Friday, March 1, 2013

Tower Place Mall: An Ugly View of Commerce With a Great View of the City



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- Empty storefronts and an empty food court at Tower Place Mall in downtown Cincinnati, Ohio. At the time these photographs were made, a sole fast food restaurant was the only remaining tenant. Ronny Salerno

If you've ever seen the 1978 horror classic Dawn of the Dead, then you'll feel right at home in Tower Place Mall. Like the setting of George Romero's zombie thriller, this mall is void of people and life. Unlike the film though, the living dead aren't hiding around the corners. Yet, the eerily quiet environment of the mall's promenade is indicative of the film. Dawn of the Dead was more than just a mindless action flick though, it featured a great deal of social commentary regarding modern consumerism at a time when downtown department stores were fleeing for suburban malls all across the United States. Tower Place was an attempt to bring retail back into the city's core, but ultimately the trends of both the urban and suburban environments have left it virtually abandoned.



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- Tower Place street level entrance. Ronny Salerno

These days, the concept of a massive indoor shopping mall is dwindling even in the vast suburban parking lots of which it was born. The most recent trends have called for "big box" retailers to anchor smaller shopping strips with easy freeway access. While a few prominent malls still remain in the metropolitan area such as the Kenwood Towne Center and Florence Mall, others have severely declined. Most notably, Forest Fair Mall/Cincinnati Mills/Cincinnati Mall which was covered on QC/D a few years back. Yet, at one point, mega malls were all the rage. Breaking from the traditional downtown department store, retailers ran for the ever expanding suburbs where parking was plentiful, easily accessible and free for customers. Malls offered a large collection of stores and dining options all in one place. Meanwhile, cities reeling from the loss of the department stores struggled to bring more retailers back downtown. All across America, urban malls were deployed in an attempt to bring all the perceived conveniences of the suburban mall with them.

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- A closed storefront on the mall's second floor. Ronny Salerno

In Chicago, The Water Tower Place had been an example of successfully meshing the shopping mall concept into a dense urban area. It opened in 1975 and became an example for other large American cities to follow. Cities like Cincinnati, Indianapolis and Minneapolis made early forays into replicating the Chicago model with skywalk systems. The skywalks allowed shoppers and patrons to get off of the streets and go about the city in a climate controlled environment, connecting various shopping and attractions. The intention of the skywalk system was to provide the advantages of a traditional shopping mall in the heart of downtown.

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- Another closed storefront. Ronny Salerno

Despite the skywalk connecting downtown businesses and offices, department stores kept leaving. Most notably, the local H&S Pogue Company's downtown flagship store was shuttered after the rest of chain was bought out in the late 80's. A group of developers purchased the shuttered Pogue's property on Fourth and Race streets, demolished the building and set about building Tower Place. The new downtown mall was integrated into the city's iconic Carew Tower and its classis Art-Deco arcade that was also full of shops. In 1991, Tower Place opened and was thriving. It was accessible from not only the Carew Tower, but from the street level and was within close proximity to the city center at Fountain Square. The integration of the old Pogue's parking garage provided convenient and close parking.

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- Light entering the mall's second floor. Cameron Knight.

While shooting an article on the city's skywalk system in 2009, I had walked through and seen Tower Place. Even just four years ago, the mall seemed to be doing ok. It was decorated for Christmas, had an area for kids to meet a man dressed as Santa Claus and featured numerous stores. Now, the mall is a ghost town and only one solitary business remains. If you're a fan of the Subway sandwich chain, you're in luck. If you're looking for anything else, you better look elsewhere.

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- The quiet and empty food court centers around a sculpture and non-working fountain. Cameron Knight.

Cameron and I parked and began walking down the street to the Carew Tower. On the way, we ran into 5chw4r7z and invited him to come along in seeing what was left of the mall. Navigating through the Carew's arcade, we found the entrances to Tower Place, but they were sealed off with rolling metal garage doors. A door next to the locked gateway held a yellowed piece of paper that said "To Tower Place." Shrugging our shoulders, we opened the door and followed more paper signs through some corridors until we reached an entrance into the abandoned mall. This is where the "Dawn of the Dead" feeling set in. According to the mall's published hours, it should've been open half an hour ago, but no one was there - or so we thought. As we started roaming about, we heard a voice utter: "How'd you guys get in here?" We didn't find zombies, but we found mall security.

