Editor’s note: The following write-up was based on a submission by reader and contributor “Jonah Norason” in December 2010. It was summarily edited for clarity, and sparingly for content – I added some dates and a few contributory facts where appropriate. Enjoy it, this is one of my favorites. The pictures accompanying the post are mine.
The phrase “If you build it, they will come” was coined in the classic 1989 film Field of Dreams, and, for the most part, it holds true to form. A mall can be built in the middle of nowhere and succeed; however, sometimes this is not the case. The infamous Dixie Square Mall was successful for a decade before it went to hell. Forest Fair Mall, located in north-suburban Cincinnati, was never that successful. It had a few moments when it was a decent mall, but ultimately it failed again and again.
The era was the late 1980s. Shopping malls, long past the “climate controlled shopping cities” era of the 1960s, were glorified by TV shows and movies. And of course, value malls were built too, for those who wanted to spend less than at the higher-priced “real malls”. LJ Hooker, an Austrailian company, decided to team up with Cincinnati-based Hyper Shoppes Inc., which had created a new hypermarket called bigg’s and was interested in taking it nationwide. Hypermarkets were a relatively new concept at the time, combining supermarkets (grocery, butcher, bakery, etc.) with general merchandise (clothing, electronics, etc.). Their joint venture (Editor’s note: How awesome would it have been if, when they teamed up, they called themselves Hyper Hooker?) was to construct a mall in Cincinnati that was both value and mid-range, featuring bigg’s, Dayton-based Elder Beerman, and Higbee’s, a Cleveland-based department store (you’ve probably seen the flagship in A Christmas Story when Ralphie asks Santa for a Red Ryder BB gun) that was to enter the Cincinnati market.
But somehow, along the way, enough just wasn’t enough. During Forest Fair’s planning process, the CEO of LJ Hooker, George Herscu, decided to add upscale tenants Bonwit Teller, Sakowitz, B. Altman and Parisian to the mall, creating a “supermall” template that would feature a larger mixture of tenants, and run the gamut from value-oriented to upscale. Herscu hoped malls like these would be built across the nation. However, there was a snag: the aforementioned upscale department stores Herscu planned didn’t want to locate in Forest Fair Mall, a blue-collar suburb of Cincinnati. In response, Herscu’s solution was to buy controlling shares of them, integrating them into LJ Hooker and forcing them to locate there. Might makes right, but what results can you expect when you force the market?
Bonwit Teller was a posh New York department store with its flagship store in Trump Tower (the original flagship was demolished). B. Altman was was an old fashioned, established department store, also based in New York on 5th Avenue. Altman’s had a “reputation for gentility and conservatism“. Sakowitz was never even in that area of the United States, as it was based in Houston and had locations from Houston to Phoenix. Unlike B. Altman and Bonwit Teller, it never preferred malls. Parisian was a Birmingham-based store that had other locations in Ohio, but mostly was located in the south. Higbee’s did not show up, as it was bought by Dillard’s and pulled out of the project entirely.
The overzealous mall ran overbudget and was forced to open in phases. bigg’s and a few other stores opened in the eastern corridor in 1988. This was the “value” end of the mall, and shoppers could take shopping carts from store to store. In March 1989, the rest of the mall opened, and oh, what a mall it was! The “Y” shaped two level corridor opened with B. Altman and Parisian anchoring the two variant branches of the “Y”, along with a two-level food court. Elder Beerman rested on one outside corner of the mall, while Time Out rested on the other. A full-service amusement park, featuring mini-golf, bumper cars, a carousel, a ferris wheel, and space for 200 inline stores rounded out the mall.
In addition, Sakowitz and a two-level store called Sports USA took up in-line space. The center of the Y had a sunken area for an amphitheater, and, on the east end of the lower level, the corridor ended with the Forest Fair 8, an eight-screen movie theater.
According to DeadMalls.com, Forest Fair Mall was “absolutely ornate… far more so than anything else in Cincinnati. It featured arched copper roofs (still on the mall!), enormous skylights with brass bars running across them featuring a dizzying amount of tiny light bulbs. Also at the time I believe there were many large fountains, and an enormous center court featuring an ornately detailed ceiling”. The mall also cost $200 million.
Featuring everything from posh hundred-dollar suits to bananas, there was no end to the shopping possibilities at Forest Fair. Or was there?
Despite the visible Interstate-friendly location and optimistic outlook, Forest Fair was doomed before it opened, according to one analyst.
