Thursday, February 5th, 2009

Columbus: Downtown Mall to Be Demolished

The city of Columbus, Ohio is planning to demolish City Center, its struggling downtown shopping mall, and replace it with a park.

Downtown retail has always been one item that smaller cities struggled to get right. Even Chicago had many years of vacancy problems along its traditional State St. corridor and only turned it around after a massive urban core boom and significant investments of public dollars. Even today, the Chicago Place Mall on Michigan Ave is dead, with nothing much left of the tenant base beyond Saks Fifth Avenue.

Columbus, like other cities, had a proud downtown department store tradition. Lazarus, which grew into a significant Midwest regional chain, had originated there. Its downtown flagship store laid claim to a series of retail firsts, including the first air conditioned store. But as with other cities, Columbus saw its downtown department stores and specialty shops lose their allure as people and jobs decamped for the suburbs and retail followed.

Their approach to try to reverse this decline was to conceive of a downtown version of the enclosed regional shopping mall. The idea dated back to 1977, but the 1.3 million square foot City Center Mall did wasn’t complete until 1989, when it opened at a cost of $116 million. Chicago’s famed Marshall Field’s was the main anchor and the mall enjoyed initial success and high occupancy. Things took a turn for the worse when the mall was the site of the 1994 murder of a teenager, a killing described as gang related. Declined continued over the next decade plus until this year, when the city took over the mall, only a few stores remained.

What went wrong with City Center? And what lessons does it teach us? Plenty went wrong. In retrospect the surprise should not be that City Center failed, but that it lasted as long as it did. Among its problems:

  • City Center was an enclosed, inward facing mall design. In effect, it was a suburban mall plopped down on city streets. This shows the type of thinking that was common in the past – and is alas still too common now – that what downtowns needed to compete with the suburbs was a similar environment because the move of people to the suburbs showed a consumer preference for that form. This is almost always a horrible mistake. Given the choice between a real suburb and a downtown trying to act like one, only with higher taxes, more crime, and worse schools, it doesn’t take a genius to figure out which one is going to win.
  • The city tried to lead with retail, when significant retail is probably the last element you need to put in place since it is so difficult to make work in a downtown setting. Think about it. Offices generate shopping traffic principally at lunch hour or maybe right after work. Downtown Columbus has an extremely thin population. And there aren’t hordes of tourists like in Chicago. So who is going to shop there? This mall was heavily dependent on the suburbanite coming downtown as a shopping destination, much moreso than other malls.
  • Speaking of which, Columbus built its malls relative late. Upscale malls like Tuttle Crossing, Polaris Fashion Place, and Easton Town Center were opened after City Center. This meant that downtown had an older and less attractive mall versus the suburbs. Again, which one will win in that situation? Not hard to figure it out.
  • Marshall Fields never established the true flagship store concept, and downtown generally lacked a unique retailer that would end up drawing people despite the inconvenience. Contrast to say Saks Fifth Avenue in downtown Cincinnati.
  • City Center’s problems were also partially caused by the regional mall as a format falling out of favor. Is anyone building new enclosed malls anymore? I don’t think so. We’ve seen a rapid innovation in new retail formats, the most recent of which is the “lifestyle center”. This renders enclosed malls yesterday’s news. In fact, we observe even genuine suburban malls across the country struggling and being redeveloped or demolished to deal with this.
  • Columbus also had the unique problem of siting its mall in the wrong place. The logical place for a shopping center today would be the Arena District, where you have the convention center, the arena, the restaurants, and the proximity to the Short North. When I walked around City Center, the south side of downtown was a ghost town. If you want to have downtown retail survive, it has to be the center of the action, it can’t be the thing you are expecting to draw the action.

Add this all up and the headwinds were insurmountable for City Center. The current plan is to spend $15-20 million to demolish the mall (excluding the parking garages) to build a park, and then try to encourage another $150 million of development on the park’s edges, anchored by 400,000 square feet of office space and 70,000 square feet of retail and restaurant space along High St. Here are some renderings:

These look very nice. The problem is that the vision is unlikely to be realized. Why? Look at these pictures and what do you see? People – lots of them. But where are those people going to come from? 400,000 sq. ft. of office space will only put a few people there for lunch on a nice day. 70,000 sq. ft. of storefront retail won’t draw significant numbers either. This is a park that is likely to be deserted most of the time.