Startled, we turned around and met one of the mall's security guards who informed us that the mall wasn't supposed to be open that day. However, the owners of the Subway in the food court were planning to open, but wouldn't open till later. We were asked to leave and told we could come back when the mall was open. About an hour later we returned to unlocked doors and a still quiet mall.

Our first stop was to use a restroom that probably hadn't been cleaned in some time. Despite the bright sunlight pouring in from the glass overhead, the only other lights down in the food court came from the Subway. Ironically, this underground Subway actually made it in Cincinnati, unlike our abandoned transit system (see what I did there?). The rest of the food stalls surrounding the dried up water fountain were dark and empty. Their menus still lined the wall, relics of the delicacies they once offered.

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- Former Gold Star Chili. Ronny Salerno


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- Former Sbarro pizza stand. Ronny Salerno


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- Nondescript food stand. Ronny Salerno


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- A closed Great Steak and Potato Company stand. Ronny Salerno


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- Closed Cajun restaurant. Ronny Salerno

Pots held the remains of dead plants and as we photographed the empty commissary, only one other soul stumbled down to the food court - she went over to Subway for a sandwich. Cam, 5chw4r7z and I took the escalators to each of the mall's two other levels. Gone was the Banana Republic, GAP and Victoria's Secret that you pretend not to look into when you walk by. All that remained were locked and empty storefronts.

Occasionally, someone would wander through and each person had the same expression on their face, a look of bewilderment and awe at the stoic, abandoned monument to consumerism around them. One person asked us where the Subway was and we directed him to the eerie food court below. He and his family passed and went off searching for lunch somewhere else.

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- Looking up the center of the mall's promenade towards the skylights. Ronny Salerno


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- The iconic Carew Tower as seen through the mall's skylights. Cameron Knight

In contrast, while we were killing time earlier waiting for the mall to "open" for the day, Cam and I had walked over to Fountain Square to get some food. Chipotle, Panera and Potbelly all had long lines and hardly any empty tables while vendors sold hot dogs on the street. Despite the cold, people were out and about on the square. One of the things the skywalk and mall had tried to do was provide downtowners and visitors with an escape from the weather and the experience of an indoor suburban mall. They disconnected people with the streets. In recent years, Cincinnati has undergone a renaissance throughout its downtown core. At the street level, throngs of people can be found almost any time - while the mall that tried to bring the suburbs to downtown is void of activity. As the urban environment undergoes a revitalization, it's clear that the urban street life has rejected the closed off and secluded shopping center known as Tower Place.

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- What will become of the mall's sculpture is unknown. It looks like a dying flower, perhaps representing the mall itself? Ronny Salerno


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- Self portrait in entrance sign. Ronny Salerno

After exploring the mall, the three of us headed over to the mall's parking garage, which had originally been constructed for the Pogue's department store that had once sat on the same site as the mall. We took an elevator the top level tenth floor to see what kind of view it offered of the surrounding cityscape.

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- Parking garage placard. Ronny Salerno

While Tower Place itself provides an ugly view of abandoned commerce, its adjoining parking garage provides a wonderful view of the city (credit to Cam for this article's title):

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- The view of Cincinnati from the parking garage's tenth story. Ronny Salerno

Just nearby we were in a secluded and empty mall, on top of this garage we were in the heart of downtown and could see life in all directions.

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- Looking north from the parking garage. Ronny Salerno

The garage itself is probably better known for its architectural features rather than being parking for the mall. It features a center column of rotating ramps that create a corkscrew right through its center. According to Cincinnati legend, rollerbladers were once known to tear it up on the winding trip down in an era when malls were popular and so was rollerblading.

