Four years after the wrecking crane smashed down the middle of West Park Plaza to make room for a promenade, the mall is continuing its metamorphosis.
Major construction is in its last phase with work beginning on the Lucky’s Farmers Market grocery store in the center of the mall facing Grand Avenue.
Half a dozen smaller stores remain to be leased along the promenade, which opened up the 1960s-era shopping center with a strip of storefronts that can be accessed by car.
In 2008, almost as soon as Seattle developer Bob McDonald bought Billings’ first mall, the economic recession hit, making leasing the storefronts difficult.
Now, the only delay at the mall, renamed West Park Promenade, appears to be a separate project to add an adjacent apartment complex.
Another Seattle developer, Tom Sroufe, had hoped to start construction this year on 100 apartments at 17th Street West and Avenue D, just north of the mall.
Land-use and permitting issues are resolved, but the financing still needs to be finalized, Sroufe said. So, construction on four, three-story buildings will probably start next spring.
“At this point, I think it’s going to be all local banking in Billings,” he said.
For competitive reasons, Sroufe declined to disclose what his company, BrookWater Advisers, is spending on the Billings housing project.
Billings is growing so fast that the city will need 1,000 new apartments each year until 2020, Sroufe said, a goal he called impossible to achieve.
“We’re seeing a city with a predictable long-term shortage of housing. I love it. I’ve never seen that before in any city,” said Sroufe, who added that he has been developing projects from British Columbia to Florida for 20 years.
The Billings area has 133,000 residents now and may grow to 250,000 by 2020, he said, citing U.S. Census Bureau predictions. With the local workforce at virtual full employment, mostly 30-something job seekers are moving to Billings from other states, he said.
The property is in the right location for this growth being led by the medical sector and, secondarily, the energy boom, Sroufe said.
“Ninety percent of the people in Yellowstone County live within three miles of West Park Promenade,” he said.
Langlas & Associates of Billings will be the general contractor on Sroufe’s complex, featuring studios and two bedroom/two bath apartments renting for $1,200.
Meanwhile, work on the mall is on a fast track.
In April, Langlas workers spent a month ripping down the old CVS pharmacy on the north side, then built a new exterior.
This summer, workers built a new restaurant for Red Robin, which opened Monday on the Sears side of the mall. Pure Barre, a national exercise company using ballet moves, is opening next week east of Red Robin.
Once the restaurant space was empty, demolition began on the 26,000-square-foot Lucky's Farmers Market, Montana’s first. The just-launched natural foods chain is modeled after the original Lucky's in Boulder, Colo.
On Aug. 30, an operator using a jackhammer mounted on a Bobcat ripped out the last standing wall in the Red Robin space next to Hastings Music Books & Videos.
Within a week, workers filled about 10 Dumpsters and 23 dump trucks with Red Robin debris.
Workers also are tearing down part of the Grand Avenue façade built just two years ago to construct a taller and wider main entrance for Lucky’s.
Demolition of the Red Robin space meant finding all the modifications dating back to the 1960s every time a new tenant wanted changes to the electrical, plumbing and other mechanical systems.
“We’ve found every leased space and now we have to make it into one,” said Langlas superintendent Lane Huffman.
By now, Huffman said his crews know where every outlet and every water line has been, arguing that Langlas would be the best company to build the grocery store. However on Tuesday, he learned that another company won that contract.
Lucky’s chief executive Patrick Gilliland of Boulder, Colo., could not be reached for comment about which company will build the grocery store.
Construction should be completed by the end of the year, so Lucky’s can open in February.
Umi Japanese Restaurant, where chefs throw knifes in the air while cooking on table grills in front of diners, will face Grand Avenue between Lucky’s and the women’s clothing store, Apricot Lane.
McDonald could not be reached for comment last week, but his Billings leasing agent, Mike Walker at NAI Business Properties, said he is down to a handful of smaller empty stores.
Two retail spaces are north of Apricot Lane and three are on the Sears side of the promenade. The largest space is 6,000 square feet north of Red Robin and Pure Barre, Walker said.
More than any other business, longtime tenant Red Robin has put up with the lean times at the West Park mall, from corporate ownership changes to a decade of remodeling.
Those days are over, to the delight of co-owner Justin Philbrick.
“When they first started construction, we had guests walking across 2-by-6s to get through the door, but they still came,” he said.
The new restaurant has a more efficient kitchen, more tables and a patio opening onto Grand, so Philbrick is expecting business to increase.
During demolition of the old Red Robin, old menus were found in the walls.
“A burger was $3.95. A margarita was $1.50,” Huffman said. “That was almost 30 years ago. It’s amazing.”