“Retail observers predicted Forest Fair — then Ohio’s second-largest mall — was doomed before it even opened in March 1989. They didn’t like its mix of value retailers in one wing and high-end stores in another. They argued its chi-chi department stores, B. Altman and Bonwit Teller, were too upscale and unfamiliar to the Cincinnati shopper.” —The Cincinnati Enquirer, 1999
Herscu was arrogant about his project, saying people would call him a “damn fool” if he failed. Indeed, within several months the mall lost its upscale anchors, about 50% of its stores, and filed for bankruptcy. How could this happen? For starters, the nearby median income was $36,921: not the demographic who could afford the fine retailers on the west end of the mall.
In addition to arrogance and misjudging the market, competition was another factor in Forest Fair’s failure. Two malls, located close to Forest Fair, launched impressive remodeling and expansion plans, causing a retail surplus in north Cincinnati. Tri-County Mall, located a few miles from Forest Fair along I-275, added a second level and anchor store McAlpin’s to round out a solid retail roster. Northgate Mall, also located just a few miles away from Forest Fair, in the other direction, finished an early 1990s remodel. Both Northgate and Tri-County were the anchors to larger retail corridors featuring numerous strip malls, restaurants, and big box stores; Forest Fair had far fewer of these complementary stores nearby because it was between the other malls and their established corridors.
In addition, Kenwood Plaza, a strip center in an affluent part of northeast Cincinnati was torn down and rebuilt as a two-level enclosed mall called Kenwood Towne Center between 1987-1988. It had Lazarus, JCPenney, and McAlpin’s, and would become the Cincinnati area’s best mall.
The departure of upscale anchors rattled Forest Fair. Sakowitz closed and was replaced by Parisian. B. Altman closed its Forest Fair store and went out of business. Bonwit Teller was sold to the Pyramid Companies of Syracuse, New York in 1990, and the Forest Fair store closed due to unprofitability. Parisian disconnected from LJ Hooker and kept the Forest Fair store open. bigg’s and Elder-Beerman held on as well.
Unfortunately, LJ Hooker plunged into bankruptcy (guess he was a damn fool after all), and Forest Fair was sold in 1991 along with Herscu’s other two malls: Thornton Town Center, a small mall in the Denver area anchored by little more than a bigg’s and a large amusement area, and Richland Fashion Mall of South Carolina. Thornton has been demalled, while Richland Fashion Square has been renamed to Midtown at Forest Acres and is not successful.
The early 1990s were an empty, sad time at Forest Fair, culminating in a restructuring period after the mall was sold. According to DeadMalls.com, a bizarre chain of events occurred, consisting of marketing twists, gang wars, and a fire in the food court. However, there were some small victories during this period. The Bonwit Teller was gutted for a new concept, The Festivals at Forest Fair, which opened in 1993. The Festivals at Forest Fair opened inside the mall featuring entertainment and nightclubs. With stone tiles imported from India to invoke an “outdoor experience”, the entertainment district offered several bars, nightclubs, and other shops. The two-level section included America Live!, Gator’s Beach Bar, and America’s Original Sports Bar, among other venues.
The theaters also became a dollar theater, which, after a few name changes, remain today.
The Festivals entertainment district wasn’t as successful as planned, and the mall continued to limp along. A stalwart group of existing tenants and new anchors, including the addition of Kohl’s in late 1994 in much of the former B. Altman and a CompUSA in the bigg’s wing, brought the mall to 75% occupancy. It was nowhere near the success it was designed to be in 1989, nor the competition-crushing behemoth it was expected to be.
In 1996, Forest Fair was sold again to Gator Investments Group, a Miami-based company that promised to make it the mall it was designed to be. It was going to be hard work, especially since CompUSA and Parisian pulled out within months of each other in 1998. However, Guitar Center signed on, and by 1999, Forest Fair Mall had secured a lease with the giant outdoor chain Bass Pro Shops Outdoor World, which opened in the former Parisian space. Ambitious plans were drawn, and Gator started signing new tenants for the mall through Glimcher Properties Trust, their leasing agent. There were some significant losses, though, as the Time Out on the Court amusement park closed.
By 2001, the mall was on the slow road to recovery. The food court was nearly full. Media Play, a big-box retailer selling electronics, books, music, videos, video games, and DVDs, opened. Off Fifth, the outlet form of Saks Fifth Avenue, opened. Babies R Us opened (though it was temporarily occupied by Stein Mart Outlet prior to this). Berean Christian Stores signed on as another junior anchor. A nightclub complex opened next to Kohl’s (disconnected from the mall concourse) called Metropolis. It replaced the last Festivals nightclub, Bourbon Street, as the whole Festivals annex was gutted for Burlington Coat Factory, which filled in the rest of the B. Altman space. A large amusement area for children, Namco WonderPark, opened and functionally replaced Time Out. Showcase Cinemas opened in the former spot of the theme park with Ohio’s first Steve & Barry’s University Sportswear below. Moore’s Fitness World opened on the top level of the old food court. The mall was to feature a mix of off-price and mid-line stores; however, only off-price, value-oriented stores showed up. This wasn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it wasn’t the realized vision promised by Gator Investments.