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- Looking down the center of the garage. Ronny Salerno


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- Hidden from the street level view, the bridge connecting the Pogue's garage to additional parking above the mall. Ronny Salerno


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- Downtown Hyatt hotel as seen from the garage. Ronny Salerno


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- 5chw4r7z climbing and looking for a new view. Ronny Salerno


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- Garage access stairs. Cameron Knight


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- Looking north towards the convention center pyramid and Hyatt swimming pool. Cameron Knight


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- Fourth St. buildings as seen from the parking garage. Cameron Knight


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- Fourth St. fire escapes as seen from the parking garage. Cameron Knight


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- Ghost sign on buildings as seen from the garage. Ronny Salerno

The mall and its adjoining garage have a limited lease on life though. As Cincinnati's urban renaissance continues at street level, the city has made it clear that the mall isn't featured in those plans. The mall had fallen into recievership in 2010 and was hemorrhaging money according to the Cincinnati Business Courier. In late 2012, the property went up for sale and it was bought by the city of Cincinnati, preventing the mall from being foreclosed upon.

The city's downtown population has continued to grow in recent years. Anxious to help develop more downtown housing options, the city plans to demolish the mall and replace it with a parking garage that will sit atop ground level retail. The adjoining "corkscrew garage" would be demolished and replaced with a 30 story residential tower featuring 300 apartments and a grocery store. This would all be happening just one block South of where Dunnhumby USA is currently building a new corporate headquarters.

- Proposed apartment building and grocery store to replace the Tower Place complex. Rendering provided by City of Cincinnati

The city would contribute $12 Million to the renovation project, but that revenue is relying on another deal: the privatization of the city's parking system. Under the proposed deal, a private company would take over operating and maintaining the city's parking assets, while collecting the revnue from city meters and garages. In turn, the city would recieve an up front sum of $92 Million for the right to operate the parking system. Annual payments from the private operator would continue with the public retaining the right to set meter prices and oversee policy. Such a deal is currently being hotly debated, if it falls through, how it will affect the proposed Tower Place replacement plan is unknown.

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- The crumbling parking garage and the Carew Tower. Ronny Salerno

As the urban renaissance continues, these may be the last days for anyone who wants to relive their 90's glory of hanging out in a mall and rollerblading down the twisting parking garage. If anyone is up for such an inline skating challenge, we'd be happy to join you - cameras in hand and rollerblades on our feet.

15 comments:

  1. Almost perfect day for shooting, it could have been warmer but the air was clear and brilliant.

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    1. That day worked out perfectly from running into you on the street to finding the garage. Get your blades ready, Bob!

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  2. Ummm.... IF I can find my old roller blades, and they still work... I am SO up for this! lol

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    1. As long as you don't use these, you should be fine: http://2.bp.blogspot.com/-2L1WREX3uQM/T-IFTx7imMI/AAAAAAAABKM/UJpMzjzr2Tg/s1600/roller+skates+.jpg

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  3. I've been kicked out of that garage a couple times while enjoying the view. It really is quite nice up there. It'd be great to put a few lawn chairs out in the summertime...maybe a slip-and-slide down the corkscrew.

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  4. It's been so long since I've taken the time to look at the building - and even longer since I've been in it.
    My memory is deceiving me... is the mall itself not physically attached to Carew Tower? If it is, then they'll be tearing down Carew Tower for the new complex?

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  5. The fountain sculpture and paintings at the upper level are tied together as one piece titled, “The Four Seasons” by Robert Kushner.

    More information here:
    http://www.aeqai.com/articles/092009.htm

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  6. I haven't worked downtown since late 2008, but I used to eat in that food court at least once a week, since I worked in the Hilton. In the winter months it was nice to just get something quick to eat, then walk around Tower Place. They had a tiny, crappy bookstore, and a movies/cds store, so I'd browse to eat up my lunch time.

    It's kind of creepy looking at these photos and remembering how much time I used to spend there. I had no idea Tower Place had completely broken down, since it's the last place I'd think to visit downtown when I'm there since I don't work in the same building. That's probably part of the reason why it closed, huh?

    Thanks for another awesome post.

