River Valley Mall; Lancaster, Ohio

Over the past 23 years, River Valley Mall has anchored the retail strip on the northeast side of Lancaster, and has spawned a critical mass of big box plazas and chain restaurants along the Memorial Drive corridor. Along the mall’s ring road are a Frisch’s Big Boy restaurant, Best Buy, Applebee’s, IHOP, Office Max, Target, Red Lobster, and Hobby Lobby. Directly across the street from the mall are even more restaurants and chain stores, including Bob Evans, White Castle, Taco Bell, Olive Garden, Hampton Inn and Pier One Imports.

Lancaster, Ohio is a small city in central Ohio, located about 30 miles southeast of Columbus.  With a population of about 40,000, Lancaster has grown significantly in recent decades as it has transformed from a mostly rural community to Columbus exurb.  Suburban sprawl now exists along the entire corridor between Columbus and Lancaster, and US 33 was recently upgraded to an expressway between the cities.  Lancaster was recently featured in the book The 100 Best Small Arts Towns in America due to an active fine arts community and an annual music festival, drawing artists and musicians from around the world each summer.  Aside from an active, historic downtown that has recently been revitalized, most of Lancaster’s modern retail is located along the Memorial Drive/Business 33 strip to the northeast of downtown, and this strip itself is anchored by River Valley Mall.  Opened in October 1987, River Valley Mall was originally anchored by Columbus-based Lazarus, Youngstown-originated Hills, JCPenney, Sears, and Dayton-based Elder-Beerman.  River Valley Mall has 80 stores and 569,461 square feet of retail space in total, with 308,877 square feet in the anchor stores.

Over the past 23 years, River Valley Mall has anchored the retail strip on the northeast side of Lancaster, and has spawned a critical mass of big box plazas and chain restaurants along the Memorial Drive corridor.  Along the mall’s ring road are a Frisch’s Big Boy restaurant, Best Buy, Applebee’s, IHOP, Office Max, Target, Red Lobster, and Hobby Lobby.  Directly across the street from the mall are even more restaurants and chain stores, including Bob Evans, White Castle, Taco Bell, Olive Garden, Hampton Inn and Pier One Imports.  Strip malls also exist around River Valley Mall, including the Hocking Valley Mall down the street anchored by Kroger and K-Mart.  Was this ever enclosed?

Although there have been several anchor changes at River Valley Mall, the interior of the mall remains largely the same as when it opened.  In 1999, Hills became Connecticut-based Ames when Ames bought Hills.  Then, in early 2002, Ames closed their River Valley Mall store in one of the last rounds of closures before the entire chain folded.  This anchor remained dark until 2006 when it was filled by Steve and Barry’s, who closed at the end of 2008, leaving it dark once again.  As of April 2010 it is still vacant.

River Valley Mall’s eastern anchor, which opened as Lazarus in 1987, became Lazarus-Macy’s in 2003 and finally just Macy’s in 2005 when parent company Federated decided to use the more popular, nationally-known Macy’s nameplate, phasing out Federated’s regional names in the process.  A couple years later, Federated decided this Macy’s was not profitable enough and closed it in 2007.  However, in March 2010, River Valley Mall’s owner Glimcher announced that a Dick’s Sporting Goods would open in the former Macy’s space in November 2010, giving the mall four out of five anchors.  A Dunham’s already operates as a mini-anchor in the mall, and they can’t be happy about this at all.

The Dick’s Sporting Goods opening will also help the perception of many that River Valley Mall is struggling, according to a spokesperson for River Valley’s management.  In recent years, a number of vacancies have popped up in the mall, perhaps a result of the economy, the mall’s lack of recent renovations, competition from better malls in Columbus, or a combination of all of these factors.  Despite this, though, mini-anchor Old Navy opened in mid-2009 inside the mall, and the mall continues to mostly thrive with mid-level stalwarts like Victoria’s Secret and American Eagle, as well as a ten-screen Regal Cinemas.

The decor and layout of River Valley Mall is decidedly of its era – the late 1980s.  The white latticework ceiling pattern, reflective ceiling tiles, lack of kiosks and full-size fountains are a time warp in today’s era of carpeting, comfy seating, warm colors and kiosks.  The layout is uniquely complex for a one level mall, and features a neat loop around the food court area where the mall turns.

I visited River Valley Mall in August 2009 and took the pictures featured here.  If you have any stories to fill us in on regarding River Valley Mall’s history or just some thoughts to add, feel free to leave a comment or two.

53 thoughts on “River Valley Mall; Lancaster, Ohio”

  1. First time in quite a while that a mall from Ohio has been placed on this website!

  2. 300k split between five anchor stores?? How small are these things anyway…actually, I once went into a JCPenney that was about 35k, so nothing’s impossible.

