Back in 2009, Columbus leaders said they tried to save the failed Downtown mall's building, but the numbers didn't work. So they built a $20 million park.

Editor's Note: In honor of the 30th anniversary of the opening of City Center Mall this week, we bring you this story about its untimely demise. "So Long, City Center" originally appeared in the July 2009 issue of Columbus CEO following the mall's March 5, 2009, closure.

The late 1980s were heady years in downtown Columbus. Civic leaders had big dreams: a monorail, perhaps, to ferry visitors around the city’s core; an arts-centric development at the Central High School site; something spectacular at the former Ohio State Penitentiary site on Neil Avenue; a new convention center; a grand international flower show to celebrate the Christopher Columbus quincentennial in 1992.

And, of course, City Center, the long-awaited, long-debated Downtown shopping mall. “The Columbus City Center represents a formidable commitment to the future of Downtown as a place not only to work, but to shop and be entertained,” a Columbus Dispatch editorial enthused as construction was ramping up in 1986. “Plans for the center envision not a sealed fortress, the unfortunate reality of many Downtown malls, but rather a building with striking entrances that create a feeling of openness and connecting glass walkways that reach out to adjoining areas.”

Fast-forward 23 years: What began as a $116 million dream of glory had become a near-empty nightmare—stores gone, shoppers gone, hope gone. “There have been key components of our Downtown that have been holding us back, and it’s that elephant in the room—City Center,” said Mayor Michael Coleman at a Feb. 4 press conference. “It was a bunker—a suburban-style mall plopped into the middle of an urban area.”

By 2009 City Center, once lauded as just the thing to propel Columbus into the big leagues, bore much of the blame for dragging the city’s Downtown down. The struggling mall “played on the psyche of people,” says Columbus Development Director Boyce Safford. “As a city official, you can’t go anywhere without people asking about City Center.”

“We’re certainly affected by it,” says developer Joel Pizzuti, president and chief operating officer of the Pizzuti Cos. “The hole [created by City Center’s failure] has posed a big issue for the south end of Downtown and the ability to connect the south end of Downtown with Capitol Square and then on through to the Arena District.”

Bob Milbourne, president and CEO of the Columbus Partnership, comes as close to being the voice of the city’s civic giants as anyone. And Milbourne says it’s not fair to think of City Center as a total disaster. “First off, when City Center was built back 20 years ago, it was wildly successful. And we shouldn’t forget that there has been a past that was greatly beneficial to Downtown and Downtown office workers and in attracting more Downtown living,” he says. “But, like virtually all Downtown shopping centers, it lost its uniqueness, and as suburban shopping grew all over the community, they offered the same retailers. … And so the shoppers, particularly those from the suburbs, found other places that were as attractive—or more attractive—than coming Downtown. And this wasn’t anybody’s fault, and Columbus was not unique—this happened at virtually every similar mall built around our country.”

Milbourne makes a solid point. It’s easy now to blame City Center’s failure on bad design—developers promoted it as open and street-friendly, but wound up building just another walled, inward-looking fortress. But City Center might still be around if three new suburban malls hadn’t cut the heart out of its customer base: the Mall at Tuttle Crossing and Easton Town Center in the late 1990s, and Polaris Fashion Place in 2001.

Closures of key anchor tenants didn’t help, and the decision by Federated Department Stores to close the Downtown Lazarus store was a crushing blow. Mall management downshifted too, from the upscale Taubman Centers to downscale Mills Corp. (through a 50-50 partnership with General Motors Pension Trusts), to Simon Property Group, which took over when Mills collapsed in 2007.

Simon and the GM Pension Trusts formed a partnership, TL-Columbus, but City Center’s financial situation continued to deteriorate. The city, which owns the land under both the mall and the adjacent parking garages, began making contingency plans with the nonprofit Capitol South Community Urban Redevelopment Corp., which holds a 99-year lease on the land and owns City Center’s garages as well as the anchor space formerly occupied by Jacobson’s. Nationwide Realty Investors—developer of the hugely successful Arena District—was tapped to help with the plans.

In July 2007, Columbus moved to evict TL-Columbus, saying it had neglected the property, didn’t pay real estate taxes and was late on its rent. Columbus gained control of the mall at the end of October 2007, when Cap South bought it and adjacent land for $2.87 million on the city’s behalf.

In December 2007—shortly after NRI left the project because of potential conflicts of interest between City Center and NRI’s own endeavors—Cap South’s board of directors tapped the Georgetown Company to be the project’s development manager and hired MSI Design as its land use planner. Georgetown was a key player in the development of Easton, and oversaw the “green” renovation of the former Lazarus building across South High Street from City Center. MSI developed the master plan for the Arena District.

As 2008 began—and the economy slid into recession—officials of Columbus, Cap South and Georgetown found themselves contemplating a variety of futures for City Center.

