With Westdale sale complete, mall tenants hope for reassurances

New owner says they'll give tenants an idea where they fit in next week

Plans for Westdale Mall by developer John Frew call for the demolition of most of the mall, keeping J.C. Penny and Younkers. A number of the smaller tenants have said they want to stay. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)
Plans for Westdale Mall by developer John Frew call for the demolition of most of the mall, keeping J.C. Penny and Younkers. A number of the smaller tenants have said they want to stay. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)

After completing the acquisition of Westdale Mall Jan. 1, the company intent on redeveloping the long-struggling 72-acre retail area plans to give existing mall tenants an idea of where they fit in next week.

The mall was transferred Dec. 31 to A. Shapiro LLC, an investor group represented by Scott Byers of Cedar Rapids and leased by Westdale CR Ventures LLC, a subsidiary of Denver-based Frew Development Group, according to letters delivered to mall tenants on Wednesday.

Mall hours will remain the same and tenants who want to stay are being encouraged to do so, developer John Frew said in an email. It lists about 35 tenants within the mall itself.

Veteran Westdale Mall General Manager Kerry Sanders and two of his team have been retained to oversee the mall, Frew indicated.

Frew previously has discussed plans to demolish much of the mall except three anchor stores the currently leased J.C. Penney and Younkers spaces, and the vacant Von Maur space.

In place of the enclosed complex of stores, Frew's group has pledged to the city of Cedar Rapids that $90 million will be invested to redevelop the property. A mixture of retail, residential, parks and hospitality space are planned on the former mall footprint and adjacent parking areas.

The new retail design is expected to be built in strip fashion rather than with enclosed public spaces.

Exactly what will come down first is on the minds of mall tenants, who don't want to be left out in the cold. Several of them said they've already started exploring options for leasing space elsewhere, but would prefer to stay at Westdale if possible.

"It's tough running a business when I literally don't know what's going to happen in three days," Jim Johnson, manager of Solid Wood Furniture, said last week.

Johnson said he's on a month-to-month lease, leading him to believe that he'll be "safe-ish" at least until Jan. 29.

Many of the mall tenants seemed happy with their lease terms, despite the high vacancy rate of the mall that has cut into retail traffic.

Creative Iowans, which opened in Westdale, has been extremely pleased with the reception since opening in Westdale last May.

Creative Iowans is "not going anywhere unless they boot us out," said Christina Klees, one of the owners.

Klees said the shop, which offers crafts and artwork by close to 40 Iowans in a 5,000 square foot space, has become a destination for many people since it opened last May.

One of the most frustrating things in process of acquiring the mall property was that the buyers could not communicate with the mall tenants, Frew indicated.

One reason it wasn't possible to communicate with tenants was apparently the uncertainty that the deal would go through. Frew indicated the transaction was complex, and wasn't a done deal until the "very, very end."

The new owner may not have too many timetable specifics to share with tenants in next week's meetings. It will take "a number of months to rezone, plan, secure permits, etc., so nothing will happen for a while," Frew wrote.

He said the phasing of the development has not been decided.

Mall retailers contacted by The Gazette were supportive of the redevelopment effort, believing regardless of how they personally affected that major redevelopment is needed to reverse the mall's slide.

Secret Nails owner Amy Hoang said she can remember at time when every space at the mall was full and it was hard to find a convenient parking space. Now, she said, longtime regulars complain about the dwindling shopping opportunities when they come to have their nails done.

Hoang said she plans to remain at Westdale.

"We survived because we've been here so long," she said. "We have regular customers."

Leo Young of the Popcorn Shoppe said the mall wouldn't renew his one-year lease when it came up for renewal recently, so he's on a month-to-month lease. He said some of the retailer concerns may be due to a previous unsuccessful bid to buy the mall, in which retailer's were told the mall's doors would close almost immediately.

Referring to Frew, Young said, "He's earning something if he can keep these businesses open while he does his redevelopment," Young said.

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