  3. Was this originally a Crown American property? I couldn’t find any evidence of that online, but the design looks a lot like the Phillipsburg Mall in NJ (but with a cooler layout).

    Also, what’s up with that Taco Bell signage?!

  4. @Pseudo3D, Yeah, these are all small-ish anchor stores. The only one I could find data on was Elder-Beerman, which is 52k. I guess it makes sense, considering this is a mall for a city of 40,000 people.

  5. How cool that the fountains are still in operation, as so many have been removed from both dead and thriving malls.

  6. @jkcole, Yeah, it’s been over 2.5 years. I don’t know what’s up with that? I have tons of Ohio stored up too!

  7. So awesome to see a fountain…and a twin fountain at that 🙂 Boy, do I miss fountains at malls…

  8. This is a pretty cool little mall- popular enough to not have any drastic renovation attempts but quiet enough to also not see any drastic renovation attempts. Neat layout for its size, too.

    It’s also aged remarkably well compared to malls of similar vintage (Biltmore Square anyone?)

    If you’re on Ohio malls, Forest Fair / Cincinnati Mills / Mall is long overdue for a write up.

  9. It’s interesting that most Glimchure malls are in smaller markets with the exceptions of Columbus OH, it’s hometown, Elizabeth NJ & AuburnWA. The latter two are home to large outlet malls, Jersey Gardens & The Super Mall of the Great Northwest respectively.

    Glimchure had to sell their largest property to raise capital, Loyd Center in Portland OR, went to a few California investers. The company is still having finantial problems & may end up in the same boat as GGP. But unlike GGP Glimchure has far fewer desireable properties.

  10. @dan-onymous, Yes it was once a Crown American property. I can tell from the layout alone, but I did find at least one source that said as much.

  11. Is that one of the “S&M” dubbed Deb stores with the pink carpet and metallic ceiling?

  12. @Pseudo3D, I knew you were a bad boy, but what is that all about? LOL

    Just kidding.

  13. I stayed in Lancaster last summer on a road trip. I didn’t get to this mall but I did go to the Kroger at Hocking Valley Mall, which replaced a classic early greenhouse on the other side of the road. It doesn’t look like it was ever enclosed, although it looks like it was built after the era (c. 1970) when everything was called a mall, enclosed or otherwise.

  14. @Pseudo3D:
    All DEB stores in my neck of the country used to look like that, and were in smaller to mid-sized malls. The earliest ones (late 1970s-1984 openings) used the same mirrored facade outside (with a green sign), dark interior with green / plum walls, and thick piled plum-colored shag carpet.

    This one looks just like how my hometown mall’s (Forest Mall, Fond Du Lac WI) store did, which was an early-1984 opening. The sign color is off…..it should be a vivid fuchsia hue, the interior wasn’t quite as dark, with fuchsia replacing the green on the patterned wall and like-colored carpet replacing the darker purple shade.

    The ‘green’ format stores were a literal time-warp.

    The only reason I remember all this vividly is because DEB was one of the usual stops at any mall for my mother. By the mid 1990s, a lot of these prototype stores (esp. the green ones) were shuttered due to the chain’s bankruptcy / restructuring back in 1995-1996. They located in a lot of malls that were far-flung and small, and for the most part, under-performing.

    Why the River Roads store hasn’t been touched yet, amazes me. All remaining DEB shops in Wisconsin that looked like this got remodeled to their early-2000s prototype after their mid-1990s purging of small-market outdated stores.

    As for the rest of the mall itself, it’s a nice sight to see working fountains…..much more surprising to see them in a mall that opened in 1987. By that time, fountains were passé…..mall owners preferred show stages or just flat floor space to place all those junk-hawking kiosks.

  15. Correction: River VALLEY store. Oops.

  16. @SEAN, it’s referenced in Mystic Mall and a comment elsewhere. It’s also more fully described in Pekin Mall’s article.

    Really, it’s just a “reference” name to that era of Deb Shops…not of its merchandise

  17. @SEAN, The way that the food court forms a loop in the middle. Crown American did that a lot, such as Bradley Square Mall in Cleveland, TN and Indian Mound Mall in Heath, OH (also a Glimcher property).

  18. @Rich, Old topo maps show Hocking Valley Mall as a strip, so it was definitely never enclosed.

  19. @Pseudo3D, OK, now I understand. I found your prire comment quite humorous, hence the bad boy remark.

  20. @Pseudo3D, LOL!

    It was indeed. However, it was toned down to be as modern as possible without actually remodeling the store.

