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Looking Back: 10 Years After the Closure of the City Center Mall

Walker Evans Walker Evans Looking Back: 10 Years After the Closure of the City Center MallImage provided by CDDC.
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On March 5, 2009, the Columbus City Center Mall officially closed its doors forever. A decade later, the mall’s successes and failures can still be felt in Downtown Columbus where retail business has struggled to regain the foothold lost when the mall went away, even though the Downtown residential population has continued to climb.

“When City Center opened Downtown in 1989, it was newer, nicer, larger and way more upscale than its dated rivals,” explained local retail analyst Chris Boring. “City Center became central Ohio’s premier shopping center overnight.”

Long before Easton or Polaris came along, the City Center Mall exposed Columbus shoppers to destination brands like Marshall Fields, Jacobson’s, Guess, Coach, Williams-Sonoma, The Disney Store and Tommy Hilfiger.

“It was a huge shot of adrenaline to Columbus’s civic pride,” said Boring. “It felt like Columbus was starting to shed its awkward adolescent ‘Cowtown’ self-image. We had a shiny new toy that Cleveland and Cincinnati did not have yet. Columbus was on the cusp of becoming a major city with a resurgent Downtown.”

Image provided by CDDC.

Of course, city leaders at the time deemed the creation of the million-plus square foot mall building important enough for Columbus to give up a piece of its history in order to look toward the future.

“Construction meant the demolition of several streets of urban fabric: multi-story buildings with ground-floor retail,” stated Marc Conte, Deputy Director of Research, Planning & Facilities
at the Capital Crossroads Special Improvement District. “If you look at old pictures of the street life in Downtown … the sidewalks before City Center were filled with shoppers from around the region. When the mall opened … the national chains went into the mall and the others simply closed because of lack of foot traffic.”

Boring further described the building as “a suburban mall that happened to be Downtown.”

“Shoppers, mostly women, drove in from affluent sections of the region to shop at its upscale department stores and tony fashion boutiques,” he explained. “They drove their SUVs and mini-vans into the attached parking garage and did their shopping. Most patrons never set foot in the ‘scary’ world outside of City Center’s hermetically-sealed pleasure dome.”

While the City Center had a good first decade throughout the 90s, new competitors emerged shortly afterward that started to steal some of its thunder. The Mall at Tuttle Crossing opened just eight years later in 1997. Easton Town Center followed close behind when it opened in 1999, and Polaris Fashion Place opened two years after that, in 2001. Combined, these three newer malls provided closer shopping options for some of the region’s most affluent suburbs, including Dublin, New Albany, Powell, Hilliard, Worthington, Westerville and Gahanna.

“Many people will cite the shooting in 1994 and the rise of gangs, but the decline of the mall was competition, pure and simple,” said Conte. “These other factors had an impact but not as much as the competition. People will always go to the new and shiny.”

While the mall had opened with a tremendous amount of single-day fanfare, the downfall was a much slower process. Jacobson’s closed in 2002, Lazarus closed in 2004 and Macy’s closed in 2007. Eventually, a customer strolling through the mall during its final months would find only eight stores open as the building had reached a 99 percent vacancy rate.

Video shot inside City Center in 2008 — Via snakedal337 on YouTube.

In February 2009, the plans for Columbus Commons were first unveiled. City leaders declared the mall building unfit for renovation and planned to replace it with a public greenspace that was designed to spur new mixed-use development on surrounding parcels of land.

“We spent most of 2008 looking at a variety of options, which included the idea of keeping the building,” said Amy Taylor, Chief Operating Officer at the Columbus Downtown Development Corporation. “We ended up realizing that it was easier to start with a clean slate.”

While city leaders were confident that the move was a step in the right direction, a certain degree of long-term caution was in the air, as the United States had just entered the first months of an economic recession that was taking a major toll on the real estate market, with no knowledge as to how long the recession might last.

The demolition of the City Center Mall – October 2009 (left) and March 2010 (right). Photos by Walker Evans.

“We wanted to be right, not quick, because we knew we could only do this once,” explained Taylor. “We also knew that we had to be the first in. We said this was going to be a five to 10 year effort, and we accomplished everything within 10 years. It was ahead of schedule because the community was ready for this.”

Construction is wrapping up this year at 80 on the Commons and the two LC RiverSouth buildings, some of the few remaining parcels of developable land directly surrounding Columbus Commons. The park has driven mid-rise private-sector mixed-use development as planned — and while some restaurant and bar operators have flourished, traditional retail has yet to return to the core of Downtown Columbus.

“National retailers are risk-adverse and like to co-locate with other national retailers,” stated Kacey Brankamp Program Director of Downtown C-Pass at Capital Crossroads SID. “Another issue is the type of retail space. Downtown has very little ready-to-lease, affordable retail space that’s in leasable condition with good foot traffic. So while there’s interest among independent and start up retail, there isn’t the right kind of space for it.”

Brankamp thinks that incubators and specialty shopping events can help to provide proof of concept that retail works Downtown in a similar way that it’s worked nearby in the Short North neighborhood. But Boring says that’s he’s much more bullish on the future of brick-and-mortar retail in general. According to his data analysis, Columbus grew from 12 square feet of shopping center space per capita in 1980, to 31 square feet of space in 2010.

“Today, shopping centers are leasing space to a myriad of non-retail uses — offices, medical facilities, charter schools and churches — to fill vacant retail storefronts,” said Boring. “Online sales are growing at a pace 8.5 times as fast as brick-and-mortar stores. E-commerce is gobbling up all the sales growth and capital investment.”

Still, Downtown’s residential population has continued to grow by nearly 70 percent in the past decade, driven by the development around Columbus Commons as well as other hotspots. Over 10,000 people will call Downtown home in early 2020, compared to just 6,000 in 2010.

“Ironically, when City Center opened in 1989, Downtown needed City Center — and when it began to decline in 2002, City Center needed Downtown,” said Boring. “If City Center had been more thoughtfully woven into the surrounding urban fabric with windows, large, inviting entrances, outdoor patios and gardens and such, it may have been able to reinvent itself as a mixed-use New Urbanist-style development for today.”

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