What will set West Ridge Mall apart? New local owner explains
Cody Foster, co-founder of Advisors Excel, explains difference between local ownership of West Ridge Mall compared to other malls in northeast Kansas.
Evert Nelson, Topeka Capital-Journal
As he walked past papered-over doors and dark storefronts over the past several months, Cody Foster was on a secret mission into the past, present and future of West Ridge Mall.
The Topeka business magnate, nearly three decades ago, had first known the shopping center as a bustling retail hub not just for the capital city but for all of northeastern Kansas.
Years of declining in-person shopping and owner disinvestment, though, had led the once-thriving mall to become a shell of its former self. As of this summer, more than half of storefronts were empty, while an underperforming AC system kept customers away during the scorching heat waves.
The center’s most active time of day may even have been in the early mornings, when senior citizens get in their steps by walking past sometimes-working, sometimes-not escalators.
But even in this downturned space, Foster saw opportunity, and it led to one of the most monumental sales in Wanamaker corridor history.
Foster and his partner David Callanan, co-owners of the Topeka-based Advisors Excel financial adviser support company, earlier this month closed on the purchase of West Ridge Mall, for an undisclosed sum.
It’s not so much as a purchase but an investment into revitalizing that nook of the Wanamaker shopping corridor, Foster said.
“We’re not here to talk bad about the people who owned it before, but none of them were local,” Foster said. “If you looked at their track record, they kind of ran the same plan at every mall they had.
“The difference is local owners who do want this to do well and have not just financial resources — hopefully we can do that well — but maybe we can bring people onto this campus a little more permanently to support.”
West Ridge Mall purchase has been years in the making
The purchase of the West Ridge property took place mostly in secret over the past few months, Foster said. But the root of the idea stretches back to before the pandemic, when the Advisors Excel owners were initially looking to expand.
It was around 2019 that the company began searching out additional space in Topeka, after quickly outgrowing its headquarters at 2950 S.W. McClure Road.
Foster had briefly considered buying the portion of West Ridge that had most recently housed the national department store Burlington Coat Factory. At about 140,000 square feet between the space’s two floors, the space would have made sense for the company’s ambitions.
“The only reason we did not buy that then is because (we wouldn’t have) ownership of the mall, and we did not want to face the same situation as Mainline Printing, where you put your money in a building that ends up being surrounded by a crumbling mall,” he said, referring to the now-demolished White Lakes Mall in south Topeka.
Advisors Excel ended up buying four buildings at Gage Center in 2019 to serve as a second campus.
Over the past year, though, the company began discussing finding additional space, especially as it has faced parking difficulties.
Foster said his initial idea was to look toward downtown Topeka, where he and others have already invested in several properties and businesses.
“The idea of taking 600 employees downtown was attractive, but there just weren’t any great options,” Foster said. “I don’t know how specifically, but I began thinking, I wonder if we can buy the whole mall.”
West Ridge, most recently bought for $6 million in late 2021 by New York-based Kohan Retail Investment Group, wasn’t officially for sale. However, Foster used his existing business connections at the mall to begin discussions with the then-owner.
The negotiations, initially anonymous, were “unique,” Foster said.
“We were trying to do this without them knowing we were the ones trying to buy this,” he said. “I’ve learned that because I’ve bought a few other things, once people know that I’m the one buying, they usually want a higher price.”
Foster, in turn, was also kept from talking to current tenants by a nondisclosure agreement during negotiations.
So instead, he learned as much as he could about the property by walking through the mall’s very empty wings on weekends over the past several months.
What he saw during those walks was, put simply, potential.
“I’m wired that way,” Foster said. “I’ve bought a lot of empty buildings we’ve tried to bring back to life. … Everyone says the mall is a bad asset, but it’s really not in that bad of a shape. They put some money into this a few owners ago, and there are some things here that won’t require as much work as people think to bring back to life.”
Short-term priority is bringing life back into West Ridge
The purchase, which Foster and Callanan finalized Sept. 8, includes more than 30 acres of the mall property, including the mall’s connecting wings, the former Burlington Coat Factory store area, the west parking lot and the roadways around the property.
It doesn’t include, however, the spaces occupied by J.C. Penney’s, Dillard’s, Furniture Mall of Kansas or the former Sears department store spaces, which are owned by various holding companies.
Foster declined to share the price he and Callanan ended up paying for West Ridge, but he said a figure around the latest $6.2 million valuation from the Shawnee County appraiser was “ballpark-ish.”
Although he wouldn’t share the exact price, Foster said the purchase was a bargain, especially considering the mall’s location along one of Topeka’s busiest commercial corridors.