Finally, by the end of December 2001, things at Forest Fair were looking up. The mall was going to be renamed to “Forest Fair Fashions”, and it was home to Ohio’s first Bass Pro Shops and its first Steve & Barry’s University Sportswear.
“We’re spending almost $15 million renovating almost all of the storefronts and putting in a grand staircase,” said Michael Dunham, senior vice president of leasing and Gator’s top executive at Forest Fair. “We’re putting in giant billboards below the ceiling with fashion graphics. The entire Kohl’s concourse will have hardwood floors.” (Cincinnati Enquirer)
Gator also hinted they planned to sign Just for Feet and an ice rink, but that never happened, because Gator Corporation lost interest in the mall after a dispute involving Polaris Fashion Place in Columbus. So, the mall got a new owner again.
Enter The Mills Corporation. The Mills built its fortune constructing huge, sprawling mega-malls in large metropolitan areas across the country. They were always branded the same and named [_____] Mills. The first part of each Mills’ name was the name of the city, suburb, or state it was built in (Katy Mills, Gurnee Mills, Arizona Mills, St. Louis Mills, Grapevine Mills), or even a significant landmark or cultural/historical name (Franklin Mills in Philadelphia, Potomac Mills in Washington DC, or Opry Mills in Tennessee). One, Discover Mills near Atlanta, was even named after a credit card. These malls would often feature a floorplan that resembled a racetrack (with a few exceptions, Sawgrass Mills in Florida, the largest, was originally supposed to resemble an alligator). They all had big theaters, outlet stores, many anchors, entertainment, and one more thing: they were all one story.
The Mills bought Forest Fair Mall in 2002 and decided to convert it to its Mills prototype, giving it an extensive remodel. This was the first (and last) time Mills bought a mall to totally convert it; soon afterward, Mills began buying larger, big-ticket malls, adding their own unique spin of entertainment and dining. Also, rather than peacefully converting Forest Fair, Mills decided it would completely shut Forest Fair in order to gut it and embark on the remodel. Unfortunately, this required giving all interior tenants the heave-ho, including original 1989 charter tenant Nadler Mens Store.
By February 2003, the entire mall closed, save the anchors. Elder Beerman decided not to stick around either, leaving only bigg’s as the last original tenant. bigg’s, Steve and Barry’s University Sportswear, Bass Pro Shops, Wonderpark, Kohl’s, Burlington Coat Factory, Berean Christian Store, Media Play, Off 5th, Babies R Us, and Guitar Center remained for business as usual.
In July 2004, the inside of the mall reopened with great fanfare, as Cincinnati Mills. It opened at 75% occupancy, 93% occupancy by early 2005. It was probably the mall’s biggest success to date. The top level of the old Elder Beerman also became home to Cincinnati’s own Johnny’s Toys.
As with all of the other times reinvention was attempted, problems soon began to befoul Cincinnati Mills. Mills malls were starting to become known as places where trouble-making teenagers would hang out. So, Cincinnati Mills enacted a dress code and enacted a harsh rule of no groups more than three in the mall.
But, as it turned out, The Mills was a terrible manager as well, and major success did not materialize for long. Johnny’s Toys closed down and Steve & Barry’s took the entire former Elder Beerman, while the old Steve & Barry’s was sold to Urban Behavior. Stores began to trickle out. Media Play was the first casualty in 2005 and was not replaced.
Here’s a Cincinnati Mills mall directory from 2005, courtesy archive.org:
Meanwhile, The Mills itself had problems on its own and was bought by Simon in April 2007. Simon continued to keep The Mills malls as a separate unit, though Mills’ two other projects (Tewksbury Mills in Massachusetts and Candlestick Mills in San Francisco) were cancelled entirely.
The mall was two-thirds full in 2007, but mall officials believed the future was bright.
As always, they were wrong.
By May 2007, things began going south at Cincinnati Mills, beginning with the loss of bigg’s. The 245,000 square foot bigg’s, the largest tenant in the mall, was losing money. The lease was almost up, and bigg’s was not looking to renew it. In addition, the other Midwest hypermarket, Meijer, had opened way too close for comfort, and bigg’s had previously converted to a smaller “outlet” format.
As 2007 ended, the mall began to spin out of control. Wonderpark closed in March 2008 after the manager was discovered paying his employees (who were minors) to pose for sex videos. bigg’s closed in July, leaving the huge space vacant. Simon began discussing selling the mall.
