Monday, September 10, 2018

The Continent

When a "lifestyle center" lacks "life."

- The Continent, Columbus.

I used to work for a high-end electronics company that’s known to be pretty selective about where it establishes retail locations. While unpacking a shipment one day, my coworker and I had a discussion about how our employer had only one store in the entire greater-Cincinnati area. To date, the region is still only graced by one of our former employer’s locations, but at the time, speculation was rampant that we’d open up a second shop in this new “lifestyle center” that was being built.

“So, it’s a mall,” he said.

“No, not exactly,” I replied, sounding like a suburban politician.

“It’s a ‘lifestyle center.’”

- Promotional image of Liberty Center in Liberty Township, Ohio. Image via them.

Liberty Township's Liberty Center complex is the latest lifestyle center in Southwest Ohio. The place features a two-story mall with a traditional food court that's connected, via a manufactured street grid, to sidewalks lined with other stores, high-end apartment buildings, hotels, and even green space. It may sound like an urban planner’s SimCity-induced dream on the surface, but these complexes are generally surrounded by swaths of asphalt, far-flung into the exurbs, and disconnected from public transportation and pedestrian accommodations. They’re not real cities, they just look like them.

Unlike their retail forefathers, the lifestyle center somewhat embraces specific ideals of urban environments, but on a synthetic level. They mimic neighborhoods, but only superficially. For many communities, this is the “thing” now. This concept replaced the vision of the mall, just as the mall replaced the hope of the strip center, and the strip center replaced the bold ideas of the post-war shopping plaza.

Driving out of Cincinnati and up Interstate 75, you’ll pass suburban community after suburban community that has had its former retail fortunes cannibalized by newer gimmicks. Even in nearby West Chester, Ohio, you can see the attempt at building a city square-style development only partially occupied after just 1/4 of the structures were built. Another shopping complex, the “Streets of West Chester,” still seems to do relatively well, but isn’t built out to the grandiose extent of its up-highway Liberty Center neighbor. A bit further down the highway, you have another chapter in the ongoing suburban retail war saga: the long languishing Forest Fair Village/Cincinnati Mall/Cincinnati Mills/Forest Fair Mall.

Time will tell how, if, and to what extent the lifestyle center trend will succeed. As of this writing, the complex seems like a roaring economic engine. Liberty Center has attempted to utilize tactics that traditional malls simply could never pull off even in their heyday: features such as holiday parades and rentable public space that can host anything from faith services to yoga classes. Unlike the indoor malls, a development like this can adjust, accommodate, and re-envision (in theory and to an extent). It’s a lot easier to hide empty space and save face in a lifestyle center. The building materials, though, leave one to question the future. Can something so cheaply built still look good, modern, and appealing in ten, twenty, or thirty years? Will people still want to live, shop, and dine here or will the next big shopping center design take over? Will there even be a demand for massive collections of retail as a destination?

There are a lot of outside factors that can determine a lifestyle center’s success, but if you want two starkly different examples, simply look North of the latest one in Cincinnati. At The Greene near Dayton, people have been bustling along the fake avenues for years, but at The Continent in Columbus, well, there’s no one.

I’m not an urban planner, nor am I from Columbus. I can recount my visit to The Continent’s current existence, but to get the full picture you may want to do some external reading. Public Radio Station WOSU has a great piece and several local Reddit users have recounted their memories of more successful eras. What it boils down to is this: The Continent was a bit ahead of its time and and fell victim to local competitors offering the latest version of the same thing.

The term “lifestyle center” was coined by some Memphis, Tennessee developers in the late 80s. In an article from Slate, journalist Andrew Blum describes how malls “went undercover,” bucking the concept of indoor, air-conditioned corridors for outdoor spaces that accommodate shopping, living, and dining. In "The Latest Incarnation of the Shopping Mall," he wrote:

“This new look may remind you of something: a vibrant urban street. Yet, while these new malls may appear to be public space, they're not public at all—at least if you want to do anything but shop. They represent a bait-and-switch routine on the part of developers, one that exchanges the public realm for the commercial one.”

The 2005 article also points out that so far, these things had been incredibly successful. As of 2018, many of them still are. Tucked into a corner where I-71 meets I-270 in northern Columbus, The Continent isn't the retail concept's most shining example, though.

The development was ambitious. Designed to look like a village, the place had architectural elements inspired by French culture, or at least, from what Americans might assume Parisian neighborhoods to be like.

By day, the retail spaces had their cash registers clanging as national chains stood next to local businesses. There was even an open-air market once. Movie theaters, arcades, and other entertainment of the era rounded out the attractions.

At night, bars and restaurants provided an impressive selection appealing to those who wanted fine dining, partying, or both.

And you could live among it all, with a high-end apartment above the streetscape.

- The Continent in 2018.

From what I’ve read, The Continent seemed to be the place from its debut in 1972 until the early 90s. Then came new shopping centers known as Easton and Polaris. Trends changed, the national economy ebbed and flowed, Downtown got a new district, and real, actual neighborhoods started to invest in themselves again. Now, The Continent looks less like a thriving example of what Americans perceive a European promenade to be and more like the abandoned blocs of Soviet housing that we might see in a Tom Clancy inspired thriller.

