Columbus and Its Mall: This Marriage Can’t Be Saved

The New York Times published an article a few days ago on the waning of the American mall, presenting the nation’s relationship to its shopping centers — and the rampant consumerism that relationship represents — as a troubled marriage:

So the mall we married has become the toxic spouse we can’t quit, though we really must quit, but just not any time soon. The mall, for its part, is wounded by our ambivalence and feels financially adrift.

Like any other troubled marriage, this one needs counseling. And pronto, because even a trial separation at a moment as precarious as this could get really ugly.

3257024092_125ae45c7d_m.jpgTo extend the metaphor, the city of Columbus, Ohio, is filing for divorce from its failed downtown mall, and has announced plans to replace it with a park. Streetsblog Network member blog The Urbanophile has the news, and a skeptical assessment of the city’s plan to revitalize the area:

These [renderings] 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.… The intensity of development here is just not going to make it. In effect, this is another build it and they will come plan.

The repurposing of American malls and big-box shopping centers is going to be an increasingly pressing issue in years to come. Do you think the plan in Columbus stands a chance? If not, what could make it better?

Also on the network today: Cap’n Transit continues the conversation about profits and subsidies for transit, 1000 Friends of Connecticut laments municipalities’ wasteful focus on parking, and Matthew Yglesias scratches his head over the folly of willful stimulus-cutters.

  • Harlan Harris

    Jane Jacobs would say that the park needs to be surrounded by dense residential uses too, maybe a school or two.

  • Thanks for the link! I should note that I’ve also written a lot about the suburbs and what to do about suburban areas that are struggling. (The fact that too often those “suburban” development are in our downtowns a la Columbus is a tragedy). I think the question “What to do about the suburbs?” will be one of the great challenges of the start of this century. There’s just so much product out there that will ultimately fail it is scary.

    My Long Review of the Book “Retrofitting Suburbia”
    http://theurbanophile.blogspot.com/2009/01/review-retrofitting-suburbia.html

    The first installment of my series on “Building Suburbs that Last” (much more to come)
    http://theurbanophile.blogspot.com/2009/01/building-suburbs-that-last-1-strategy.html

    Suburban architecture often gets short shrift, but like the urban spaces we destroyed a generation ago, I wonder if we might regret some of the demolitions we’re doing? Here’s a take on that very thing regarding mid-century modern architecture:
    http://theurbanophile.blogspot.com/2009/01/preserving-our-mid-century-heritage.html

    Streetsblog is an inspiration, btw. Keep up the great work.

  • Larry Littlefield

    In the report I wrote last quarter (at work) on Milwaukee, I noted a million-square-foot 1970s mall that sold for something like $2 million, to a redeveloper who doesn’t know what he will do with it. A similar deal went down a few weeks ago in Cincinati.

    Based on the suburban architecture trend of the past 20 years, the likely use of the property is a single family McMansion, combining lots of square footage, the bare minimum invested in the building facade, and lots of parking for the family SUVs (perhaps a fleet of private buses would be more appropriate).

    Think of the bragging rights at the country club — a 1 million-square-foot house!

  • rlb

    “this is another build it and they will come plan”

    That’s not such a bad thing. Something has to start a positive trend. That’s what planning is. Central park was laid out long before it was surrounded by dense apartments. When they built the IRT it went through farmland. Just because something doesn’t realize it’s full potential the moment it opens it’s doors doesn’t mean it’s a failure. Even if it doesn’t look like the rendering for 20 years it would be a success.

  • Riley

    Growth and community wants to be organic. Planned malls are typically so artificial they defeat their own purpose. Get the real estate developers out of the way and let individuals buy property and use it for work and living.

  • To retrofit the suburbs, the ones comprised mostly of 6 or 7 standardized “product types,” municipalities must alter their zoning codes wholesale to allow mixture of uses, properly scaled-streets, and increased density. In short, a move from low-density separated uses, to a higher (more transit-ready or transit-oriented) integration of uses. Starting with the malls is a great, but there are typically only 4-8 in a given metropolitan region. Thus, we need new form-based codes that put the primacy on urbanism not just on great arterial intersections and interchanges, but throughout the nether regions of the suburbs and exurbs…

  • da

    If only Brooklyn would take the same approach with those crappy malls at Flatbush and Atlantic.

  • Niccolo Machiavelli

    I always wanted to see a big plaza (piazza maggiore) at Ground Zero stimulating the surrounding real estate to increase in value accordingly. Instead we have chosen to build “World Terrorist Target #1”. Or, actually, have chosen to plan it but not rent it or actually build it. Yet.

  • I don’t know downtown Columbus at all, but this doesn’t seem like a bad idea. There appear to be a number of large office buildings within a block or two of the site, and a nice park with good programming and a Shake Shack-type (feel free to substitute a healthier, more sustainable alternative) dining magnet could provide a real draw. If they’d replace those giant parking garages with in-fill mixed-income housing, and bump up transit access, it could be a home run.

    The biggest question in my mind is how pleasant the park might be with all the planned Phase 2 and 3 construction going on around it.

