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PLANO After nine years in business, demolition crews are tearing down part of the Shops at Willow Bend mall in Plano.

Workers are replacing the vacant Lord & Taylor department store with a new Crate& Barrel.

The retailer, which specializes in home accessories and housewares, is relocating the store from its current location near the Galleria Mall.

It s a great new addition, said mall spokeswoman Amy Medford. We're very excited for the future of Willow Bend.

Analysts say it marks a big moment for the mall.

Willow Bend opened a month before the Septemeber 11 attacks and has faced several challenges since then.

In 2006, the Foley s Department Store changed to Macy s.

In 2005, Lord& Taylor shut its doors. The building remained vacant until crews began tearing it down this month.

Robert Young, managing director of the Weitzman Group, a Dallas real-estate firm, was surprised by the move. He says it will likely mark a turnaround for the struggling mall.

It s noteworthy for several reasons, Young said. Number one: A successful retailer goes to a mall that needs a shot in the arm with a major tenant.

Willow Bend traditionally has catered to upscale customers.

However, analysts say the housing crash and the recession hit it particularly hard. Willow Bend won t release numbers, but analysts say the mall has an occupancy of less than 80 percent. The average occupancy rate for malls in North Texas is near 90 percent.

It certainly needs more vibrancy beyond its current, high-end, fashion, upscale business, Young said. It could do better, and this lease and this structuring is part of that initiative.

Mall directors insist Willow Bend is healthy.

Six new stores are moving in this year, and analysts expect the new Crate& Barrel as an anchor will spur even more development.

We feel the economy is starting to come around, Medford said. We ve talked to retailers and sales are up, traffic is up. We're doing good.

E-mail: jbetz@wfaa.com

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