely a lunar landscape, lots of dirt surrounding signs of steady, but slow, progress. I hoped to find a Mother’s Day gift for my wife at Younkers. Trouble is, the makeshift city bus stop is near J.C. Penney, and we found out fast there is no good way to walk between the stores.

We followed a belt road on the edge of the development, with no sidewalk as of yet, and crossed part of the construction area to finally reach Younkers’ lower parking lot. A few guys in hard hats were laying concrete, likely wondering why in the heck we were hiking through the site.

So between the loss of the park, my unusually rugged Mother’s Day gift hike (mission accomplished, by the way), and Ford’s Sunday reality check, my enthusiasm is indeed curbed. Not gone, simply dented.

The mixed messages alone are disorienting. On one hand, we have high-rises competing to be built downtown, GO Cedar Rapids aggressively touting the city’s attributes and $18 million worth of outdoor destination developments being planned from Cedar Lake to New Bohemia, to name a few of many local bright spots.

On the other hand, Nordstrom Rack wants nothing to do with us. Cheesecake Factory? Don’t ask. Cedar Rapids is really very nice, but the popular kids will be taking other cities to retail prom.

And the prom theme will be “Stairway to Online Sales” because that’s where the shoppers are now. Our retail economy is in a transitional era, filled with uncertainty and retrenchment. It’s a difficult time to be recruiting for a retail development.

That’s disappointing. But hopes for success at Westdale still are infinitely higher now than they were when I arrived in 2007. Back then, the city was debating what to do with the half-empty mall with few prospects. Now, it has prospects. That’s an improvement, even if we don’t get a Pottery Barn.

l Comments: (319) 398-8452; todd.dorman@thegazette.com

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