There seems to be a reverence for green space in cities bordering on the religious. But green space is only useful to the extent that it functions well in the urban fabric. If you take two blocks and grass them over like this, what you are really doing is just institutionalizing a vacant lot. Now a plaza or square of the European style is quite nice, but it is quite nice because those places are able to draw people. If 1.3 million sq. ft. of shops wouldn’t draw people, why will this park? That’s the great unanswered question. Plazas work in Europe because of the density of offices, retail, residential, and tourists. The activity on the plazas draws more people to be part of it, which forms a virtuous circle, but unless there is critical mass of activity to begin with, the spark will never strike. The intensity of development here is just not going to make it. In effect, this is another build it and they will come plan. What’s more, the city is permanently taking the land off the tax rolls and since, unlike a mall, it’s a non-revenue producing asset, there is a significant operating tail to fund as well.

City officials are correct that cities have to get their public spaces right. But the key part of a public space is the public. If you don’t have people, you haven’t built a true public space. I suspect that they will be forced to program events there near continuously to fill up this space.

A downtown park on this spot might not be a bad idea for temporary land banking. But from what I’ve seen elsewhere, the minute there is grass on something, activists will jump out of the woodwork to protest anything being built on it.

I’d challenge Columbus to put their thinking caps back on and try to come up with something more creative. Frankly, that site is probably only developable successfully once there has already been other development occur in the area. I am not familiar enough with downtown Columbus to give specific recommendations, but I do think this plan has significant risk and may ultimately end up, like the mall before it, a project that in retrospect had little chance of achieving significant success.

Redeveloping suburban style structures, even when unfortunately located downtown, isn’t easy. For further thoughts on the subject, see my review of Retrofitting Suburbia.

Topics: Architecture and Design
Cities: Columbus (Ohio)

21 Responses to “Columbus: Downtown Mall to Be Demolished”

  1. Anonymous says:

    I walked through the city center mall about 6 months ago.. it was a ghost town. tumble weeds and all. This comes as no surprise. Hopefully the park idea will be a lot better for their downtown area.

  2. Streetsweeper says:

    A delegation from Columbus came to Lexington recently to explain some of their techniques for downtown development. I certainly hope that this was not one of them that we came away with.

    In downtown redevelopment, like good government, the people need to come FIRST.

  3. Alon Levy says:

    Is there any park that didn’t degenerate into a no man’s land that people are afraid to walk in after hours?

  4. Corey says:

    Thank you so kindly for putting out there the issue of density. I’m working on my masters thesis right now in architecture (11 months down and another 3 to go), consequently on City Center mall, and have started putting together comprehensive desig proposals for the adaptation of the existing structure.

    here are some thoughts:
    he bottom line: destruction of such a high density
    structure, vast relatively inexpensive square-footage of
    structurally sound building, in a central location, during an
    economic melt-down, is a mistake of epic proportions; further
    the placement of an enormous park in such a relatively low-
    density urban setting, left unprogrammed for a decade and
    which promises to accrue nothing but debt is even more
    confounding (reference the literary works of Social theorists
    such as Jane Jacob’s chapter on unguarded public space in The
    Death and Life of Great American Cities, or James Howard
    Kunstler’s take on why we think ‘Open’ or ‘Green space’ is a
    great idea, both in theory and on planners top-down maps, but
    a disaster in reality). I not only have piles and piles of
    this sort of empirical data and precedent references against
    the proposal, but also numerous strategies for re
    approach(designed and economic solutions) – incremental
    redevelopment strategies if you will – tailored to respond to
    current real estate climates, as well as methods for retrofit
    at slower paces, ones that can start to produce revenue far
    quicker than asserted by the city’s proposal.

    if any one has thought on where/whom I should begin taking this information to please dont hesitate to email me at

    thanks for your attention – corey

  5. The Urbanophile says:

    Thanks for the comments.

    Alon, in smaller cities like Columbus, most parks like this are probably going to end up largely empty during the day as well – except for the homeless people catching some Z’s.

    Corey, excellent points. Like you, I continue to be amazed that civic leaders and planners appear never to have read such basic works as Jane Jacobs (hardly a dry, academic work). While Jacobs was writing mostly about New York City and her observations don’t always apply in smaller places, a lot of the thinking about what makes an urban space function is right on. She noted correctly however, that “neighborhood open spaces are venerated in an amazingly uncritical fashion, much as savages venerate magical fetishes”.

