Monday, March 30, 2009

Portrait of a Dead Mall

The ominous hum of the Segway's electric motor filled my ear as a Cincinnati Mall security guard rode her mighty steed beside me, leading me towards the mall exit. I had been "asked to leave" and they were going to make damn sure I didn't provoke any more "security concerns" with my picture taking ever again. I had been caught read handed, dead in the act of taking photographs within the confines of this dying mall that felt more like the set of Dawn of the Dead than a shopping complex.

"Cincinnati Mall" was once better known as "Cincinnati Mills" and before that it was the "Forest Fair Mall," named after the complex's location directly on the dividing line of the cities of Fairfield and Forest Park, Ohio. The mall opened in 1989 and immediately faced problems. The high end anchor tenants proved to be unpopular with the area's demographic and despite a location directly adjacent the Interstate 275-Winton Rd. interchange, the mall was built between two already successful, established malls; The Tri-County Mall just four miles to the East and Northgate Mall seven miles to the west.

- This aerial image shows not only the vast size of the mall, but it's close proximity to Interstate 275.

Despite the amenities such as an indoor amusement park known as "Time Out on the Court," which I'm sure many kids who grew up in the 90's such as myself remember, and upscale retailers, the mall struggled. All three original anchor stores packed up and left by 1990 as the mall entered a decade of ownership changes, renovations and attempts to appeal to the local market. Forest Fair had it's ups and downs, but by the mid 90's seemed to have found a niche offering several discount anchor stores while at the same time attracting many big box retailers such as Bass Pro Shops of Springfield, Missouri. In the late 90's, the mall axed many of it's nightclub and entertainment venues including "Time Out on the Court," which was replaced by "Wonderpark" a Namco Entertainment indoor amusement park that even featured a small roller coaster.

- Mid 90's photograph of the mall showing it's decor prior to the renovation by the Mills Corporation. Courtesy

Just when it seemed the mall had finally found it's target market, many of the big box stores and major tenants began to pack up and leave. By 2002 the mall's occupancy had fallen well below 50% and failure of the Forest Fair Mall seemed imminent for the second time. Hope would arise once again later that year when the Mills Corporation, a Maryland based real estate firm known for their construction and management of highly successful regional shopping centers, purchased the fledgling Forest Fair Mall and began a 70 million dollar renovation. Forest Fair Mall reopened in August 2004 as "Cincinnati Mills" to huge crowds and high approval. Despite the enthusiasm, new name, new image and new management, Cincinnati Mills did not experience the success of it's sister Mill properties. The mall once again continued a steady decline and was sold by Simon Property Group (who had acquired the Mills Corporation and who is currently building a new outlet mall just a little further north of Cincinnati Mall) in early 2009. On March 4, 2009 it was announced that Georgia based Northstar Realty Group had purchased the mall, renaming it "Cincinnati Mall," with plans to sell the land in three parcels for redevelopment.

- Despite the Showcase Cinemas and a few tenants on the second floor, the main concourse and food court of the mall are nearly deserted on this Friday afternoon.

I grew up in Fairfield just five minutes away from the mall. I have many memories of being there as a kid; playing mini golf and riding the ferris wheel as well as "hanging out" with my friends through those awesome teen years. After arriving home from college this past Friday, I once again visited the mall. I admittedly hadn't been through the mall in years except to occasionally see a movie, avoiding the main sections of the mall. Having worked at a mall in high school and having dealt with mall security before, I figured it be better to ask permission before I started taking photographs. I know how people often rag on mall security guards for being "rent a cops," but I didn't want to hassle anyone and figured it wouldn't be that big of a deal. I walked to the "info" desk only to find that like many other sections of the mall, it had been abandoned.

- Just like many other parts of the mall, this customer service desk was vacant.

Seeing as how they didn't care to staff their customer service desk, I figured they wouldn't care if I took a few photographs. Walking throughout the mall I came across many closed shops that tenants had vacated long ago, the glass windows painted over in black. At American Eagle, two employees packed up the last of their products, the store had just closed a few weeks before. The mall's custodial staff had removed many incarnations of the word "Mills" leaving just the word "Cincinnati" emblazoned all about the shopping center. The mall changed drastically during the 2002-2004 renovation by the Mills Corp., completely changing how I remembered the mall as a young kid. The renovations had drastically improved the mall. It really is nice, just depressingly empty.

Walking about the mall is kind of like being in a scene from "Dawn of the Dead." Except, instead of hordes of flesh eating zombies, the only other souls you encounter are the occasional mall walker or few actual customers browsing stores. The staff of the Johnny Rocket's restaurant chat at the counter, no customers to wait on, while the employee at Starbucks reads a book, no customers to serve. It's 4:00 on a Friday afternoon after school has let out for the day and the mall is just dead. Many of the dynamic lights once used to create an atmosphere are turned off or burnt out. Sign posts indicating which store is in what direction are left blank, save for the names of the few remaining tenants.

