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Cincinnati wants to revitalize dead downtown mall

CINCINNATI -- A once-thriving downtown Cincinnati mall stands out for the wrong reasons: it's big, largely empty and has been left out of six years of major revitalization in the area.

The city is stepping in and trying to buy the foreclosed Tower Place mall, which sits next to the city's bustling Fountain Square, a place where families go to ice-skate, couples go on dates and young people hang out. Tower Place is shunned by most of those visitors.

The city recently approved using $8.6 million from a parking fund to buy the mall. Officials want to negotiate a deal with the owner and the court administering the foreclosure.

If the sale goes through, the city wants developers to come up with a plan to integrate the large, inward-facing space into a downtown that's more pedestrian-friendly and open than ever. That could mean retail, residential, office space, or a combination of them all.

“This is a critical area in the city's development,” city spokeswoman Meg Olberding said. “Right now as it stands, it's lost its tenants, its vitality ... it doesn't fit in with the rest of the growth that's happening downtown.”

The city also plans to keep the more than 1,600 parking spaces on the site and add about 250 more in an effort to attract residential developers who need to provide parking to tenants.

The city has pumped hundreds of millions of dollars into a major transformation that's still under way.

It began in 2006 with the reopening of downtown's central Fountain Square after a $49 million renovation.

Developers have spent more than $600 million on new apartments, restaurants and a park in the half-mile space between the Bengals and Reds stadiums.

A $322 million, 41-story office tower that's now the city's tallest opened last year.

And on Monday, a 156-room boutique hotel had its grand opening following a $51 million renovation.

Also in the works is a streetcar connecting several popular downtown-area spots slated to open in 2015 and a $400 million downtown casino set to open in the spring.

In the nearby Over-the-Rhine historic district, dozens of shabby but beautiful buildings have been transformed into bars and restaurants popular among yuppies and hipsters, and a once crime-prone park underwent a $48 million overhaul to become one of the city's favorite spots for concerts, outdoor movie viewings and flea markets.

As those projects thrive, popular retailers like Banana Republic, Victoria's Secret and Chick-fil-a fled from Tower Place mall, which sits in the heart of it all.

Just a handful of businesses still operate at Tower Place, and foot traffic is low even during the holidays.

“It's one of the negatives for downtown,” said David Ginsburg, president and CEO of Downtown Cincinnati Inc., a nonprofit advocate for downtown and its businesses.

“Downtown is in the midst of a real renaissance,” Ginsburg said. “For the city to acquire that property and ultimately find developers who have a vision and idea of how to bring that very important location into the 21st century, it's a great thing.”

Tower Place opened in 1991 with initial success, but it went the way of many downtown malls across the country; in Philadelphia, St. Louis, Columbus and beyond, populations became more decentralized, more competition opened in suburbs, and consumer tastes changed, causing many urban malls to either close or sit mostly empty.

In Columbus, for example, the city took over its largely abandoned downtown mall and demolished it in 2009 in favor of a park as part of a large-scale revitalization project.

Like Tower Place, Columbus' mall also was an enclosed, inward-facing space that didn't flow with its surroundings.

Dorothy Baynes, a 45-year-old paralegal who was walking through Tower Place on Monday on her way to the dentist, said she used to go to the mall to spend the day shopping and getting lunch in the area, and would bring her kids to see Santa at a department store at Christmas time.

She stopped going in the late 1990s as stores began closing and she found larger malls in her area of town.

“It's dead here,” Baynes said. “All the stores are gone. You're better off going to the mall where you can get all the stores in one location.”

Melissa Must, a 51-year-old Dayton resident who commutes to Tower Place every weekday to run her coffee shop, Crema de Cup, said she hopes that the city moves quickly to improve the mall and attract trendy stores, like an H&M.

Her business has been able to survive where others have failed because her customers are largely downtown business people, and they have been steady over the years, Must said.

“I've been here for 10 years, and I've seen everything go out over there,” she said. “It's scary.”

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