  6. CorrND says:

    Columbus, OH could really take a cue from Columbus, IN and the way they’re remaking and reusing their downtown mall The Commons as a mixed-use complex.

    You’ll note that Columbus, IN is restoring Jackson St., which was closed down to make the contiguous two block mall. Columbus, OH should absolutely consider restoring Town St. through the City Center Mall.

  7. Dave Reid says:

    I’m not sure how large this park proposal is but a park situated that way can work but it needs to have people who live within a couple of blocks of the park. And I’d say you don’t want “retail” per se to border the park but you want a mix of bars/restaurants. That mix (with maybe a little institutional) works great for a small park here in downtown Milwaukee.

    AND then the key to any public place is you have to schedule the park… Events all Summer long. It can be done, but yes you can’t just put some grass in and expect it to work.

  8. Anonymous says:

    don't discount the power of open space to be an anchor for redevelopment.

  9. Corey says:

    I should have been more concise in my intent, the strategies I’m investigating involve the adaptive reuse of the structure, how to subdivide it in such away that whole areas can be put on lay-away until society finds an appropriate use for them. Great American and European cities (not to exclude the rest of the world) did not develop overnight, they developed and responded slowly to their constituents needs, as resources became available

    Very rarely do you find thriving cities that have experienced (or suffered) Nero-like occurrences and lived to tell the tale. I can also understand columbusites hesitation to reuse the building in its near entirety; we are not a rust belt town and don’t have the familiarity with the contemporary trend of flipping industrial scale complexes.

    Here’s the trouble: we are having a tough time shedding the stigma of what was, to the point where we will soon be wearing garlic as we walk past, and keeping our concealed weapons loaded with silver bullets. this building doesn’t have to be a pile of liability that we shove off to the landfill, instead a paradigm shift in our regard can make this liability an asset; a natural resource that we draw from as the need arises.

  10. Jefferey says:

    The park as land bank is being done in Dayton.

    About four square blocks was demolished in the late 1960s for the “Mid Town Mart”, a pet project of city comnissioner and later mayor Dave Hall (whos son went on to Congress). The idea was to have a big parking garage, a mixed use (residential and office) high rise and enclosed shopping mall on the southern edge of Dayton.

    The parking garage was built on the first two blocks, but also included a new bus station. A convention center was built on the third block. The fourth block was mostly vacant until a hotel was built in the early 1970s. When the hotel was built the remainder of the block was “temporarily” landscaped.

    This “temporary” landscaping has lasted from 1974 to 2009, and has been renamed (with unintentional irony) Dave Hall Plaza for the mayor who intiated the urban renewal project.

    From time to time things are proposed for the site, but they fall through. There isn’t too much of a constituency for this space, though its a great festival spot for three music fests in the summer.

    Another city that has replaced buildings with green space is Fort Wayne, which has some nice downtown landscape features, including a conservatory.

    So I don’t really discount the park idea. So what if its not used so much, neither is Grant Park or, better yet, Olive Park, on the lake in Chicago. Or that big mall leading up to the War Memorial in Indianapolis. Sometimes landscaping and greenspace just looks nice, it doesn’t have to be active all the time.

  11. thundermutt says:

    The American Legion Mall in Indianapolis is a large public gathering/event space. During good weather, it’s in use fairly frequently, especially as centerpiece for parades. Last year: Earth Day, Veterans Day, Memorial Day/500 Festival, Hispanic Festival, Pride Day, and Obama and Clinton campaign rallies.

    And it was an urban renewal project…except it was planned as permanent open space, flanked by the Library, Legion, and War Memorial.

    As Urbanophile pointed out, such spaces require planning and programming.

  12. Walker Evans says:

    It’s been a hard sell for me, but I think this development makes the most sense at this point in time, given the current financial situation of the city and the country, and still leaving things open ended enough for a more sustainable long-term development.

    I interviewed Guy Worley with Capitol South and the CDDC last week, and it sounds like every other opportunity for salvaging the site, or developing something grander in Phase 1 has been explored and deemed financially improbable to execute right now. The mall was built to be a suburban fortress, and retrofitting the building for apartments or offices would be very cost prohibitive.

    So what are we left with? We can either have an empty mall for another 5-10 years until the right developer with the right money at the right time comes along to do something with it.

    Or we can have greenspace that may or may not get limited use in the meantime.

