The history of Columbus' first shopping malls
Matthew Bennett remembers shopping with his mother at the downtown Lazarus department store when he was a young boy. When his family moved to the suburbs, the trips downtown became less frequent as the novelty and convenience of the new shopping malls drew them in.
Bennett’s experience mirrors a trend that took place across the county in the 1960s and had a deep impact on the American economy. Downtown retail struggled as shoppers flocked to large indoor and outdoor shopping centers. But history would prove that the draw of a new mall also fades over time.
To learn more, Bennett wrote to WOSU’s Curious Cbus to ask about the history of the first malls in Columbus.
Today, Columbus’ first malls are either gone or in decline, but fifty years ago, they were in their prime.
Grand Opening Sale
The first major mall to open up in Columbus was Northland.
Construction began in June of 1963 on the 71-acre site at the corner of Morse and Karl Road. The plans included a 55-store outdoor mall with two large anchor stores: the biggest Lazarus branch and the first Sears in Central Ohio.
The project was backed by the Pacific Mutal Life Insurance Company, an owner of several malls on the west coast.
Overseeing the construction and management was the Cleveland-based real-estate developer, Visconti-Mead-Jacobs. At that time, the firm had already opened 22 shopping centers across the nation. Notably, the Jacobs were Richard and David Jacobs, who became owners of the Cleveland Indians (now the Cleveland Guardians) baseball team in 1986.
Morse Road was widened to six lanes to accommodate the increase in traffic to the mall’s 4,500 car parking lot.
Northland opened on August 13, 1964, with 43 stores open for business including Sears and Lazarus. The promenade between the two department stores included multiple banks, salons, shoe stores, and Northland Cinema, the first new local movie theater to open in decades.
Building off the success at Northland, Visconti-Mead-Jacobs opened the Eastland Mall in 1968 at the corner of Hamilton and Refugee Road. While similar in scope to Northland, Eastland was the first fully enclosed mall in the area and offered shoppers a comfortable climate-controlled setting.
Over on the west side of town, Lazarus opened a branch in 1962. That became the anchor store for the Westland Mall, which opened in 1969.
All three malls became popular shopping destinations and drew business away from downtown Columbus stores and main street shops across the region.
Many improvements and expansions occurred over the years—Northland became enclosed in 1975 and Westland enclosed the mall in 1982—but competition for consumer dollars would increase as new malls opened up.
The first big competitor was the City Center Mall which opened in 1989 in downtown Columbus. The Mall at Tuttle Crossing opened in 1997 and the first phase of the Easton Town Center opened in 1999.
None of this was good news for Northland, Eastland, and Westland, but the biggest battle in the war for Central Ohio shoppers came with the development of the Polaris Fashion Place.
In 1996, the Columbus City Council approved the creation of a tax-increment financing (TIF) district for the new mall. That meant that tax revenue would be diverted to help to build the infrastructure around the site.
That move angered Richard Jacobs whose company was then the owner of Northland Mall. Jacobs argued that another mall on the north side would damage Northland and financial support should be given to rejuvenating the existing site.
What followed was a fierce legal and political struggle between Jacobs and Polaris developer Herbert Glimcher. There were multiple lawsuits filed on both sides and Jacobs backed a 1999 ballot initiative to revoke the tens of millions of dollars of funding for road construction around the new mall.
The ballot measure failed and Jacobs was criticized for spending millions on a political campaign instead of on renovating Northland. This marked the beginning of the end for the Jacobs retail real-estate holdings in Central Ohio.
Going Out Of Business Sale
In 2001, Jacobs abandoned the malls, turning over ownership to his lender Cigna Corp in an agreement that forgave any outstanding loans.
The new management had plans to revitalize Northland but they didn’t come together. The three big department stores—JC Penney, Lazarus, and Sears—closed their stores at the mall, which made it hard to envision a way forward.
In 2002, Cigna announced the mall would be closing and tenants started leaving. A GNC was the only store in the mall still operating when it closed for good.
Cigna struggled to find a buyer and eventually, the city stepped in and acquired the property. Over the next decade, the city worked to develop the land. Today, the site is home to a Menards and a Kroger as well as the Franklin County Dog Shelter and state offices for the Ohio Department of Taxation.
The Westland mall was able to stay open until 2012. The Sears location there closed in 2017 making the mall completely empty. The current owner, LGR Realty, had plans to redevelop the site into a new outdoor shopping center but a spokesperson said that the COVID pandemic put the project on hold.
Eastland Mall remains minimally operational with a short list of tenants and no major department stores. The site has deteriorated quite a bit in recent years and in April the Columbus City Attorney’s office filed a complaint against the mall’s owners for health and safety code violations.
Of all the malls that opened in the 1980s, 90s, and 2000s, Easton Town Center seems to be the only one that beat the odds and continues to thrive. City Center Mall was demolished in 2009. The owners of Polaris filed for bankruptcy in 2021 and the Mall at Tuttle Crossing has reportedly been on the verge of foreclosure in recent years.
Unlike the others, Easton is a mixed-use development with both office and residential properties and therefore does not rely solely on retail. It has attracted many new tenants during the pandemic and recently announced the addition of Ohio's first Gucci store.
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