Downtown Cincinnati’s retail future probably not the shopping mall

[This is a guest editorial written by Eric Douglas in response to Episode #9 of The UrbanCincy Podcast which focused on urban retail planning – Randy.]

Do people visiting downtown do so to shop at a mall?

That’s the question I ask myself regarding Tower Place and downtown Cincinnati shopping. Across the region, the standard indoor shopping malls along I-275 that we have come to know, Tri-County Mall, Northgate Mall, Cincinnati Mall/Cincinnati Mills/Forest Fair Mall, and Anderson Towne Center/Beechmont Mall, all have had their struggles (if the rebrandings alone aren’t enough to prove that).

When architect Victor Gruen invented what we now know as the indoor mall in a 1952 and subsequently opened his first prototype in 1956 in Edina, Minnesota, it was not a totally original concept. Shopping galleries had existed in European cities, Cleveland’s Arcade, and Chicago’s Merchandise Mart well prior to the 1950’s.

Do urban shopping malls like Cincinnati’s Tower Place Mall still make sense?. Macy’s Fountain Place photograph by Randy A. Simes.

Though the region’s suburban shopping malls modeled after Gruen’s are different from the European Galleries and Tower Place in that they have two or three department stores anchoring the smaller stores and are within large seas of parking – something even Circle Centre Mall in Indianapolis and Water Tower Place in Chicago have. But what is also a commonality between Tower Place and other regional malls is that the post-1950’s indoor shopping mall experience is no longer desirable to consumers.

Now Kenwood Towne Center is thriving, and this does not include the decaying Kenwood Towne Place, the indoor shopping mall is not a complete and total failure in most markets, especially those more affluent like Kenwood, West Palm Beach, Troy, MI, etc., and most developers have acknowledged this by making malls outdoor “lifestyle centers”, but who’s to say that’s a viable alternative that will last half as long (30 years) as the indoor mall lived.

All this background sets the stage for the original question: do people visiting downtown want to shop at a mall?

Looking at the recent notable large-scale projects in and around downtown, all of them hearken back to traditional urban areas or city-led development: Fountain Square, obviously with its square or piazza, the Gateway Quarter’s shopping, and The Banks grid street layout. From these successful examples, the city should continue to not to try to reinvent or retrofit itself in order to compete in a form similar to the suburbs, it should in fact continue to try to be the exact opposite of the suburbs and their shopping experiences. It should strive to be what only cities and traditional neighborhoods can and have been for 200 years in America: true organic places that provide genuine experiences that shopping malls and strip malls cannot provide simply by their nature.

Strive to be New York’s Fifth Avenue or Chicago’s Michigan Avenue where shopping for Christmas presents is such an enjoyable experience, even in winter, it’s romanticized in movies and attracts people from other states just to shop. Don’t strive for another mall that any municipality with a highway interchange can attract. Be different.

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  • Where is this mythical “sea of parking” surrounding Water Tower Place and our other vertical downtown shopping centers in Chicago? Any downtown’s normal, paid parking structures we have, yes. But that’s it. Most people access Water Tower Place and its similar malls on North Michigan Avenue and in the Loop (i.e. Block 37) via foot, transit, and taxi–the same options that should work in Cincinnati.

    • I also didn’t understand that comment. I can’t even think of a large parking garage nearby, but then again I’m never really paying attention to that since I don’t drive.

    • It should work in Cincy because our downtown is very walkable. However; until better transit alternatives are developed, the city will remain largely reliant on automobile traffic as a means of access to the core. This comes despite a robust centralized bus network that is designed to serve downtown above all else. As long as people continue to drive, other area malls will continue to be more desirable to the suburban commuter. I see these trends changing as downtown, OTR and other near downtown neighborhoods become more desirable for people to live in and urban core population increases.

    • Yeah, the Circle Centre and Water Tower comparisons only pertain to having anchor tenants. I should’ve separated that from the parking comment meant to just compare Tower Place with the Gruen model.

  • Mark Christol

    I was going to say – the nice thing about a Tower Place Mall is that it’s on bus lines that run fequently. Those bus stops out by the suburban malls are pretty bleak.
    Personally, I don’t understand ‘shopping areas’. I go to stores that have what I want.
    I assume store owners consider the mindset of their customers & what they prefer.

  • I actually tweeted to some extent about this same topic a few days ago about tower place mall and the surrounding area. @terryingram I noticed the trend of Tower Place Mall being a dead mall except for like 2 or 3 shops and a food court. I suggested that the mall be turned into a indoor water park or something that could be a SUCCESSFUL indoor attraction for the local hotels and in general an attraction. And then the retail spots around tower place mall could be revived into a lifestyle center of sorts being that a lifestyle center is just a main street with shops around that you walk to an from (think rookwood commons or Anderson Towne Center). It is possible to do a lifestyle center in downtown being thats all a downtown area is a street grid with office, restaurant, and retail space surrounding. What do you all think?