    I wouldn’t discount the other 100,000 office workers, thousands of students, or thousands of downtown residents who have set up shop in downtown Columbus over the past few years. Granted, I can see this park being relatively empty on weekends compared to Goodale or Schiller, but that should be all the more reason that the development inflll over the park will be a more attractive option when the time is right.

    On a personal note, I played in a kickball league on the Statehouse lawn last summer. The grass there is nice, but the space is just a bit too small. I’m looking forward to the possibility of moving these types of recreational activities to this new park.

  13. The Urbanophile says:

    Walker, thanks for the comments.

    By the way, Walker Evans runs one of America’s great city web sites out there, Columbus Underground. You should definitely check it out.

    I’ll be the first to admit the difficulty of redeveloping the site. But if you can’t do anything with it in the short term, why scrape it? That seems to be a popular emerging solution for failed malls. However, we’re still early days in the suburban style redevelopment retrofitting business. If the city mothballed it for a few years, maybe something would come of it as we learn more about how to deal with these structures. I’ll tell you now, once you make a park out of it, the politics of ever building on that site will become very problematic.

    As another commenter noted, Indianapolis has a similar park called University Park. It’s a National Historic Landmark. It is also lined with many skyscrapers, any one of which has more office space than the entire proposed buildout of this project. Yet that park is almost always empty except for the homeless unless there is an event there.

  14. Walker Evans says:

    Mothballing it sounds great, but it doesn’t address the problem of perception. City Center is only just now closing, but it’s been a huge black eye on the face of downtown for years already. It’s unattractive for developers, it’s unattractive for visitors, and it’s unattractive for potential new downtown residents.

    When you “mothball” your winter clothes, you put them in the back of the closet until you’re ready to bring them back out. You don’t leave them in a beat up cardboard box in your front yard for the whole word to see.

  15. Nicholas says:

    Very interesting post…I’d like to hear your thoughts on why Indy’s Circle Center has been more successful than the experience in Columbus, as when you described challenges facing the mall there, images of Indy came to my mind.

  16. thundermutt says:

    Nicholas, the standard answer is that Indianapolis’ Circle Centre mall is in the heart of the “sports, hotel, museums and conventions” district.

    A considerable amount of the sales are to visitors.

    Contrast that with Columbus, where the mall is stuck on the “government complex” axis toward the south end of downtown, when the convention center and arena are at the opposite end.

    In other words, Columbus’ mall died from tactical problems specific to Columbus.

    Indianapolis’ mall may yet be threatened by the “strategic” issue of general demise of enclosed malls, but not because it’s poorly located.

  17. The Urbanophile says:

    Nicholas, there are a few differences between the two malls.

    1. As thunder said, Indy’s Circle Centre is located in the main convention and entertainment district. It is an added attraction to the area, but feeds off that traffic as well.

    2. Circle Center became the focus of the main downtown restaurant/bar scene (see #1)

    3. Circle Center had Nordstrom as an anchor, and was for some time the only Nordstrom in the state.

    4. Unlike City Center, which was build before most suburban malls in Columbus, Circle Centre in Indy is still the newest enclosed mall in town. By contrast, Indy’s suburban malls are dowdy and mostly failing.

    5. Circle Centre is also the nicest mall in town architecturally – and vastly better than City Center. It has its problems with an inward facing design and such to be sure, but it is simply in a class by itself in Indy. The more upscale Fashion Mall may have better stores, but it doesn’t look nearly as good.

    6. Circle Centre is owned by Simon company, the largest mall owner in the US, which is HQ’d a block away. While Simon could let suburban malls fall apart, it would be highly embarrassing to the Simons if their own hometown downtown mall that close to their very headquarters failed. They are very motivated to make this mall work.

    Just a few thoughts.

  18. thundermutt says:

    Urbanophile, Simon owned Columbus’ mall, too. But I think they inherited it in one of their acquisitions, perhaps DeBartolo.

  19. Anonymous says:

    We need a desination site–People think I’m crazy when I say this because of the cost, but I think a world class aquarium would be perfect. Yes, it’s expensive, but Georgia got its donor. Columbus Zoo has one, so work with them. I know the zoo is expanding, but I haven’t heard if the aquarium is. Newport is close by–so what. More office space? We have plenty of it. I echo the people traffic concerns about a park. I definitely echo the call for more creative ideas.

  20. Anonymous says:

    Taubman (not Simon) owned City Center.

  21. Tyler B says:

    just wanted to say great post. very informative. do you write about jane jacobs at all?

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