Columbus Commons: From Dead Mall to Urban Park

A look at the rapid transformation of Columbus Commons: from desolate mall to premier urban park

Columbus Commons (Mike Field)

At the turn of the century, Downtown Columbus had lost much of its early 20th century luster. Home to 2,000 residential units total, its residential population had been almost completely stagnant since 1990. On the commercial side, once proud High Street had lost its retail character and its City Center Mall had recently lost Lazarus, one of its three anchor department stores.

Serving as the first stop on the long road to revitalization, the Downtown Strategic Plan of 2002 was set up to serve as a road map for a vision that called for the addition of 10,000 new housing units over a ten year period. Brining more to the table than hot air and self promotional press releases, the City of Columbus pledged to invest $100 million in public money in a variety of Downtown capital projects, including parks and pedestrian friendly streetscapes, over that time frame to pave the way for private investment to follow.

With a mission to lead city-changing projects in downtown, the Columbus Downtown Development Corporation (CDDC) was created in 2002 to implement the Downtown Strategic Plan of 2002.

Columbus Commons (Mike Field)

To create a strong, vibrant Downtown within ten years, the following core principles were established.

  1. To become a 24/7 community, Downtown requires a markedly increased residential presence

  2. Downtown’s vitality depends upon a continued demand for commercial office space

  3. Downtown needs additional structured parking facilities to support commercial office and residential development

  4. Downtown should invest in its riverfront, connecting open spaces to create signature civic assets for residents, visitors and office workers

  5. Pedestrian and vehicular circulation improvements are necessary for a “friendlier” Downtown

  6. The City should build on its substantial not-for-profit and institutional structures to establish a presence in the Downtown core

  7. Substantially increased public capital is needed to stimulate private investment

  8. Additional economic development capacity is needed to move forward

  9. Concentrating on a new neighborhood at the southern end of the Downtown core will create critical mass in the area around Columbus City Center Mall.

This last particular goal within the action oriented Downtown Strategic Plan of 2002 called for the addition of substantial infill mixed-use density, in the immediate vicinity of the then struggling mall to support its continued operation.

Columbus Center City Mall in 2007 (Ennis Davis, AICP)

Originally anchored by Lazarus, Marshall Field’s and Jacobson’s, the Columbus City Center was Central Ohio’s largest and most upscale mall during the early 1990s. Opening its doors in 1989 to 100,000 excited shoppers, the 1.25 million square foot, three-level mall was home to 144 stores and situated in the heart of the city’s High Street retail corridor. Nevertheless by 2007, due to the opening of new suburban malls and the corporate bankruptcy of Jacobson’s, the last of the mall’s anchors shut down around the time the city filed suit to evict the Simon Property Group (the same company managing the St. Johns Town Center) from the property on allegations of neglecting the property and allowing it to fall into disrepair.

After the empty shopping center was acquired and under one hundred percent public ownership, options for revitalization and re-use were considered before a plan was selected for partial demolition of the vacant retail center to pave the way for a new mixed-use development and permanent centralized iconic park in the heart of the area the strategic plan had identified for clustering dense infill.

Prior to the mall’s demolition, the CDDC had already began to transform the former flagship Lazarus store into a mix of office, cultural, retail and restaurant space. Today, the 700,000 square foot former department store is home to a mix of tenants that employ a combined 2,000 workers. After a public sale of interior assets, demolition of the mall, excluding the former Lazarus Building and a large parking garage, started in late 2009. Two-thirds of the cleared land was then immediately developed into a $25 million active public park called Columbus Commons. Intended to be a park that offered something for everyone, its list of interactive amenities include gardens, a hand carved carousel, two restaurants/cafes, manicured lawns and a performing arts pavilion.

Conceptual plan for Columbus Commons (CDDC)

The remaining one-third of property was then reserved for high density, mixed-use infill development by the private sector. Highpoint on Columbus Commons, a $50 million project featuring 301 residential units and 23,000 square feet of street level retail was completed in 2013. It was followed by 250 High, a $50 million, 12-story project with 121 apartments, 136,000 square feet of retail situated on a former 0.76 acre parking lot. 80 on the Commons, the final phase of development around Columbus Commons, was completed in 2018. This $60 million, 12-story project includes street-level retail, five stories of offices and six levels of residential units. All developments took advantage of the former mall’s parking garage. Overall, within six years of the opening of Columbus Commons, more than $400 million in new private investment had been attracted in the immediate area, making the city’s 2002 vision of clustering, complementing uses within a compact setting a quick reality.

The dramatic transformation from a desolate mall into a premier mixed-used neighborhood would not have quickly materialized if not for a well thought out plan being publicly vetted with public financing committed and allocated to lead the vision into reality. Here is a before and after transformation of Columbus Commons.

Highpoint on Columbus Commons (Mike Field)

NEXT PAGE: Columbus Commons - Before and After