  • For this mall in downtown Columbus, the obvious way to add more people is to use only, say, one-third of the land for a park and to use the other two-thirds for dense housing with shopping on the ground floor.

    Housing is likely to be successful here, since housing has been becoming more popular in downtowns across the nation, largely because of demographic changes (those old baby boomers moving downtown after their children have grown up, as if they were repenting for the destructive effects of the suburbs where they lived most of their lives).

  • Look at a Google satellite view of downtown Columbus. It’s all surface parking lots. There is no lack of “open space”. And nobody is going to drive downtown to visit this park. Downtown Columbus’ problems run deep and this park won’t do much to help.

  • However! The plan doesn’t just call for a park amidst the parking lots. There is some residential development planned, which is a good start (although on a very small scale).

  • Niccolo Machiavelli

    Even better take a look at downtown Cincinnatti, the heart of Republican Ohio stuck in the Ohio corner of Kentucky and Indiana. They built an entire downtown mall one story above the street life of the city to protect the shoppers entirely from the citizens below. Downtown Sinsinnati is distinguished by lots and lots of parking and a sketchy streetlife. I’m just guessing but I think the Kentucky and Indiana commuters in down town prefer the real malls near their homes to the faux mall on the second story in Cincinnati, where all they do is work and earn. I’m just guessing that all those chain stores are pretty empty right now.

  • We need to be careful about extrapolating what works in New York City (e.g., Central Park) to other places. New York City is sui generis. Columbus is nothing like it at all.

    In Indianapolis, a city nearly identical to Columbus, there is a similar park. It is actually a “City Beautiful” memorial plaza that I think is one of America’s great urban spaces. It is a National Historic Landmark. The south end of it is anchored by University Park. This is actually flanked by multiple skyscrapers much taller and bigger than what is proposed in Columbus. And there are a number of condo buildings about, albeit not a huge population. The result? Practically no one is ever in University Park other than the homeless, unless there is a special event there.

    The same fate awaits this park too, most likely. I suspect it will be vastly underutilized. Columbus doesn’t need more downtown parks. It needs more downtown density.

  • Larry Littlefield

    “Housing is likely to be successful here, since housing has been becoming more popular in downtowns across the nation, largely because of demographic changes (those old baby boomers moving downtown after their children have grown up, as if they were repenting for the destructive effects of the suburbs where they lived most of their lives).”

    The had a downtown renaissance condo boomlet in Columbus. Last I looked into it nothing sold, and they are renting to students which (thanks to The Ohio State University) at least they have. The Third Ward Milwaukeee “Soho” seems more likely to stick.

    Whether it worked, somewhat worked, or didn’t work, EVERY older city tried the urban renaisance thing in the past five years, along with quite a few older suburbs. We’re talking Downtown Fort Worth. In some cases, it sputtered out because no one wanted the suburban house the empty nesters would have to sell to buy the urban condo, at a price high enough to enable the purchase.

  • Look at a Google satellite view of downtown Columbus. It’s all surface parking lots.

    Holy shite! You’re not kidding. I looked at a Streetview of the nearest point I could to the proposed site, which was one block east. But it looks like the 50 or so square blocks radiating out to the south are almost all parking, or at least rooftop parking. So I say build the park, and replace parking lots with housing and retail to serve it.

    Honestly, the park would be worthwhile just as a place for birds and butterflies to rest while trying to find other greenspace. Columbus appears to need a serious shot of transit — that Google satellite view is depressing.

  • Niccolo Machiavelli

    I don’t buy the sui generis of NYC. Especially in regards to the political relationship between State, City and Suburb. Indianapolis continues to expand politically taking in its suburbs into its greater governance regime. Not so for NYC our political expansion ended at the turn of the century (19th). In a certain sense everywhere is sui generis and comparisons matter not. On the other hand, cities like Indianapolis, Colombus and Little Rock have an enormous center of gravity in the otherwise rural states they exist in. There are some enormous metropolitan areas, like Cincinnatti/Covington and KC Mo/ KC K that straddle state borders and have their political clout sucked away as a function of that devision. That is sui generis too.

    When we pose issues of spatial value pertaining to NYC it is not to say that there is some sort of example to be followed. We know that is a losing argument. As New Yorkers we are very accustomed to be hated by the rest of the country and know that they do not want to be like us. Still though, if you have a lot of philo in your urbanis this is the most urban of all American cities.

  • Rhywun

    > Downtown Columbus’ problems run deep and this park won’t do much to help.

    Same story in almost every American city that isn’t on a Coast, or that isn’t Chicago. My hometown opened the first downtown “mall”, in 1962. It just closed for good this year.

  • In the grand scheme of things, making parks out of shopping malls seems like good karma.

  • Chris in Sacramento

    De-pave parking lot, put up a paradise.

    Or something like that.

    Even without significant housing nearby, such a park could serve as a civic focal point for concerts, farmers’ markets, artists or just plain hanging around. It could be a place where people imagine a different future.

    >In the grand scheme of things, making parks out of shopping malls seems like good karma.

  • 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.

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