The internet has varying opinions. The Continent today is either a totally safe, fine place to visit/live, or its a den of thievery with danger around every corner. The vast amount of recollections, though, describe it simply as “peculiar.”

The only threat Nate and I were really worried about was my car’s tires. Pulling into the vast, empty parking lot, it was clear that the driving surface wasn’t maintained. Glass and debris littered the cracked and decaying asphalt. Our first stop was the shopping center’s once prominent-turned-discount movie theatre. According to the sign by the road, the theatre was still open, but locked doors and years-old movie posters seemed to indicate otherwise.

As I’ve come to learn, “Screens at the Continent” is still going with a collection of first run, second run, and Bollywood films.

In the central plaza, a long dry fountain sat quietly among what seemed like an apocalyptic landscape. For quite awhile, until a skateboarder rambled through and attempted to jump some stairs, there were no other people around except us. The nearby dining establishments and bars were either permanently closed or not yet open for the nightlife crowd. Down a corridor, former retail spaces were lined with business names printed out via Microsoft Word. The independent travel agencies and call centers were a far cry from the high-end businesses that once called this place home, but it appeared even they had fled.

Around one corner, we came across another plaza, its centerpiece of shrubbery overgrown as a bronze statue still rose from the center.

Per the plaque we found nearby: "Le Poilu" is an "authentic French sculpture." One that was "created in 1919 by E.W.G. Benet." and "initially dedicated by the artist to the tens of thousands of elderly French soldiers who died in the trenches during the First World War."

How and why this artwork ended up here, I'd like to know.

While most of the retail slots are abandoned, the apartments seem to hold some occupancy. When walking the narrow, European-style streets, we’d hear dogs bark out from above and a curious child watched us wander about as we snapped our photographs and took things in. DirectTV dishes lined the former walkways in front of peeling paint below the rumble of window air conditioning units.

The out-of-date pastel colors peeling off of the buildings can make them look worse-for-wear. Depending on which review site you’re looking at and what name the dwellings were operating under at the time, the apartments seem to get mixed to low marks. Cheap rent seems to be the main appeal, but the internet is rife with comments warning about violence, drug activity, bed bugs, and poor upkeep. Even if that perception isn’t the full reality, the crumbling facades of cheap construction do the complex no favors.

We ended up passing a few people, which would break up the eerie silence, mostly local kids walking about and a few politely nodding folks carrying groceries form their cars. The only area we purposely avoided was walking through the tunnel that runs beneath the buildings and connects two parking lots. Dark with little to no lighting, the thing seemed to be a catch-all for debris and trash that’s come rustling across the parking lot via the suburban winds.

- The tunnel that runs beneath The Continent.

The decorative details holding up the lighting fixtures haven’t aged well. Despite the banners proclaiming it to be the “French Quarter,” this place is a far cry from the sights of New Orleans.

“What...was that?” Nate said of the place as we got in the car to leave.

The experience of walking through The Continent can only simply be called "bizarre." The nearby area, mostly industrial, has roads and restaurants with activity, but as soon as you enter into The Continent’s corridors, it’s quiet and a world of its own. An abandoned monument of past consumer trends.

- The Continent's vending machines know no brand loyalty, nor do they work.

Even with my other adventures in decaying retail and suburban decline, I can’t say I’ve ever come across a place as unique or as curious as this place.

Like so many other suburban-style shopping centers that have fallen victim to “the next big thing,” the remains of The Continent occasionally get a press release or vague news about “redevelopment” plans, but nothing seems to take root or or hold water. Sadly, it’s not like this place really “did anything wrong.” It was a “lifestyle center” before the term was even coined. It was designed to avoid the things that can plague indoor malls. It attempted to bring people in for a diverse amount of reasons. It was intended to be sustainable. However, as The Continent continues to sit as a relic of consumer temptation, maybe it tells a story of what can and will happen to similar developments elsewhere.

How long until the aforementioned Liberty Center is The Continent? How long until your local lifestyle center begins to trend downwards and can no longer hide behind its facade of discount construction, failing to keep pace with evolving trends?

Or will some of these places survive long-term, becoming the community centers and city streets they’re intended to be?

The Continent offers up one potential outcome.

Special thanks to longtime reader, Ana, for encouraging us to check this place out.


  1. Great work, as usual. Fun fact, there was a Yucatan Liquor Stand at The Continent, run by the same ownership as the Yucatan in the Covington Landing. Similar fate to that of the Covington Landing as well; popular in the 90's only to decline into what we have today.

    1. Thanks!

      Interesting, was Yucatan Liquor Stand a big chain?

    2. Looks like they were. There was one in Findlay, OH and Louisville too.

    3. Interesting. Not that Cincinnati, Columbus, and Louisville are exotic locales with thriving nightlife culture of the 90s, but Findlay Ohio seems like an interesting choice...