The disappointing holiday sales of 2008 did not fare well for the mall either. Guitar Center and Urban Behavior high-tailed it out of the mall. Steve & Barry’s, which occupied the former Elder Beerman, went out of business as well. The structure once designed for 150 stores was now 40% vacant, emptier than ever. Not that it looked bad, either. Due to the 2004 remodel, the condition of the mall was great, except for the total lack of stores and shoppers.
Simon dumped Cincinnati Mills in March of 2009, selling it a realty company called North Star Port Authority. The “Mills” name was officially dropped, having not transferred with the sale of the mall, and the mall was renamed Cincinnati Mall. The new company had non-demolition redevelopment in mind, though some plans did indicate that the bigg’s end would be demolished. They managed to attract totes ›› ISOTONER Warehouse Clearance to the old Urban Behavior a few months later, only to have Off 5th move out a few months later for (get this) an outlet mall!
Cincinnati Mall, as you may expect, did not turn the mall around. The totes ›› ISOTONER Warehouse Clearance closed, Showcase Theaters was bought by Rave Theaters, but it pulled the plug on it before conversion (it closed in March 2010). The bigg’s wing is now closed entirely.
Editor’s note: I visited Cincinnati Mall most recently in November 2010. I arrived slightly after dark, around 6 or 7 at night. My first assumption was that the mall was closed. There were no cars in any of the lots nearest the mall entrances, the only cars I saw were located in front of Bass Pro. Thinking I’d give it a try, I parked at one of the ghostly, empty mall entrances and walked up to the door. The lights inside the mall appeared to be off, but I approached the doors anyway. Surprisingly, the mall was unlocked, and I hesitated for a moment before entering. Was I supposed to be here? Is it really open? The regular lights still appeared to be off, but nighttime lights were on, basking the interior of the mall in an eerie moonglow.
As I entered the doors, I noticed a couple people walking around in the dim corridor that approached Bass Pro, whose entrance was closed off to the mall. I actually wondered if I was supposed to be in there because it was so dark, but I kept going after seeing others. After walking down the corridor leading from Bass Pro toward center court, I noticed not one store was open except for Babies R Us, an anchor. Nearing center court, the crux of the Y, I discovered something that gave me pause. A Claire’s store was open on the lower level, in the dark. Yes, in the dark. Look at the photos, I did no camera tricks here; it was really this dark in there while open. I had never encountered this before, and it was both creepy and alarming. After reaching center court, there were some normal, brighter lights on, and a few more people milling around.
I continued past center court, and walked toward Kohl’s. Darkness again. The Kohl’s wing was just as dark as the Bass Pro wing, and parts of it were sealed off with rope. Kohl’s had also closed off one of its entrances to the mall. Coming back from Kohl’s to center court, I saw another store open in the darkness on the lower level, Payless ShoeSource. Again, I’ve never seen anything like this before!
After reaching center court again, I haded down the third and last corridor which used to go to bigg’s. I encountered the ‘Picnic on the River’ Food Court area on the lower level, which surprisingly still had Gold Star Chili in operation, but little else. Auntie Anne’s and Game Stop were still open on the second level. The info desk on the second level had been abandoned, and the entire upper level of the mall in this wing was fenced off from the former bigg’s store onward. In addition, throughout the mall, large portions of entire wings were sealed off. Burlington Coat Factory and the Danbarry Dollar Cinemas were still open in addition to Kohl’s and Babies R Us, but I can’t imagine the interior stores in this mall can sustain much longer.
More recently, In January 2011, Cincinnati Mall has turned up in the news again. According to the Cincinnati Enquirer and Columbus Business Journal, owners of the mall recently presented suggestions to revitalize the site from its current sorry state. Some of the suggestions included a Candlewood Suites hotel, an agricultural museum (!?), a hockey arena, other entertainment venues, and an indoor mountain bike park. At this point, the ideas are not solid plans, because none of the ideas carry financing deals. Locals are probably cautiously optimistic, at best, because the site has changed hands so many times in the past decade.
At any rate, World Properties, the New York-based firm who has owned the mall since March 2010, hopes to have these non-retail entities in mall within the next 2-3 years. They probably also hope the four current anchors don’t plan on leaving, so they can get retailers back in the mix as well. The new owners, on paper at least, seem committed to the site and we hope they aren’t just blowing smoke. After a string of absentee owners and bad decisions, hopefully an eclectic, creative mix of non-retail entities can achieve the balance needed for success here. I think owners were wise to realize the site is not marketable as retail-only, and also considered the failure of the previous entertainment district, so adding more options is a worth at try, provided they can get financing for it. We’ll keep an eye on the progress here, and, as always, feel free to leave your comments and reactions.
Elsewhere on the net:
- Forest Fair pre-2004 photo set, courtesy contributor ‘Alpha’
- Cincinnati Mall’s current website
- YouTube video of the mall