The Grand Opening of Columbus City Center
On August 18, 1989, during the waning days of summer, Columbus City Center Mall first welcomed visitors. This wasn’t just another mall; it was a part of the Capitol South development, a project to revitalize downtown Columbus.
The mall was strategically located near the Ohio Statehouse and the Ohio Theatre, making it a central part of the city’s social and economic landscape.
The mall’s original anchor stores were nothing short of iconic. Lazarus, a store open since 1851, was connected to the mall via an enclosed bridge across High Street. Joining Lazarus were Marshall Field’s and Jacobson’s, both well-known retail giants at the time. These anchor stores were not just shops but institutions that drew people into the mall.
On its opening day, the mall was a spectacle to behold. It attracted an estimated 60,000 shoppers, a number that was a testament to its initial success and the high expectations that people had for it. The mall was not just a shopping center but a symbol of economic prosperity and a cornerstone for community gatherings.
However, even in its early days, there were signs that the mall would have to fight to maintain its status. The retail landscape was changing, and the Columbus City Center would soon find itself in a battle for shoppers and survival.
The Golden Years
By 1992, the mall had peaked, boasting 144 tenants and occupying 1,250,000 square feet of retail space. It wasn’t just a place to shop but a cultural hub hosting concerts, events, and community gatherings. The mall had become more than a retail space; it was a social center where people came to connect.
One of the significant factors contributing to the mall’s success during these years was the involvement of local businesses. Columbus-based retail powerhouse Limited Brands declared that each brand would establish a storefront in the mall. This move enhanced the mall’s retail offerings and solidified its status as a local economic powerhouse.
However, the mall’s golden years wouldn’t last forever. The retail landscape was rapidly evolving, and new competitors were emerging. The Mall at Tuttle Crossing opened its doors in 1997.
Although it primarily affected the nearby Westland Mall, it presented an attractive alternative for upscale shoppers who might have otherwise frequented the Columbus City Center.
Despite these challenges, the mall remained convenient for wealthy residents in eastside suburbs like Pickerington, Bexley, New Albany, and others. But the winds of change were blowing, and they would soon bring challenges the mall would struggle to overcome.
The Beginning of the End
The late ’90s and early 2000s were a tumultuous time for the Columbus City Center. The debut of Easton Town Center in the summer of 1999 significantly altered Columbus’s commercial scene. Situated conveniently near key highways, Easton Town Center introduced an innovative blend of retail and leisure spaces, quickly attracting a large customer base and diverting foot traffic from downtown.
But Easton wasn’t the only new player in town. In October 2001, Polaris Fashion Place opened its doors. Built on the far northern end of Columbus, Polaris aimed to capture the rapidly growing population in nearby Delaware and Union counties. With these new shopping centers, tenants began to flee the Columbus City Center, contributing to its decline.
The downturn of the mall wasn’t solely a result of external challenges; it also derived from its failure to evolve with shifts in consumer tastes and shopping habits. The mall had lost its positioning as the premier shopping destination in Columbus, and this was evident in the dwindling number of tenants and visitors.
Loss of Anchor Tenants
The loss of anchor tenants significantly blew the Columbus City Center. In 2002, Jacobson’s went bankrupt and closed all its stores, creating the first important vacancy in the mall’s anchor lineup. This was a sign of things to come, marking the beginning of the end for the mall.
In the middle of 2004, Lazarus, a downtown Columbus fixture for 153 years, shut down permanently. This left the mall with just one anchor, Kaufmann’s, which was soon to be rebranded as Macy’s. However, declining sales at the City Center location led to its closure in late November 2007, leaving the mall without any anchor tenants.
The loss of these critical stores had a domino effect on the mall’s smaller tenants. Without anchor stores to draw in shoppers, foot traffic declined, reducing sales for the remaining stores. This created a vicious cycle of closures and declining revenue, making it increasingly difficult for the mall to attract new tenants.
By 2009, the mall was a shadow of its former self. Where once there were 144 tenants, now there were only eight small stores open for business, occupying a mere 5,000 square feet of retail space. The mall had lost its luster, and its days were numbered.
By this point, it was clear that the mall was in a state of irreversible decline. The loss of anchor tenants was a symptom and a cause, accelerating the mall’s downfall and making a recovery almost impossible.
The Final Days and Closure
In the years leading up to its closure, the mall underwent several changes in ownership. Mills Corporation initially took over but soon faced financial difficulties. Despite their experience in revitalizing aged malls, Mills couldn’t turn the tide for the Columbus City Center. By February 2007, a bidding war had developed to control Mills’ assets, and Simon Property Group eventually won.
Despite the change in ownership, the mall’s decline continued unabated. Columbus Mayor Michael Coleman declared on February 3, 2009, that the mall would permanently cease operations on March 5 of the same year. This announcement marked the end of an era and the beginning of a new chapter for the space the mall occupied.
Demolition work began in October 2009 and was completed by March 2010. Mark Pi’s Express, a franchise that had been a tenant since the mall’s inception in 1989, was the final retail establishment to cease operations there. Its closure on February 27, 2009, symbolized the mall’s rise and fall.
Legacy and Columbus Commons
In the years following its demolition, the space once occupied by the Columbus City Center underwent a significant transformation. It was replaced by Columbus Commons, a 9-acre park developed by CDDC and Capitol South, private, non-profit development organizations.
Columbus Commons, the park that replaced the mall, has landscaped gardens, an amphitheater, a merry-go-round, a dedicated reading area, and a coffee shop.
The development of Columbus Commons was part of a broader trend of downtown revitalization. Several vacant buildings in the area were converted into condos, and the nearby German Village continued to grow strongly. These developments have brought many young professionals back to the city, contributing to a vibrant urban community.
While the mall is gone, its legacy lives on in Columbus Commons. The park has become a new social hub for the community, hosting concerts, fitness classes, and various other events. It’s a place where people can come together, much like the mall in its heyday.
In many ways, the story of the Columbus City Center serves as a cautionary tale for other retail spaces. It’s a reminder that even the most iconic institutions can fall victim to changing times and consumer behaviors. But it’s also a story of rebirth and transformation, showing that when one chapter ends, another begins.
The Columbus City Center serves as a case study in the life cycle of American retail spaces. From its grand opening to its decline and eventual transformation into a public park, the mall’s history is a testament to the ever-changing dynamics of urban development and consumer behavior.
It’s a story that resonates with the people of Columbus, Ohio, and anyone who has seen their local mall or shopping center undergo a similar transformation.
The mall’s story reflects more significant shifts in shopping, living, and interacting in urban spaces. While the mall itself may be gone, its impact on the community and its role in shaping the retail landscape of Columbus will not be forgotten. It serves as a reminder that even in decline, there can be opportunities for renewal and growth.