    Part of the “S&M” notation were these hanging metal bars placed throughout the store. They hung from chains and were tethered to the ceiling, and would display an outfit or something really high – anyone remember these? I haven’t seen any Deb stores with this in many years. It’s weird that my mom used to shop there when I was little, since it’s clearly targeted at young women, and I never thought of my mom as being young.

  21. @Matt from WI, The green signs are indeed rarer. The last one I remember encountering was at the Pekin (IL) Mall, which was open until 2002 when the mall was shuttered. http://www.labelscar.com/wp-content/uploads/2006/08/PekinMall04.jpg

    My mom shopped at Deb too, well into the 90s – every time we went to the mall she would stop at the same stores, often in the same order: Gantos, Casual Corner, Limited, Express, Deb, and the womens departments at Marshall Fields, Boston Store, JCPenney or Prange’s. Fun times.

  22. @Bobby P., Indian Mound Mall and the malls in Tiffin, Mansfield, Ashtabula and Marion are the only malls in Ohio I’m still missing 🙁

  23. @Bobby P., Thanks for the info. Now that you mention it, Phillipsburg Mall also had somewhat of a “loop” food court (though the layout was different than River Valley’s–it was in a straight hallway parallel to the main corridor, connected to the main corridor at each end by shorter hallways) until the entire food court space was redesigned as an in-line H&M.

  24. @Prange Way,

    Last time I seen any stores with those old mirrors and a green sign was the location at Wausau Center Mall, 1997-1998. That store got remodeled since then. Thus, likewise with you, it’s been some time. Before that, they were plentiful. Beaver Dam Mall, Edgewater Plaza, County Faire Mall, Northland Mall, Bay Park Square, East Towne Mall, Northridge, and Southridge, all were the old format seen in the Pekin Mall image.

    They say not to take pics of individual storefronts, but it’s hard NOT to, what with the ‘vintage’ ones becoming rarer to find. Storefronts are just as much a part of the mall architecture as the mall common area itself. Nowadays a lot of storefronts look plain and cheap.

    Then again, maybe the definition of ‘cheap’ and ‘plain’ back in 1979 (pulling random year out of my head) would have been all those storefronts with slotted wood paneling in diagonal strips, so things don’t really change from one generation to another.

  25. If only more Crown American malls looked like this rather than the cheaply built ones of the 70s and 80s. Also, did Crown ever build any two-story malls aside from the Logan Valley Mall in Altoona?

  26. Also, the design of this mall is completely identical to Martinsburg Mall in Martinsburg, WV.

  27. @JT, Oh boy, Crown American strikes again. I had no idea there were so many of these that were identical! At least it’s kind of an interesting design, and not a boring basic dumbbell.

  28. @Gary, I don’t know if Crown American originally built Logan Valley Mall. As far as I know, they didn’t.

    That mall is really, really old. The Sears and original Penneys date to 1960. Crown American owned it by the time 1978 rolled around and did the expansion with the 2-levels and Hess’s (Kaufmann’s, now Macy’s).

    Here’s a really cool photo album with some pictures of the 1994 fire that decimated the old section of the mall, as well as an overhead of the original mall. Not too much different today of that scene, other than a bigger mall and a ton more congestion.

    I remember the old portion between Sears and JCPenney that was open-air. That portion was original to the end, and rumors in this area swirled that the fire was intentional to make the expansion and renovation easier.

    If not for the landlocked site, Bon-Ton and Boscov’s would likely be there. Boscov’s did open a site at Logan Town Center a few years ago, seems they’re struggling without the mall traffic flow.

  29. @JT, according to Wikipedia, North Point was developed by Homart. If Crown American was involved, it could’ve been as a joint venture, but I can’t find any evidence that this was ever a Crown property. Even so, I don’t think Crown built any malls as far south as Atlanta, their malls seemed to be mainly concentrated around Pennsylvania, Maryland, Virginia, etc.

  30. Crown American built Bradley Square in Cleveland, TN and Mount Berry Square in Rome, GA.

    I doubt Crown American would have been involved with a mall in the Atlanta suburbs. Usually they go for the secondary markets, places the other developers avoided over the years. That’s why we see the largely 1-level malls they built.

    Crown American’s homebase was Johnstown, PA. Oddly enough, retail developer George Zamias used their Johnstown Galleria to kill Crown American’s hometown Richland Mall.

  31. @Daniel, and Johnstown Galleria is pretty much the only Zamias property that isn’t half-vacant. (Okay, DuBois Mall and Indiana Mall are doing fine, too.)