  • RJH5722

    I’m a little confused by this article. I understand that the author is not a fan of Tower Place (I’m not either), but I think the argument regarding its failure can be made for more scientific reasons than “people don’t want to shop at a mall”. I don’t think personal preference has as much to do with the failure of Tower Place- or other malls- as poor demographics and poor site selection do.

    After all, how is an indoor mall any different than a large shopping arcade? Did we not have an indoor mall in the Carew Tower complex throughout the 1930s through the 1960s, with Mabley and Carew, Pogues, and the connecting Arcade (which survives today)? (Note to author: Carew Tower was built on the “City within a City” premise. Almost a model for the shopping centers and malls of the 1950s.) Nearby, the Dixie Terminal once had its own very successful Arcade. What makes these shopping arcades any different than Tower Place?

    I had the opportunity to work for some time in Berlin at Potsdamer Platz, arguably the epicenter of Berlin. At this location is one of Berlin’s most successful malls- The Arkaden at Potsdamer Platz. There is no charm to this mall- nothing attractive to it that makes it better than an American mall. (Yes, the parking was in garages and not surface lots, but not integrated into the building in any way. In fact, it reminded me of the 1990s American mall.) However, the biggest reason that it was so successful was that it was linked to three major transit modes– the RegioBahn (regional trains), the S-Bahn (light rail), and the U-Bahn (subway). As a result, it was a major retail center.

    Transit connections, density, demographics, and traffic (be it pedestrian or vehicular) are huge for any successful retail center. Malls, lifestyle centers, neighborhood business districts all will fail or survive based on a combination of these factors. No, malls aren’t “sexy” anymore- but I wouldn’t argue that they are going the way of the dodo either.

    Cincinnati has a lot to offer, but that’s not something new. Shopping Downtown at Christmas here was romantic and fun even into the 1990s. Anyone else remember the 7 story Shillito’s/Lazarus building on Seventh Street, with the candy store inside? Or McAlpin’s on Fourth Street?

    • I agree. Retail boils down to the amount of people that you can get to one place and the amount of their income. Demographics and density. Transit connections facilitate getting them there and keeping the density high with varying income levels.

      If you can put it in a place (Kenwood Towne Center, Rookwood Commons) where people have to go through in order to get where they want to go (I-71 from the suburbs to downtown/uptown) and also have high income demographics immediately surrounding it (Oakley, HP, Indian Hill, Blue Ash) then you’ll hit the retail motherload.

      The form of the retail development has less to do with its success. Certain forms may fall in and out of vogue, but without the rest even the newest coolest retail form will fail.

  • Piedmont

    Meanwhile, Target is introducing City Target into urban areas. So is Walmart with its neighborhood stores concept.

  • I have a slightly contrarian view here. I think Tower Place could work
    quite well, and that the piece missing downtown right now is retail.
    Certainly there are structural and visibility issues that need to be
    addressed in order to get the property to a higher and better state,
    But density is not the issue. There is good density now with the
    working population and growing residential base. Transit is not the
    issue. Folks are coming to town and finding places to park when there
    is something they especially want in town. So the issues in my view are
    scarcity, desire and quality of experience. Tower Place needs to be
    offering interesting and desirable merchandise not widely available in
    any one of the surrounding regional malls. Which, in fact, makes Tower
    Place exactly the same as the rest of downtown: a unique location
    offering a well managed experience the elements of which are, generally
    speaking, available only there.

    • There’s a part of me that agrees with you, Kathleen. As an urban planner I want to encourage street life, and get stores to open up in street-level spaces. But as a shopper, I do understand the value of having a one-stop shop kind of shopping experience. This is especially true during the holiday shopping season when weather is not always at its best.

      Now before my fellow urbanites come after me, I would not advocate for this over the street-level spaces I’m advocating, but I think in some instances it may not be a terrible thing. Water Tower Place in Chicago is an example of a good situation.

  • Zachary Schunn

    All commenters have made good points, but one thing is lost in all this:

    Retailers rely on “buzz,” or attention. Newer developments like Rookwood have this. Even Kenwood, despite its age, has buzz. Tower Place is just largely forgotten and ignored.

    Yes, part of this has to do with being an indoor center as opposed to having a street-level focus. But couldn’t aggressive marketing and re-development still do some good to attract people’s attentions, create a “buzz,” and attract new retailers?