Making Plans

Columbus City Council President Mike Mentel says political and business leaders first tried to find a new retail operator: “There was quite the effort, and certainly, City Hall made the effort as well.” Retail developers checked out the building, but were turned off by its lack of street frontage—and by the dominant market shares of competing suburban malls.

Thoughts of “repurposing” City Center as office space went nowhere, mostly because redevelopment was cost-prohibitive. Although the building is structurally sound, its virtually windowless exterior and an HVAC system predicated on crowds supplying body heat made renovations financially untenable. Cap South CEO Guy Worley has said updating City Center and reconfiguring it for office or other uses would cost $250 a square foot—far more than simply tearing the building down and starting from scratch.

As the mall limped along, community members chimed in with their own ideas—an indoor ski slope, a casino, an aquarium, a hotel, mixed-use and big box retail. None of the concepts proved to have traction.

“There were many retailers that were approached, many ideas that were thought about, even, if you will, the floating of some of the most extreme and hypothetical, to try to see what you could do to save this building,” Mentel says.

“We actually were involved with a few different developers who looked at the building and tried to find ways to make it work for some other use, and it just never worked out,” says commercial builder Mark Corna, president of Corna Kokosing Construction Company. “Even though it was a very well-built building and a very young building, it was just built to be a retail mall.”

At a Feb. 4 press conference, Coleman, Cap South and city civic leaders revealed that City Center would soon face demolition. The mall will be razed—except for the underground garage—and replaced, for now, by an 8.9-acre park known as Columbus Commons.

Amy Taylor, Capitol South’s chief operating officer, says the park will be ready for public use in late 2010. Someday—maybe in five to 10 years, depending on market forces—much of Columbus Commons will be replaced in turn by residential and commercial development.

Milbourne says it took guts for city leaders to decide to tear down City Center with no long-term replacement in sight. “To the credit of Columbus and the city leadership and the business leadership, time was taken to evaluate all of the options, and ultimately, the best option became the one that was announced, and that was essentially to abandon the idea of the shopping center. That took a lot of courage,” he says.

Initially, Columbus Commons will be similar to another Georgetown project: Bryant Park, in midtown Manhattan. Once a haven for drug users, the park is now a favorite lunch spot for office workers on weekdays and tourists on weekends. Though it’s a public park, Bryant is funded by assessments on surrounding property, fees from concession stands and revenues generated by events held at the site.

Private financing is also anticipated at Columbus Commons, which will have seating, walking paths and common areas for visitors. The redevelopment of Bryant Park also included the presence of an underground structure—in that case, a storage area for the New York Public Library—adding to the challenge of work on the site.

Georgetown Vice President Edgar Lampert says the “modest fee” his firm will receive for planning Columbus Commons was not the reason the company chose to be involved. “What it really stems from is, going back five or six years, when we represented the CDDC [the Columbus Downtown Development Corp., which now has the same leadership as Capitol South] as master developer of the Lazarus building,” Lampert says. “We, as a company, really enjoy working in a public-private situation, particularly when dealing with urban redevelopment, downtown redevelopment.”

When development eventually occurs—as many as eight buildings on the 8.9-acre plot—it’s anticipated that some core green space will remain, comparable perhaps to McFerson Commons, a small Arena District park. “For any city, it is a premium to be able to put any type of parkland in the middle of a city,” says Mentel.

Pizzuti calls Columbus Commons “the right first step. Time will tell whether or not private development is attracted to that location. But I think the private sector and the public sector exhausted a lot of different options for City Center, and none of them seemed to make sense. None of them could be accomplished. And so by removing this albatross, I think the city is effectively hitting the reset button, and it will allow future opportunities to flourish.”

MSI Design principal Keith Myers agrees. “In the same way that tearing down a penitentiary [to make way for the Arena District] was a bold initiative, I think the idea of taking down a mall and creating an economically sustainable, mixed-use development on it is a pretty bold initiative for a city to undertake, and the mayor should get some props for that,” Myers says.

Long-range plans for Columbus Commons call for reopening at least some of Town Street, which had closed with the mall’s opening; developing 400 residential units, creating 435,000 square feet of office space and less than 70,000 square feet of mostly street-level retail.

Columbus Commons “will open and interconnect this development with the surrounding environment,” Coleman said at the February press conference. Eventually, public and private investment at Columbus Commons is expected to exceed $150 million. That’ll start with the estimated $15 million to $20 million Cap South will spend to raze City Center and open the park. Cap South may seek the U.S. Green Building Council’s Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certification for the project, as it did for the redevelopment of the Lazarus building.

City officials hope there’ll be synergies between Columbus Commons and the Scioto Mile riverfront park, a nearby, $44 million public-private project overseen by CDDC. Scioto Mile, expected to be complete in 2011, also has MSI as its designer and will include a café, fountain, amphitheater and promenade along the east side of the Scioto River.