  32. @Bobby P., the Galleria up there may be doing alright, but I know for fact that a lot of Johnstown residents shop at Logan Valley Mall in Altoona or at Westmoreland Mall in Greensburg when they want to go shopping. I guess it depends where these people live in that area, but those malls offer better stores and more shopping around its periphery than in the Johnstown area.

    Also, I think Zamias’ current flagship would be Pittsburgh Mills, despite some of the vacancies that still plague that mall. If they do some work to it, it could really be a great shopping place.

  33. @Gary, Mount Berry Square in Rome, GA was Crown America. It is somewhat similar, but not exactly similar to this and Bradley Square in layout. It was built with no concern for the existing (now dead) mall, It was put in a horrible location away from everything and is now dying itself. I feel stupid for being too lazy to look at the Wikipedia article on North Point. That might explain why the Sears at that mall is one of the largest and most elegant in the state.

  34. @Daniel, LOL I didn’t even see that you already posted about Mount Berry.

  35. The Galleria has never truly filled up in Johnstown. There was actually room at one point for 2 more anchors (I think at one point Zamias was envisioning bringing Kaufmann’s and Horne’s to the mall from Pittsburgh), but a community as troubled and shrinking as Johnstown could never support a 6-anchor behemoth like that. I’m not sure Pittsburgh could even.

    Logan Valley and Westmoreland have some stores that never made it to the Galleria, like Hollister, Abercrombie, and a few others that the trendy kids like. Both Logan Valley and Westmoreland had Kaufmann’s (Macy’s) and Old Navy as draws too.

    I think quite possibly more than the malls may be the big-box retail draws. Johnstown only has the few stores next to the new Wal-Mart on the site of the old Richland Mall. There’s no electronics store (with Circuit City gone), no sporting goods store but Dunham’s, etc. No Target or Sam’s either, both of which are in Altoona and Greensburg.

    I’ll admit to liking the Galleria over Logan Valley. Still do. Boscov’s alone does it for me though, and I’m sure a lot of Altoona people went to Johnstown for it until they got their own in Logan Town Center.

  36. @Daniel, Pittsburgh’s version of a 6-anchor behemoth would be Century III Mall, which was actually 5 anchors initially but look at it today.

  37. Actually, 25 miles north of this mall is Indian Mound Mall, which was similar in size and construction date, but is in worse shape and is much more empty.

  38. Several years ago there was a store in River Valley that sold motor bikes. I’m trying to find the name of the store. I have a bike and need a chain for it so I hope I can contact the company to get one. It’s a no name bike. I think the store was down by KayBee Toys. Thanks for any help!

  39. When the hell did you take these photos? I see a waldenbooks in one of the pictures and I thought they went belly up.

    All the Waldenbook stores and B Dalton chains in Oregon are history baby! 🙁

    I grew up going to these stores and reading Dr Seuss books as well as others.

  40. What about Colony Square Mall in Zanesville, Ohio?

  41. This mall had a renovation recently (I think at the end of 2011). The fountains and mirrored ceilings are gone. It seems to stay fairly busy. The anchor stores were undersized to begin with. I can remember when the mall was built that people were questioning the size of the anchors.

  42. I was at River Valley just a few days ago. Despite the recent renovations that took a good deal of the ’80s character out of the place (no more fountains, no more reflective ceilings, and a much more muted color scheme), it was still doing good business and still had a decent number of “destination” stores in its lineup. The only serious sign of trouble was a local bedding store (near the Dick’s anchor) that was in the process of shutting down.

    And yes, the anchor stores are tiny. The Sears in particular is the smallest one I’ve ever seen; if it’s bigger than 40K I’ll be amazed. But as noted, Lancaster is a rather small city, so it still manages to serve its area well. Also of note for retail historians, the food court is home to one of the few remaining Rax restaurants anywhere.

    The recent growth of Lancaster as a bona fide “satellite” of Columbus has helped the mall stay afloat, despite the encroachment of big boxes all around it (even in its own parking lot; it’s flanked on one end by a Best Buy outparcel and on another by a Target that’s largely taken over an old strip plaza). Even though the former Hills/Ames/Steve and Barry’s anchor remains vacant with no signs of anyone taking it over, River Valley is far from being a “dead mall,” and is likely to remain a premier Hocking Valley shopping attraction for quite some time to come.

  43. Don’t agree that this was a Crown American property. It was built by Glimcher and Glimcher has always owned it.

    Crown American may have been a partner in this mall, but I doubt it.

  44. I was 16, when it first opened and it was a cool place to hang out back then. I miss the old look and the fountains and a lot of the locals complain about how stores are always leaving but it does stay somewhat busy. My wife loves this little mall and she is not from the area.

  45. now they’re building a new theatre where the old hills/ames/steve & barry stores were

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