Bryan Ashmus's Commentary

Posted April 24, 2011 (user submitted September 16, 2004)

In the Fall of 2002, she stood in sharp contrast to years gone by. Gone were her three main anchor stores, and a host of other national retail brands. For nearly 40 years, her doors were open to welcome shoppers from throughout the Central Ohio region. For many of those 40 years, she was the destination of those shopping locally. Some say that her fall from glory began in 1999 with the failure of an election ballot item that some say led to the development of a major shopping mall less than 10 miles to the north. Some others say it was the newly built Towne Center that was going up 5 miles to the east. Still others say her previous owner was responsible for letting the mall decline. In reality, it was likely a combination of these, as well as other factors, which led to her decline, and finally her closing. What follows is the story of Columbusí Northland Mall.

Northland Mall actually started out as Northland Shopping Center in 1964. Anchored on the ends by Sears, Roebuck and Company, and Lazarus Department Store (now a division of Federated Department Stores), it was built as an open-air shopping center. By the late 1960ís, Northlandís owners decided to enclose the area between Sears and Lazarus and create the Columbus areaís first mall. Northland was located within the I-270 beltway, in the northeast quadrant of Franklin County, approximately 2 miles east of I-71, at the southeast corner of Morse and Karl Roads. By the time that the Mall was constructed, the neighborhood to the north was still being developed. Once a rural area, this stretch of Morse and Karl was gradually becoming a regional destination. Morse Road became home to a vast variety of new and used automobile sales and service operations, food establishments, and big box retailers of the time which anchored numerous strip centers stretching from I-71, east to Cleveland Ave.

Throughout the 1970ís Northland Mall was the king of retail enterprise in Columbus. During this time the city and surrounding suburbs were serviced by it and 2 other ďsisterĒ malls; Eastland and Westland. By the early 1980ís, the mallís owners had decided that an expansion of the property was in order. A third anchor location was built behind the existing mall (which fronted highly traveled Morse Road), a connector and an interior corridor was added, bringing the amount of shopping area to over 900,000 square feet. J.C. Penney moved in to become the third anchor, and the mall was a hive of activity.

The original two-screen movie theater was located along the main corridor of stores between Sears and Lazarus, and the interior of the mall contained all of the standard stores of the times, with several jewelers and a Woolworthís anchoring the intersections of the 3 corridors. The movie theater, run by General Cinemas later expanded and moved to an outparcel at the far southeast corner of the mallís property. The area vacated inside the mall was reconfigured for additional retail outlets.

By the mid-1980ís, I had moved into this neighborhood, and the mall underwent a minor facelift to give it a fresh look. The mall was a popular location for people of all ages and demographics. Maybe too popular, as I will explain later.

The first hint that times were changing though occurred by the late 1980ís when city leaders wrestled with how to revive a moribund downtown Columbus. Downtown had been in decline for a number of years (as with many other cities around the country), and the retail scene was extraordinarily depressed. In 1972, a task force and later a non-profit development arm were created to revive the decaying area to the south of the Ohio Capital building. By the mid-1980ís parcels of land had been acquired and many of the buildings to the south of the Capital had been razed for construction of what the leaderís of the city hoped would revive Downtown. City Center Mall.

City Center Mall opened to great fanfare in 1989. For residents of the area, it was the first major retail mall built in nearly 20 years. City Center attracted a wide-ranging variety of people, many of whom lived in the northwest quadrant of the metropolitan area. Some of these people had been coming to Northland before the opening of this new mall. City Center brought in the idea of a multi-story mall, anchored by Marshall Fieldís and Jacobsenís, and the main Lazarus store across High St. Quickly, City Center became the most popular retail destination for those in Central Ohio.

Northland Mall, stung, was still not battered. Its anchors, still performing relatively well, were joined by a slew of stores owned by the Limited Corporation. Limited headquarters was located just 4 miles to the east of Northland, and the company had decided that Northland would be home to its freshest ideas and looks. Visitors to Limitedís headquarters many times were introduced to corporate retail outlet concepts at the Limitedís Northland locations. Central Ohio, especially on its northwest and northeast sides, also continued to grow at a healthy pace.

By the mid-1990ís, Central Ohio continued its outward expansion. The northwest quadrant became one of the more desirable areas to live for families that were moving up the economic ladder. As this area was not being serviced by a regional mall, developers proposed and built what became the Mall at Tuttle Crossing, or Tuttle, as most people referred to it.

Tuttle was built by people familiar with City Center Mall. Tuttle took the City Center idea and expanded upon it. Tuttle was multi-story mall, similar in idea to City Center. Tuttle enlarged its design to include 4 anchor stores (Marshall Fieldís, Sears, Lazarus, and J.C. Penneyís) as well as many boutique stores that were new to the Central Ohio area.

By the time of Tuttleís construction, the decline of Northland Mall began to take place. No longer did it appear as a modern destination. In polls conducted shortly after Tuttleís opening, Northland was now the 3rd most popular shopping destination in Central Ohio behind Tuttle and City Center. Whether fact or fiction, Northland began to develop the reputation of being an unsafe mall. Several incidents involving teen-agers on weekend nights cast a dark shadow across the lights of Northland Mall. During the day some say, people came to Northland to shop, but by night, people believed, the teens came to hang out and cause trouble. By this time, I was well into my college years, and donít have a firm grasp of whether these beliefs reflected reality. The fact, however, was that Northland was an aging dinosaur in the world of modern shopping experiences. The Mallís ownerís last major improvement occurred in the 1990ís after Woolworthís closed its Northland location (and later became a part of retail extinction). This improvement was the construction of a food pavilion to centralize the mallís various food vendors. While an improvement, the mall still felt old to me compared to the glitzy new properties in town.