Careful Demolition

Those who’d like to see a spectacular implosion of the mall—or even just watch a wrecking ball do its damage—are likely to be disappointed. Because the city plans to keep City Center’s underground garage open throughout the process, demolition is proceeding at a slow and painstaking pace.

First came the liquidation sale of the mall’s fixtures. Next, recyclable materials such as steel, aluminum and even concrete were stripped from the building. Now, cranes and other equipment will be used to dismantle the mall piece by piece—a six-month process that’s expected to start in July or August.

Corna Kokosing is construction manager for the demolition. Due to the way the 900-space parking garage is constructed, a 5-foot-high concrete section called a transfer slab will be used to ensure the garage remains structurally sound during the tear-down, says Corna. A transfer slab provides support in places where beams can’t handle as great a load. It “almost looks like another garage deck, basically,” Corna says.

Keeping the underground garage open during demolition adds a significant challenge, Corna says. “There are exits that have to be maintained; stairs, elevators have to be maintained. … There are exhaust systems and fire-suppression systems that have to be maintained. It’s just a lot of things.”

Demolition crews also must take care not to impact buildings that abut the mall, including the Hyatt on Capitol Square and Fifth Third Center. “Again, we just have to be very careful in what we do and how we do it, and do it in a slow, methodical way,” says Corna.

“There was nothing easy about this assignment,” Myers says, comparing the demolition process to a surgical procedure. Buildings that are cosmetically attached to City Center will require some façade work once the connections are severed, he says.

Who’ll Pay?

Given that Columbus is already facing major budget shortfalls and the economy continues to struggle, spending upwards of $15 million to tear down a mall and create a new park might seem foolhardy.

But Capitol South’s Taylor insists Columbus Commons won’t wind up costing the city a dime. “No city tax dollars will be used to fund this effort,” she says. “We are looking at additional state and federal grants and loans to complete a private financing that we’ve discussed, and we’re finalizing those details. Regardless, we’re moving forward with the aggressive schedule we announced in February. We can’t get into the specifics, because they’re not finalized.”

Not finalized, indeed. Officials had sought $32 million in federal stimulus money from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 for Columbus Commons and surrounding projects, but the application was denied. “We couldn’t find a match between what we were doing and what the stimulus requirements were,” says Taylor.

Moving forward sans stimulus cash, Cap South received City Council approval in late April to refinance existing bank loans on the City Center parking garages and the remainder of the Columbus Commons site, and to use as much as $2.7 million from the city’s Downtown Housing Incentive Funds for the work.

In addition to the loan refinancing proceeds (lender: Huntington National Bank) and housing incentive money, parking garage revenue from the 4,500 spaces in Cap South’s garages will likely be a key funding source for the construction and maintenance of Columbus Commons.

Over the years, Cap South has paid Columbus 90 percent of the net income from City Center parking fees and the mall’s monthly rent, an amount that totals more than $65 million, according to recent City Council legislation.

So how many taxpayer and private dollars are really in play? Because Cap South isn’t a public agency, it won’t divulge current financials. In 2005, Columbus C.E.O. reported Cap South’s 2004 budget was about $13 million, with assets hovering around $30 million (“Capitol South Conundrum,” December 2005). Not even attorney Harrison W. Smith Jr., the longtime chairman of the Downtown Commission (and a former Cap South member), could extract details of the park-demolition plan. “I’ve been in the business for 60 years almost, and transparency is a plus, not a minus,” he says.

Smith was displeased by Cap South’s Dec. 19 closed-door decision to tear down the mall. Cap South had originally sought the commission’s OK on the demolition, but pulled its application from the May agenda. The matter will likely return in June, but Smith, 83, and in poor health, says he won’t be there because Coleman told him he won’t be reappointed. Even without commission approval, the project can proceed with an OK from City Council.

Columbus Commons lies within the Capital Crossroads Special Improvement District, a 38-square-block area that already assesses property owners for services such as litter cleanup, answering visitors’ questions and contacting police in emergencies. Capital Crossroads also pays off-duty Columbus police officers to maintain safety in the district. Cap South hopes the SID’s extra services will assuage fears that Columbus Commons will be a haven for homeless people, drug deals and other undesirable activities.

Ultimately, say backers the new park, Columbus Commons will serve as an important piece of the Downtown puzzle, connecting a variety of projects. As for City Center, “What was built then was a reaction to the market at the time … and it was successful for a period of time,” says Myers. “It’s certainly a shame that this is sort of the next necessary step to the evolution. But on the other hand, rather than lament the past, I think it’s much more interesting to contemplate the future—and I think that the future of Downtown and the future of the City Center site is extremely bright.”

Jennifer Wray was staff writer for Columbus CEO.