How the last traditional mall built in North Texas is persevering 20 years later

The Shops at Willow Bend, the last traditional enclosed mall to be built in Texas, is trying again to attract more stores and shoppers.

The past 20 years haven’t been easy on the Plano mall. It’s surrounded by affluence but has fallen short year after year, even as the mall’s original developer and a second owner spent millions of dollars trying new things. Willow Bend has earned a reputation as the place to go when you don’t want to wait in line for a table or maneuver for a parking space.

The empty storefronts leave the impression that it’s a shopping center that’s been hit harder than most by the pandemic. But there’s more to it.

“The bones are all here,” said Mike Valentin, leasing manager at The Shops at Willow Bend, which is anchored by Neiman Marcus, Dillard’s, Macy’s and a collection of popular furniture stores including Crate & Barrel.

“Most malls wish they had a Crate & Barrel,” Valentin said. Willow Bend is also the only mall with a license that allows shoppers to walk around with beer and wine, which they can purchase from Zodiac Time Coffee and Wine, he said.

Valentin’s employer, Spinoso Real Estate Group, may buy the mall, which is in receivership, he said, but for now the Syracuse, N.Y.-based company has just been hired to manage it.

Since he arrived in October, Valentin said he has secured 19 new leases that total 120,000 square feet of storefronts that have opened or will be open by June 1.

The biggest lease is for Psychedelic Robot, an immersive entertainment experience produced by Dallas-based Bivins Gallery. The installation, which had been in The Crescent in Dallas and closed during the pandemic, will open in early May in about 40,000 square feet of space that had been occupied during the holidays by the traveling Friends Experience.

Women take photos inside the last Psychedelic Robot at The Crescent in Dallas. It has moved...
Women take photos inside the last Psychedelic Robot at The Crescent in Dallas. It has moved to the Shops at Willow Bend in Plano and will feature several artists when it opens in May.(Ashley Landis / Staff Photographer)

A 16-foot neon pink robot just went up in the corridor in front of the space. Co-owner Michael Bivins says Willow Bend is a good location for Psychedelic Robot because it’s on the Dallas Tollway and has plenty of parking. He’s expecting 100,000 people to come to the experience.

Karl Monk, an original tenant of the mall who owns the Cutlery Collection across from that space, said he’s looking forward to the increase in customer traffic, adding that the Friends Experience exhibit helped his business during the holiday season.

“I have a loyal group of customers, but the mall shouldn’t be like this,” Monk said. “The mall walkers ask me every day if I’ve heard anything.”

Despite a few successes, customer traffic at the Shops at Willow Bend drops every year. During the week leading up to Christmas, customer traffic at Willow Bend was down 23% from the same week before the pandemic in 2019, according to Placer.ai.

The crowds were light on Black Friday 2019 at The Shops at Willow Bend. Shopper traffic has...
The crowds were light on Black Friday 2019 at The Shops at Willow Bend. Shopper traffic has never really measured up at the mall. Soon after the mall opened in 2001, some stores filed lawsuits to get out of their leases. (Lawrence Jenkins / Special Contributor)

Willow Bend is well under 70% leased, with huge swaths of empty spaces throughout the two-level property.

Maybe The Shops at Willow Bend, which has been in receivership since 2020, is too big. Maybe it was built a few years too late.

Taubman Cos. spent more than $200 million to build the mall, which opened in 2001, a year after a competing mall developer opened Stonebriar Centre just five miles up the tollway in Frisco.

Then in 2004, Taubman added a 120,000-square-foot Saks Fifth Avenue. It closed in 2010, three years before Saks left the market.

Taubman poured more money into Willow Bend in 2011 and 2012 when it tore down a department store space left vacant by Lord & Taylor and built a Crate & Barrel and Restoration Hardware.

Starwood Retail Partners purchased the mall in 2014 and spent $125 million to add an outdoor restaurant space after tearing down the 120,000-square-foot Saks Fifth Avenue.

Crayola Experience is a family attraction featuring 22 hands-on creative activities, and The...
Crayola Experience is a family attraction featuring 22 hands-on creative activities, and The Crayola Store, which has the world’s largest selection of Crayola products and unique souvenirs.

(David Woo / Staff Photographer)

The 60,000-square-foot Crayola Experience opened in 2018 and the Equinox luxury club in 2019. The Apple Store, which was the first one in Texas when it opened, left Willow Bend in 2019 for Galleria Dallas.

In 2020, Starwood Retail defaulted on its loan and the property went back to the lenders. Additional plans that included an office building attached to the mall were scrapped.

More recently, in December 2020, Mexico-based movie theater chain Cinépolis Luxury Cinemas abandoned construction on a 10-screen theater at Willow Bend that was 85% complete.

