When people speak about dying downtowns and the declining inner ring of suburbs of Cincinnati, Ohio many raise their hands in sweeping motions, indicate the vast empty stretches of sidewalks null with pedestrians and the boarded up galleries, and speak of the good ol’ times of the 1950s and 1960s.
“Downtown is dead.”
“Crime is rampant.”
Those are two of the most repeated comments expressed when someone mentions the progress that is going on in the inner city. But they rarely mention the failure in the outer suburbs. Besides the rusting hulk of Kenwood Towne Place along Interstate 71 in Columbia Township, there is the mammoth 1.5-million square-foot Cincinnati Mall, which has essentially been a failure since its inception in July 1988.
Pegged as being the largest shopping center in the Cincinnati metropolitan area, the single-level Forest Fair Mall was constructed by L. J. Hooker. Initial success brought along an eastern wing two years later, which featured a Bigg’s hypermarket. Additional wings and tenants opened by 1989, and the mall filled out to include 200 stores and four anchors. But elevated construction costs saddled Hooker with debt, and in June 1989, the mall was put up for sale. In September, Hooker sought Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection, with claimed debts of $1.7 billion.
It wasn’t long before the mall’s fortunes declined. Major anchors and tenants began leaving in rapid succession, and by the summer of 1991, the mall occupancy dropped to 56%.
The first reinvention of Forest Fair was in 1992, when the mall was renamed to the Malls at Forest Fair, and the shopping center was divided into four distinct retail themes. $25 million was spent in renovations, and the mall was expanded in 1993 in a $8 million project called the Festival at Forest Fair in the former Bonwit Teller tenant space. By 1994, the mall occupancy was 75% and things were looking up.
In 1996, the mall was purchased by Gator Forest Park Partners of Miami, Florida for $18 million, and the company had plans to convert the Forest Fair mall into an outlet center, proposing to invest $10 million over the next three years. Tenants and anchors were moved about, closed and opened in the following years, and Forest Fair gained several new tenants as part of phase one, including Bass Pro Shops, Burlington Coat Factory and Saks Off Fifth. The Wonderpark Family Fun Center, an indoor children’s amusement park, opened in 2001 as part of phase two. In the following year, a massive multi-level parking deck was constructed.
In 2002, the Mills Corporation purchased Forest Fair for nearly $70 million, and began a much anticipated $70 million renovation project in 2003, aided in part by $19 million in tax increment financing. Upon completion, Forest Fair Mall was renamed Cincinnati Mills on August 19, 2004. The renovated center contained nightclubs, two movie theaters, themed restaurants, 145 tenants and 93% occupancy. At total build out, the mall would contain 200 retailers and 15 anchors, claimed the Mills Corporation. But the company faced financial difficulties, and by 2006, it was seeking to sell its mall portfolio. Just two years after renovations were completed, the Mills was down to 115 tenants and was one of the weakest shopping centers in the corporation’s portfolio.
The Mills was sold to the Simon Property Group, and at the time of the acquisition, the mall was hovering around 66% occupancy. Entire wings were deserted, and mall walkers with strollers were occupying the storefronts instead of legitimate retail spaces. Simon, who was constructing Monroe Premium Outlets in Monroe, Ohio, let the mall languish. Bigg’s, one of the largest tenants at Forest Fair, closed their hypermarket, and many of the outlet stores left for Monroe Premium Outlets when it opened, such as Saks Off Fifth.
North Star Realty was the next group to purchase the mall in 2008, although little was done to maintain the property. Of the 1.46 million square-feet of space, only 56% was leased. The only visible change was the renaming of the mall to Cincinnati Mall, and the lack of payment on property taxes and payments relating to the construction of the parking garages. It didn’t help that Metropolis, a rather raunchy nightclub, was attracting hordes of rowdy youths that further damaged the reputation of the ailing mall, when fights sporadically broke out inside the entertainment venue and in the mall’s concourses and parking lots. By this point, crime in the center was so rampant that a police substation was installed adjacent to the parking garage.
The revolving door of owners continued. In March 2009, Cincinnati Holding Company, a subsidiary of World Properties of New York, bought the mall for a minute $4.7 million. The sixth owner began to work out deals to make payments on delinquent bills and to start efforts in rebranding the shopping center into something more of a family-friendly destination. In January 2007, Cincinnati Holding announced that it was proposing a 170,000 square-foot Candlewood Suites with “two upper levels,” a 100,000 square-foot ice hockey arena, an indoor mountain bike park, an agriculture museum and an indoor water park. The attractions would be located inside the 1.6 million square-foot mall, which could bring 2,000 jobs to the Fairfield region. In addition, Ellsworth stated that the mall is attempting to renew leases with its remaining anchor stores, and that the attractions would be completed within three years, dependent on financing and permits.
So much for downtown being dead. Even the suburbs can suffer from years of neglect, vandalism and crime.