The concept plan for the redevelopment of The Shops at Willow Bend in Plano inched forward this month at the city’s Planning and Zoning Commission meeting.

Fearing the entire project could be in jeopardy if they did not act quickly, members of the commission unanimously approved a rezoning request from Centennial, the real estate investment firm that acquired the mall property nearly two years ago. The applicants requested a rezoning of the mall area from regional commercial use to planned development-regional commercial use.

“This project, to us, is one of a dream,” Centennial CEO Steven Levin said during the meeting. “We are trying as hard as we can to fix it and maintain it as much of a retail project as we possibly can. I think we have a shot of doing that today, and that’s what this whole plan is about. We don’t want it to be torn down. It should not be torn down.”

Centennial is betting on itself to reverse years of decline at Willow Bend, and the commission members are doing the same. However, some have reservations about whether the end product will look like — and deliver the same results as — what Levin and Michael Platt, Centennial’s executive vice president of mixed-use development, intend.

“To me, one of the big things here is, can you guys do this, and then, will you do what you say you’re going to do?” commission member Gary Cary said. “That’s not a question. I’m making a comment here. I do know you are capable of doing this. I’m confident you guys will deliver what you say you’ll deliver.”

Some of Centennial’s concept plans for Willow Bend have changed since it acquired the property in 2022 in order to accommodate the city’s requests for more alignment with its comprehensive plan, specifically regarding the number of apartments and single-family homes built at the mixed-use development. But on Tuesday, Levin emphasized to the commission that Centennial’s focus at Willow Bend is and always has been retail and that everything that will be built around the mall will serve that purpose.

“It is to maintain as much of the existing shops at Willow Bend that we can possibly maintain and deliver it in a way that works for the next 50 years,” he said. “To meet some of the conditions, we just have to tear more of the mall down. Eventually, to get single-family homes or to get more open space, we just have to tear more of the mall down.”

If that happens, the property would lose its value to Centennial.

“We have to keep tearing it down until the mall is gone,” Levin said. “We have tried to work to create what the city wants, to meet what the city conditions are, but maintain about 800,000 square feet of retail space. The introduction of residential, office, and hotel is done solely for the benefit of the shops, the restaurants, the health and wellness and beauty, and everything that is existing. They are there to support the 800,000 [square feet] of retail. It makes it a seven-day-a-week, 18-hour-a-day environment for the restaurants [and] the shops. That’s what they need to survive and be viable today.”

Willow Bend opened about 23 years ago near Dallas North Tollway. Centennial president Whitney Livingston told the commission that 75% of the mall is occupied.

“And only 41% of the … tenants have a lease over one year,” she said. “That creates an incredible risk to the project and to the City of Plano if nothing is done. Many see this as the demise of a project. Centennial sees this as an opportunity for the future. Over the last year, we have been on a listening tour of what this community needs and wants.”

Since its opening, Willow Bend has lost at least 28 national retailers, Livingston said.

“This mall scares me,” Cary said. “This is a novel piece of property here. It’s a tremendous potential resource for Plano, but it’s not a great resource today. It’s underperforming in every regard, so that creates a conundrum.”

Plano lead planner Raha Poladi told the commission that Centennial plans to demolish 530,000 square feet at the mall and that the remaining 400,000 square feet will be maintained, in addition to anchor stores Dillard’s, Macy’s, Neiman Marcus, and other structures. It will build an 18-story hotel, a seven-story office building, a five-story mid-rise residential building, a three-story multi-family building, and a one- to two-story retail building.

“The applicant is proposing 957 mid-rise and independent living units and 40 multi-family units not exceeding 965 units in total,” she said. “Single-family residence units [were] recommended by staff to achieve mix requirements of the comprehensive plan.” However, instead of the single-family units, the concept plan included 40 multi-family units resembling townhomes, Poladi said.

“The Planning and Zoning Commission may occasionally allow proposals that do not strictly conform to the plan’s standards if the request is found consistent with the guiding principles of the comprehensive plan and substantially beneficial to the immediate neighbors, surrounding community, and general public interest,” she said.

Some commission members debated whether density is a real or perceived problem with the addition of apartments at Willow Bend before shrugging off the subject.

“We didn’t buy it to tear it down,” Levin said. “I think that will be terrible for the city to have to have this mall torn down. Then, we’re not interested. If we could lease it up like it is today, we would be leasing it up. But that won’t work.”

Commission member Tianle Tang offered her perspective.

“I live just down the street from Willow Bend Mall,” she said. “We’ve gone there so many times [and] we’ve seen the downfall of the retail center. It is very important for us to do something to revitalize it. I am supportive [of] the project. However, I do have my concerns. I hope that you understand … that we represent the whole city as a committee. It’s great what you have presented. To the whole city, we kind of have to work to the comprehensive plan.”

Cary offered another reminder that existing retailers at Willow Bend and the city are worse off if the commission delays approving the developer’s plans.

“The timing is challenging on this,” he said. “If Plano doesn’t move ahead and this falls into the abyss, we’re going to have a big piece of property over there that’s a real nightmare. Trying to put this all together and get it done isn’t very simple.”

The commission unanimously approved both the zoning request and the concept plan.

According to documents, the Plano City Council will review the commission’s approval recommendation during a meeting on February 12. With council approval, Centennial officials said they expect construction to begin in 2025.