“I told (Callanan) we’re never going to find space for what we could buy this at,” Foster said. “Now, it does have the complication that you now have a mall to manage and run, but for what we were able to buy it at — for comparison, we’re doing a new building downtown, and it’s like $400 a square foot in construction — that makes it so that we’re buying this for pennies on the dollar.
“Obviously, we have a lot of investments to make to convert this into an office space,” Foster added. “But all in, this will be about half of what it would cost to build new.”
Foster and Callanan plan on keeping all current mall management and employees on board, as well as the tenants.
In a meeting with the mall’s tenants, business owners and store managers Friday morning, Foster heard about the most immediate concerns and pledged his support to address them.
That included several repairs on such items as the leaky skylights, inconsistent heating and air conditioning system, and the oft-broken escalators, which are a priority, Foster said.
Tenants also said security is a big concern. After previous ownership cut back on providing security officers, store clerks and cashiers throughout the mall have had to deal with unruly and disruptive teenagers.
“We’re not going to put up with that,” Foster said, “and we’re going to do some things so that our tenants feel safe and respected out here.”
Foster’s next commitment to the tenants was to help bring in people and new businesses. Concepts and attractions in the parking lot like food truck festivals are fun for the community, Foster said, but they haven’t tended to result in an actual boost in foot traffic to existing businesses, in his experience.
Other ideas include working with ArtsConnect to host more events and galleries in the mall, or bringing in more food establishments in the short-term to boost traffic. Eventually, those restaurants would ideally be “experiential” restaurants, such as the Chicken N Pickle chain that features indoor pickleball courts.
Advisors Excel plans to move into West Ridge office space
One of the main goals will be to turn the former Burlington Coat Factory store into office space, as Foster had originally envisioned years ago.
There’s still a lot of work left toward that goal, he admitted, and it’s not a sure thing. Existing contracts with the department stores have restrictions on what the rest of the mall can be used for, and Foster imagines some of the new goals will involve new discussions on allowing that space to include offices.
Eventually, though, Foster wants to move most, if not all, of Advisors Excel’s office space into the mall. Through potential expansion either into the existing mall building or out into the parking lot, he expects the space could eventually offer around 175,000 square feet of office area, or about double the space at the existing McClure office.
That would be enough to accommodate the 1,000 employees — or even more — Advisors Excel hopes to bring to the space in the coming years.
“Long-term, we don’t love having two campuses,” Foster said. “We thought we would, but we just kind of like seeing everyone every day. Depending on what it looks like and as we think through — this would be longer, like a seven-year vision — is to move our Gage location here and have one corporate headquarters in the same space.”
Outside the mall, Foster didn’t discount eventually using some of the property’s expansive parking area to build new amenities, like apartments or standalone retail buildings. But those would be low priorities for later on down the road.
Cody Foster wants West Ridge to redefine ‘mall’
As for the rest of the mall’s retail and dining space, Foster wants to get Topekans and northeastern Kansans to stop talking about the mall solely in the past tense or only through the lens of memory.
“Yes, (West Ridge brings) some cool memories and great stores you can still shop at, but maybe we can create some new memories for people,” he said. “This is a whole new concept. I say whole new, but it’s different, and more than just retail space.”
But the word “mall” itself may not even be the most appropriate word for Foster’s vision for the future of West Ridge. Foster is keen on keeping the West Ridge name and brand, although he said he was open to rethinking the approach toward the shopping center’s identity.
“It might be more of a destination district, really,” he said. “Eventually, what I would love is for this space to become a place where, maybe you come out here to work. Maybe you come out to get your hair done. Maybe you come here to eat. No offense to the restaurants on this side of town, but it’s a lot of chains. … It would be nice to have some more options that are local or cool for this area that people would love to come out and spend time at.”
In a sense, redeveloping and invigorating West Ridge does mean more competition for local businesses — including ones Foster already owns — elsewhere in the city, particularly a downtown that has only in the past decade began to resurge.
Foster, however, says competition can only benefit the city at large, especially in bringing in more visitors and shoppers from around the northeast Kansas, as West Ridge used to excel at.
“The more things there are collectively for people to come and do in Topeka, I think we attract people from a greater radius from Topeka,” he said “If this place is thriving, and downtown is thriving, that can only be good for Topeka.”
If any of the plans are to succeed, it will take buy-in from the Topeka community, Foster emphasized.
He’s not worried, though.
“Generally speaking, I think everyone has been excited,” he said. “It feels like there’s been a huge shift where the community is more supportive of things than it used to be. It’s good news, but as a community, we have to come out and support it now. We can’t say we want these changes to happen and not support them.”
Rafael Garcia is an education reporter for the Topeka Capital-Journal. He can be reached at email@example.com or by phone at 785-289-5325. Follow him on Twitter at @byRafaelGarcia.