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  7. The Nondescript food stand picture in this article is of a Chik Fil-a. It was also one of the first food vendors to leave the downstairs food court. I believe it closed on October 14th 2011. It always outsold the other food places in the food court. On the last day they were open there was a line from the Chik-Fil-a stand all the way to the escalator and beyond. It was a sad day in Cincinnati and the last time I ate a meal downtown.

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  8. This link: http://www.downtowncincinnati.com/planyourvisit/Category/Establishment.aspx?EstId=509 Says that this mall is now closed for renovation. This true?

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  9. Wow! About 12 years ago when I worked downtown, I visited the food court ALL the time and I would periodically shop in the mall's stores. The place was always crowded during lunch and it's hard to believe it has gone down like this. Coming from Detroit, a city with a downtown that lacks good specialty and deapartment stores, I was a fan of Tower Place. I moved away from Cincinnati in 2003 and I noticed the mall was on the decline around 2006 maybe? When Gap and Banana Republic vacated, it put the mall into a tailspin. With that said, I hope it gets redeveloped soon enough. Downtown Cincinnati really needs a grocery store to support its residents. And no, despite the "all in one" complex, redoing the mall shouldn't affect the tower or the Hilton. I'm sure they'll incorporate it into a residential structure while having some retail space.

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  10. FYI as of July 23rd, the mall is still open (and has security that sits right as you walk in and watches the cameras). Plenty of people still walk through here, but everyone seems to shop at the other mall thats attached to this one.

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  11. If you thought Tower Place reminded you of "Dawn of the Dead," you probably don't remember the old Crestview Hills Mall. That place still the original wallpaper from when my grandmother took me there in the 70's.

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  12. There used to be a place here called Churchill's Tea Room..very small and on the edge of one of the upper floors. Some friends and I would go there in high school in the winter. Beautiful view of downtown and amazing tea. I think they moved to Findlay Market

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  13. So many great childhood memories had in this mall in the mid to late 90's... I recall when Tower Place was a bustling destination of commerce, a symbol of the optimistic 90's. As a child I remember looking down into the food court from floors above and seeing people eating right beside the flowing fountain which I thought was particularly cool (& cool looking). The distribution of shoppers from sharply dressed CEOs, white collar workers with their unique 1990's ties, and the average Joe shopping as well. Parking in the beautiful and structurally intriguing parking garage always made me think of how awesome a chase scene would have been down (or up for that matter) the center spiral.

    The forest green store front with brass trim in the fourth photo shown was a really nice (and always busy) bookstore that I recall always had rolling tables out front during store hours with sale books that patrons eagerly sorted through in hopes of finding something good. Never mind my reading interests at the time were with Curious George in the children's section. The broad selection of daily newspapers inside impressed me as well, imagine, newspapers?!

    Beyond this my most vivid memories of Tower Place were the revolving entrance doors, always so busy and seemingly spinning so fast (to a child anyway) that it was a thrill just to squeeze through with a parent and make it out the other side while an endless cue of people departing from lunch breaks exited through the other side. The narrow escalator from the main floor to the lower level was always choked with customers frequenting the eateries in the lower level food court, and immediately beside the top of said escalator was "The Nature Store"; think Nat Geo, children's science museum, and a nice cafe restaurant all in retail form. Walking up the stairs to the cozy second level inside the store was memorable. "Where else other than department stores had 2 levels in a mall?".

    Lastly, The Magic Shop (though technically in Carew Tower's side of the mall) was my favorite destination and if I was lucky I got to leave with something, from a deck of cards to a magicians starter kit. Purchase or not it was always entertaining to see what tricks the 2 employees behind the glass counter would showcase. It occupied the small postage stamp sized storefront on the second floor of Carew Tower, immediately beside the skywalk leading to Lazarus (now Macy's) and overlooking the street below. At last glance it was occupied by a 'Smoothie King' when visiting the 'Appointments' pen & stationary shop inside.

    Tower Place, you may not be remembered fondly by the youth of today, but to me and those who knew you well, spending their time exploring the shops in your heyday, you will be missed, and all that you echoed of 1990's America.

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