City Center Demo Prevented Decades of Pain

The best line of the 2007 mayoral campaign came from challenger Bill Todd – “Mr. Coleman, tear down this mall!”  He of course was referring to the then nearly empty City Center Mall.

Now it’s happening and it’s amazing that many people still complain that demolition crews are destroying the downtown shopping center. They complain that it costs too much, there is no real plan to develop the site, and the city should find another use for the building – like a casino.

But if you look at the experiences of other cities- especially small and mid-sized cities – Columbus is doing the right thing. You can debate whether it was wise to build the mall in the first place. You can debate whether government incorrectly gave tax breaks to competing suburban malls. But you can’t debate death. City Center was dead and the best thing to do is bury it.

Take the experience of my hometown, Worcester, Massachusetts. In the spirit of the early 1970’s urban renewal, city and business leaders built a beautiful mall, The Worcester Center Galleria and a huge above ground parking garage in the heart of downtown- across the common from City Hall.  (We once bragged that we had the world’s largest indoor parking garage.)   At first, the two-story mall with a glass ceiling two football fields in length thrived.  It was the place to shop – so much so that it killed department stores on Worcester’s Main Street just two blocks west.

But over the next 20 years newer malls steadily drew customers away from Galleria. The outlying malls were more convenient and offered Free parking – that was the killer.  Soon all but a pharmacy and a bank vacated the Galleria and it would remain mostly vacant for the next few years.  Then it was sold.  There was talk of tearing it down, but nothing happened.  There was talk of converting it to a convention center, but still nothing happened.

In the mid- 1990’s that the new owners gave the mall new life.  They renovated it, converted it to an outlet mall, and gave it a new name, The Worcester Common Fashion Outlets.  Despite its oxymoronic name, the new mall was packed – at first. The community celebrated the re-birth of the mall and waited for the tour buses to bring “destination shoppers” from all around New England.

They did not come. And about 5 years later the mall was all but empty again.

Finally, city and business leaders decided they’d had enough.  It was time to tear it down.  Its new private owners and state and local government announced plans to demolish it and build a new mixed use development – street level retail, condos and offices.  That was in 2006. Nothing happened.

Then last spring, another announcement – the project finally was moving forward, the mall was coming down and new buildings were to rise. Nothing happened.

For much of the past 4 decades, a vast swath of downtown real estate has sat dormant. The white elephant (actually it’s off-white) hibernates as a constant reminder of an unwise decision. If Worcester had it to do over again, it would have torn down the mall after its first death – in 1990.

While it’s painful to see the cranes pick apart the once shining City Center, it’s the right thing to do. At the very least, downtown Columbus will get a park out of it.  And if things go right, developers will build homes, offices and stores on the site. It’s a lot easier to build for success if the failure is gone.

-Mike Thompson

Join The Conversation

  • Brian Ezzell

    the City Center mall cost $3m a year to keep without any tenants. the simple facts said that it would take 5 years to get it redeveloped. That was before the economic crisis in 2009. today I would estimate that it would take 10 years to redevelope. With a cost of $3m a year it would cost $15m to $30m to hold onto it for redevelopment to occur. the land that it sits upon is worth roughly $16m. It does not take long to evaporate the value of the land beneath it. The idea of turning into a casino is ridiculous. the shear size of the mall (1.1m square feet)would rival some of the largest casinos in Las vegas. I hardly think that Columbus could support such a casino size not to mention the numerous issues that would occur with the building codes in a conversion to a casino or many other types of uses. you are correct that the best thing for the mall is demolition. This allows for new development to occur around a new park space in our downtown devoured by asphalt parking lots. we have actually created a space with less storm water run off and heat island affects which is part of the mission of the green building movement endorsed by LEEDs. the park will be enjoyed by the new development occupants, as well as, the tenants of the existing surrounding buildings for 65 East State Street, 175 South Third street, Fith/Third center and the former Lazarus Department store building. the removal of the mall will actually increase the value of the buildings around it compared to the mall which was depreciating property values. this was demonstrated when the 175 South Third building sold prior to demolition for $35.00/s.f., well below the typical value of modern downtown office buildings in most mid size Cities across America. I hope that the people that complain about the demolition read this blog and understand why it is important to remove the mall.
    Brian Ezzell, owner representative for the redevelopment of City Center.

  • Keith Morris

    That’s funny, I have family north of Worcester and while going by the mall I didn’t know it was dead, but man what an eyesore when compared to the rest of Worcester’s downtown. Not only that, but even though it’s worth a visit, good luck drawing visitors away from Boston.

    For Columbus, the execution of how the park functions is crucial and I haven’t heard anything that shows that they want it to function like a plaza (the Spanish kind, not the strip-mall “plaza”). Sure I’ve written Capitol South about this and they thanked me for the insight, but that doesn’t mean they’ll listen. If it is just a park I have no doubt it is not going to accomplish the planned vision for it. Just look at the Topiary Park as an example which is underutilized despite being gorgeous, because there is very little in the immediate area to attract visitors. The park basically acts as a destination in and of it self.

    The new park has three new mixed-use buildings *with retail space* along the SW corner facing High St. These, along with retro-fitting existing spaces to interact with the park, much like a plaza, is necessary for this plan to work. Restaurants, bars, and cafes would be able to: have large windows with a view of the park, patios that spill out into the park and give people reasons to visit (even after five) and lend vitality and safety to the park even if patrons of surrounding establishments don’t step one foot out of the patio into the park. Today, we know people Downtown visit restaurants and bars including those open after five, so why not officially include them as a foundation for the planned park? Even on a snowy day like today, people Downtown who weren’t lucky enough to get the day off wouldn’t be against having lunch in a restaurant overlooking a nice park.