- While most of the second floor in this wing is vacant, the bottom floor is probably the most populated section of the mall.

Unlike other abandoned locales I explore, this place isn't technically "abandoned." I'm not trespassing, it's open to the public and I'm more than welcome to come inside, but Cincinnati Mall has the feeling of abandonment. It's quite obvious that this mall was never meant to be and despite the attempts and millions invested in it, it has sadly not been successful.

- Remains of the former "Wonderpark" indoor amusement park.

I'm making my way towards Kohl's when from behind me I hear the soft hum of an electric motor getting closer and closer.



I turn around, it's a Cincinnati Mall security guard. Looking down at me from her mighty segway, helmet on her head, she says: "You're not allowed to snap photographs in the mall, it's a security concern and it's prohibited. I'm going to have to ask you come with me and leave."

I oblige to her request for me to leave and stop taking photographs, but when she asks to see some identification and for me to go to the office with her, I decline. I respect her for doing her job and enforcing the rules, but I don't have to give them anything. The Delta Force like security team follows me in their SUV as I stop at the far end of the mall parking lot to snap some photographs of two restaurants, which like many of the malls tenants, are now vacant.

- One of two vacant restaurants in the Cincinnati Mall parking lot. This one was a former Roadhouse Grill.

I smile and wave goodbye to the security guard following me as I exit the parking lot and think about what the other guard inside the mall said to me:

"This is your one and only warning, any further infractions and you could be banned from the mall for the rest of the year."

I wonder, though, will there even be a Cincinnati Mall the rest of this year?

Updates | Sept. 26, 2017:
  • In December 2015, I authored a follow-up story, once again visiting the mall. I ironically stopped by to visit on the busiest shopping day of the year, Black Friday. 
  • The mall is still standing, still open, still finding its way into the news every few months about some new idea that never really goes anywhere. The only real tenant left is a great place called Arcade Legacy.
Update | May 28, 2019:


  1. A few weeks ago we had gotten my son's temps at Hamilton Avenue and needed a wide open, empty place for his first time behind the wheel. Their parking lot was perfect.

    After about an hour of wide turns, missed stop signs, and jerky acceleration, the "security vehicle" appeared. We approached each other, stopped, and got out. "Sir," he said, "there's no drivers training allowed at the mall, it's a liability thing." I guess it was obvious what we were doing.

    I thanked him and drove across the street to the abandoned K-Mart, where we spent the next 2 hours mastering turns and stopping with the bumper at the sign post.

  2. They're killing themselves with the overzealous security. On the other hand, the mall has gone down since I was there a few months ago, and could become a haven for squatters. I don't see it lasting through the end of the year. The land is more valuable than the mall itself.

  3. This is where I mall walked during the week. Sometimes I saw more mall walkers than shoppers....but i have to say I love the bath and body works outlet.


  5. Priceless mall security story. And no, they won't be there at the end of the year. As a previous poster noted, the land HAS to be more valuable than the mall itself at current. Great pics!!

  6. I am amazed at how much pride the mall security takes at Cincinnati Mall

  7. great post! note: that one pic in the middle looks eerily similar to some of the abandoned subway shots, no?

  8. @Kelli: The security is overzealous for sure. I have heard of mall security there trying to break up groups of four people walking together, apparently to prevent gang activity. They have approached smokers outside the entrances and asked to see their IDs to make sure they were 18.

    @Matt: Looks just like the subway!

    It's too bad the best-looking mall in Cincinnati is the dying one. Let's hope they can find a good use for the building or at least the land it sits on.

  9. Thanks for reading everyone. CHolloway, who posted above tried to go to the mall yesterday to take some photographs, he lasted about 5 minutes.

    I agree Matt, that photo does look eerily similar to the Subway platform...weird.

  10. I am in love with this blog! Post more stuff! I read your post on Hudepohl yesterday and I was so inspired that I went there right after work and took some photos!

  11. I'm thinking too the intention is to piss off the public enough to justify no business being in the mall. Best way to acquire land-take away their profits til they have no choice..

    On the other hand, perhaps security knows the truth and it shows.

    Sedgway? The height of laziness...

  12. I don't think the security team is going around intentionally trying to piss anyone off. The mall has many problems as to why it doesn't get any business, the biggest of which is it's location. There are just bigger and better stores at Northgate or Tri County. Even the duplicated locations failed, stores like Aeropostale and American Eagle couldn't survive in that mall because no one knew they were there and they already had established, successful locations minutes down the highway in either direction with a steady customer base.

    @ Notorious O.G.T.: Thanks for checking the sit out man, if you liked the Hudepohl post stay about two weeks I'll be posting a follow up article. Let's just say the view from the roof is sweet. ;)

  13. Also, Kelli, I don't really think the Segway is a laziness thing, but more of a practicality...the mall is huge and the only stores thriving are the anchors and movie theatres at the far ends of the mall...the place is massive...the segways make it easier for the guards to get around and also means they can pay less guards to go out and patrol.