As Northland Mall approached its 35th birthday, it was becoming apparent to some that its life span was coming to a close. The Limitedís founder, and other developers had broken ground on a new indoor/outdoor concept. The Town Center idea.

Easton Towne Center (and other nearby shopping centers and their big-box retailers) was being built in two stages by the late 1990ís. Easton was a mix of indoor and outdoor shopping, entertainment and dining, offices and apartments. It would contain a couple of comedy clubs, a 30-screen move theater and an ďold small town America. Eastonís location off of busy I-270 and Morse Road also was a major bonus to its success. As Eastonís 2nd phase was being constructed, the blows to Northland were becoming more severe.

Lazarus announced that upon the opening of its store in Easton Towne Centerís 2nd phase, it would close its Northland location. This would leave a large void for the clientele that would shop at Northland. Some in the community held out hope that another anchor could be brought in to the space vacated by the future departure of Lazarus. The Fashion Place at Polaris Mall, known to the locals as simply ďPolarisĒ would kill any ideas of that.

By the late 1990ís area development had also spread along the I-71 corridor to the north of the I-270 beltway. An interchange just 6 miles north of I-71 and Morse Road, Polaris Parkway, was developing rapidly with big-box retailers, dining establishments, commercial office space, and an outdoor amphitheater that attracted thousands of people on seasonal nights. The last major piece of Polaris Parkwayís development was the construction of a mall that would trump all of the areaís others.

Polaris pushed the mall idea further than anyone else in Central Ohio had done to that point. Polaris would contain 3 more anchors than any area competitor (it would have 7 anchors at its opening). These anchors contained several that were new to the Columbus market (Saks Fifth Avenue, Lord and Taylor, the Great Indoors, and Kaufmannís) as well as some of the standards of the market (Sears, Lazarus and J.C. Penney). Additionally, there were a number of boutique stores in the interior of the mall that would be new to the area. Polaris also benefited from a new development idea. Polaris was included in a tax-increment-finance district (TIF) that would provide the necessary infrastructure (re: roads) to support the area development.

Northland, and its neighborhood surrounding it, seemed to be falling behind other areas of town. As the area matured, those with the resources to relocate to what were perceived as nicer communities did so. The make-up of the neighborhood of Northland was evolving. The area was becoming more demographcially diverse than in years past, and the ease and ability of its residents to travel to other areas of town to perform shopping functions, tore into Northland Mall like a wrecking ball. The movie theater had closed, as it too was deemed dated compared to the larger multi-screen complexes which were over-saturating Central Ohio.

In 1999, Northland Mallís owner made one last effort to avoid the inevitable. The owner and some in the neighborhood managed to put an issue on a city-wide ballot that would overturn the TIF district that had been created for Polaris. Removing the TIF the owner said, would allow Northland Mall to survive. In addition, the owner of Northland provided sketchy details of plans to refurbish Northland and to add a 4th anchor store to the site.

In reality, overturning the TIF probably would not have stopped Polaris from being built. Some of the roads or expansions of existing roads that would be utilized by Polaris would not have been built by the time the mall was to open in 2001, but the developer would have still built the mall in my opinion. The developer of Polaris had even offered to buy Northland Mall prior to the vote and develop a plan that would allow it to succeed in the face of its new competitor to the north.

After numerous attack ads and political bickering over the ballot initiative, voters in the city of Columbus decided to allow the Polaris TIF to continue. Polaris Mallís developer would begin breaking ground with a planned opening in the fall of 2001. This spelled the beginning of the end for Northland Mall.

As construction of Polaris evolved, Northland Mallís owner elected to turn over the property to its primary lien-holder. Faced with having to operate an obsolete mall in the face of new competitors, the company hired an out-of-state firm specializing in retail properties to manage the Mall. Over the coming months, the Mall received news that its remaining two anchor stores would shutter their doors upon the opening of Polaris. No anchors meant no big attraction to draw shoppers, and local merchants as well as national brands within the corridors of the Mall were concerned over their survival.

By the early 2002, with all three of its anchor stores now closed, the Mall, and what was left of its boutique merchants, continued to function like a patient on life-support. Northlandís new owner insisted that the Mall would continue to operate as such, and in fact were still signing up new lease holders up to 2 months before they elected to shutter Northlandís doors forever. The end finally came in October 2002, with hardly the fanfare that had existed 38 years before.

Nearly a year after closing, Northland Mallís structure still stands. Windows and doors of its stores now appear boarded up, as if to ward off a potential hurricane. Grass and weeds sprout up throughout the parking lot surrounding the mall. Foliage appears overgrown and unkempt, although not as badly as one might expect of a property vacant of any tenants for 12 months.

The mall site is now referred to as Northland Park. After the closing of the Mall, a non-profit corporation, organized by and using Columbus city funds, purchased the mall property from its various owners (Sears and Lazarus stores were owned by the stores themselves, and not the Mallís owners). Several proposals have been publicly presented, but future plans hinge on the attraction of tenants to the property, which will be the main factor in driving development. One thing that Northland Park will not be is a mall. Northlandís future will not be carved from its past. Some of the ideas presented include a combination of retail, office and housing units, recreation facilities, a new fire/police substation, and even a park. More recently there has been discussion of converting the old Lazarus building into Class A office space that would become the headquarters for a retail company looking to consolidate its multiple locations. Any future plans for the site should include the role that the site plays in the neighborhoods that surround it.

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