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Better things? What could possibly be better than Bass Pro?
Ball cypress trees, for one. Earlier this summer, Austin stood in the median of Hillcrest Road with a shovel and 24 saplings. "It's the beginning of a change in the lay of the land," he says. "We bought 'em, and we're going to put them in on behalf of the city, and we're going to maintain them. We're gonna have fun. This is how you change."
It's not exactly the kind of landscaping that Austin and his neighbors were excited about when they thought a fishing hole would take up some of Bannister's 7,000 parking spaces. But these days, Austin gets worked up about much less fancy things.
"We're working on a master plan for the district," Austin says, slipping into the bureaucratic lingo of someone who spends a lot of time working with City Hall's planning department. "We pushed to have 87th Street improvements extended from I-435 across our northern boundary over to Newton Avenue, which gives us a gateway to Bruce Watkins Drive," he adds. "I'm a great believer in mass transit, and we're very closely working with the ATA and have secured funding for $1.4 million transit station adjacent to the mall. It looks like a rail station from about 1890 to 1900, all iron, with a Victorian, grassy courtyard that also serves as storm-water retention."
And that's a big deal, because runoff becomes a huge problem when you cover the earth with concrete.
"We have more asphalt out here than -- you know anybody who wants to buy asphalt? Bannister Road, which is so glorious in all of its concrete ugliness, we just did a feasibility study, and we're going to recommend that MoDOT fund beautification with trees, grass medians and walking trails."
After the Bass Pro failure, the mall's owners (TIAA-CREF, the national Teachers Insurance and Annuity Association College Retirement Equities Fund) sold it to Stanley Spigel of Texas. Austin describes him as a very nice and extremely sharp businessman. Spigel specializes in dealing with "distressed properties," and Austin says he has offered to donate -- donate -- the former J.C. Penney building to a nonprofit institution of some sort, like a hospital or college. Austin won't name prospective tenants, but he's been showing the property to possible takers and expects to sign one within a year. And when he does, he'll demand that it put in windows to humanize the brown monolith.
"I've seen drawings of apartment buildings out on parking lots," he adds.
There's more, but you get the idea. Austin and his neighbors have learned an important lesson that can't be measured in tax breaks.
"I think it brought us back to reality," he says of the Bass Pro experience. "That we have a very big job to do ahead of us to successfully reinvent ourselves. I think too many people -- including myself -- got lazy with the idea that somehow Mr. Morris and his wonderful company were going to elevate all of us just by the fact that they were going to locate here. We tended to neglect some of our responsibilities and the realism that the neighborhood rises and falls on people who live there, all of them, not just one retail account."
It's a lesson that might prove instructive this summer. A couple of weeks ago, on June 30, came the announcement that developers would tear down the Blue Ridge Mall and replace part of it with a Wal-Mart Supercenter while they looked for other big-box tenants. Last week there was more dying-mall news: Wal-Mart announced plans to buy Mission Center and put in another Supercenter there.