  14. Perhaps you're right. But, you won't see me on one of those things ;)

  15. This explains a lot. I work with the company that maintains this malls foodcourt point of sale systems.

    Often times, when one of their sites shows $0.00 sales for a day it's due to some natural disaster or Holiday and a quick Google search will help identify the root cause. (which is how I found this)

    I'm curious now if it's just... that empty.

  16. This is a fantastic post ~ so sad and so true. I remember when that land was a big field and an old Marathon station.

  17. Well, glad we didn't bother stopping there saturday to take pictures, since it sounds like we'd be out pretty fast. Instead we just took some pics of the faded sign scars on the K-Mart.

  18. Just check out Tri-County Mall as well.... not much activity going on there either. Second floor low traffic and partially abandoned. Northgate Mall has a big hole in it where a Rave was going to go.

    The next real estate crisis will be commercial as no one goes to these places anymore.

  19. Hello
    I havent been to this mall since early 2008 . it looks like it has declined alot since then. I took a few pictures then. maybe the security had more to do at that time or didnt see me. I also loved it when it was Forest Fair. I love taking pictures of old abandoned places and malls. would love to meet up with someone and take some pics

  20. man, i've spent more time inside this building than almost anyone.. - i've worked for a half-dozen stores there over the years.. - but, in large part, the bulk of my time there is it's just a quiet place so i go to get away from the rest of the world.. - i used to spend entire afternoons sitting at the food court, walking around, watching the fish at Bass Pro Shops, etc. but nowadays the security is sort of getting ridiculous.. - it's great they take their jobs seriously but it's borderline overkill.. - i was there the other day, bought a lemonade at Aunt Annie's, and went outside to get some fresh air for a little while.. - a security vehicle starting circling me.. - i walked (outside) all the way from the old Biggs' to Bass Pro, about half of the mall's space, the entire time being tailed by a security vehicle.. - i was just waiting for them to pull up so i could laugh and tell them if a guy drinking a lemonade is the your biggest security concern you might want to look for a new line of work..

    just a couple years ago i used to shoot video and pictures in there all the time.. - here's a link to a video shot almost entirely inside the mall (and in nearby now dead Johnny's Toys) that shows how much you used to be able to getaway with compared to nowadays:

  21. The situation at the mall is now even worse. The section of the mall where Biggs and Guitar Center used to be located has been completely closed and shut off to the public. (Biggs closed, and Guitar Center moved to a strip mall near the Tri-County Mall.) There are even fewer small stores left, with the "Lunar Mini Golf" being the only one of note. Starbucks and many of the food court restaurants have closed down.

    Let's hope they decide to use the mall as a filming location in the next Blues Brothers movie.

  22. Brian
    that is pretty bad if you cant even drink a lemonade and walk outside. I always enjoyed going there also just to walk around and enjoy the quiet and the vast size of it. they must be in fear they will lose a job or something

  23. Sounds like security has too much time on their hands. What a bunch of idiots! Let them run off what few customers they have and kill their jobs on their own.

  24. Hey great article....i worked in this mall from 2002 to 2010 at Burlington Coat's completely sad how great the Mills people built it up and over time we just watched it all slowly decline.....i have to sit outside Burlington about 4 nights a week to pick my wife up from work and security every once in a while tells me i can't park there....i just tell them to screw off.....Bass Pro is the big money maker there....Burlington is a terrible company by the way, and has only kept it's building there because every time a store or business leaves, their rent goes down

  25. Wow, What a sad story. I remember when I was between 8-10 years old back in 2004-mid 2006 when we used to go to Cincinati Mills, those were the best years of my life. We mainly went there to shop at the Biggs store, which was great. I loved going to Biggs to buy a bag of Don Pablos tortilla chips. Yum(: I'd get them every time we went. However, that's were the good news ends. Over the internet, I discovred that the Biggs store closed in June of 2008 and the Wonderpark in March of that same year, I went there for one of my birthday celebrations when I was younger. My family and I had moved to Alabama during this time, so I just rescently found out about the time of these closings. I was shocked after what I discovered. Just yesterday the 28th, my mom, dad, and I went to the mall for the first time in months and now it's deader than ever. DEBs clothing is gone and the upper level of Kolhs is closed; you can only enter there through the bottom level. Showcase Cinemas is also closed. They reopened the Biggs wing which was closed last time we visited the mall, I have no idea why. Walking by that old Biggs brought me to tears ;( Truly the saddest story ever and one of the saddest things to ever happen to Cincinnati :(

  26. Has anyone found a Grand Opening flyer for the original Forest Fair mall. I have been searching for historic docs of this mall since I visited last week and haven't found anything.

  27. Does anyone know if there was a flyer published for forest park/cincinnati mills grand opening?

  28. And now it's been rebranded as "Forest Fair Village" ... surely that will save this mall!

  29. Maybe new businesses should enter it, like a paintball arena, or gun range. Maybe even roller girls. Something to get people to go there for an activity that would help bring the retail businesses back to sell to those people.