Doesn’t add up

Valentin made the same assessment anyone would make when looking at Willow Bend on paper. The 1.4 million-square-foot facility is beautiful, well-kept and easy to reach on a 107-acre site on the northwest corner of the Dallas North Tollway and West Park Boulevard.

Some of the most sought-after retailers are already there: Neiman Marcus, RH, Crate & Barrel, Mitchell Gold + Bob Williams and Anthropologie. There’s H&M, Brooks Brothers, Lush, J. Jill, Loft and Vineyard Vines.

On the experience side, it has one of only three local Equinox fitness clubs (the other two are in Preston Hollow and Highland Park). The mall’s Crayola Experience is only the fifth in the U.S. and the only one in Texas. Plano’s North Texas Performing Arts center is also located in the mall.

A restaurant wing houses Knife steakhouse, Mexican Bar Co., Terra Mediterranean and Whistle Britches, and there’s space for four more.

Valentine says his “realistic goal” is to get the mall to more than 85% leased by the summer and fully leased by the holidays.

An opening event in 2018 for invited guests to preview the new outdoor restaurants.
An opening event in 2018 for invited guests to preview the new outdoor restaurants. (Carly Geraci / Staff Photographer)

In addition to Psychedelic Robot, new stores at the mall include independent retailers that were already in the market such as Yoma Fashion, an African clothing store that moved from Town East Mall. Doggie House pet shop opened this month and specializes in rare bulldogs. Mod Mode fashion is open, and so are clothing retailer Mango Leaf and accessories retailer Leather Outlook. Art Gallery Pure has taken two spaces.

Others are coming soon and hail from other markets such as Larita Fashion, which has one other store in Houston’s Memorial City Mall. Stores that haven’t opened yet include Purse Parlor, Pynk Vybes, Custom Best, Fashion Forever and lingerie boutique Fine Things International. StretchLab is a wellness concept. Dallas 3D Design is a custom printing studio. Italia Furniture will take up 20,000 square feet of space.

A 16-foot Psychedelic Robot just appeared inside Plano's Shops at Willow Bend. The sculpture...
A 16-foot Psychedelic Robot just appeared inside Plano’s Shops at Willow Bend. The sculpture is in front of the draped space that’s going to house an immersive art experience called the Psychedelic Robot. It’s expected to open in May.

The conundrum

Valentin moved to Texas last fall from Danbury, Conn., where he leased a mall owned by another shopping center developer, Macerich.

He’s been canvassing shopping center tenants daily and getting in his car two days a week to drive around and talk to local businesses. He researches brands online to find new tenants.

Valentin is keeping an events calendar going that includes a weekend Farmers Market at the entrance to the mall’s mostly vacant food court. The Easter Bunny arrives this weekend for photo ops.

The Crayola Experience has held weekend marketing events up the tollway at Legacy Hall in Legacy West to attract new customers.

“I come here often because we have an annual pass at Crayola and I know a lot of parents who do,” said Annamary Park, 42, of Plano. She comes to Willow Bend at least once a week.

Park said she spends four to six hours at the mall, going to Crayola, getting lunch and watching her toddler play in the mall’s indoor playground. But she doesn’t use the mall for shopping.

“I shop online or at Watters Creek near my house,” Park said.

The mall lost a few more tenants when the pandemic hit: Amy’s Hallmark, American Eagle Outfitters and Ascension Coffee.

Mohammed Al-Hendawi was visiting the mall in November and noticed the former Ascension Coffee, an attractive, large kiosk with tables around it, sitting empty. He had restaurant experience and asked if it was available.

A sign at the former Ascension Annex explains The Shops at Willow Bend's Sip N' Shop offer....
A sign at the former Ascension Annex explains The Shops at Willow Bend’s Sip N’ Shop offer. Ascension closed last year and the space is now a Zodiac Fine Coffee & Wine. (Ashley Landis / Staff Photographer)

He opened Zodiac Fine Coffee & Wine in December. “We get some good traffic from the walkers in the morning getting coffee, and the weekends are busiest,” Al-Hendawi said.

Some shoppers know about the sip-and-shop offer that was started by Ascension. Customers who want to walk around with a drink have to wear a paper bracelet, and their drinks are served in oversized cups “so they won’t spill on the merchandise.”

When customers learn about shopping with a drink, Al-Hendawi said, “I hear ‘wow’ all the time.”

But maybe not often enough.

Al Meyers, a retail consultant who lives in Plano and has shopped the mall since it opened in 2001, sums up Willow Bend as “an enigma wrapped in a conundrum.”

Meyers and longtime tenants who have left the mall say they don’t know why it hasn’t clicked with shoppers and tenants.

“It’s a mystery. It has a location with traffic. Houses all around it. The household income of northwest Plano. Prestige anchors. Physically, it looks amazing. It has restaurants,” Meyers said. “But nothing seems to make it pop.”

Twitter: @MariaHalkias

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Linda J. Picard

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