Welcome to the Forefront of the Housing Crisis, Cincinnati, Columbus and Indianapolis

It’s kinda nice to read a story about the housing crisis that isn’t set in my backyard (Cleveland) for once.

This time, my hometown of Columbus is front and center in the sad story of houses without owners. A neighborhood in west Columbus was found to have the highest vacancy rate in the country, according to an Associated Press analysis, based on Housing and Urban Development and Postal Service data.

This is kinda unusual because Columbus is generally regarded to be the golden child of Ohio in these parts.

I know the Columbus neighborhood well. It is generally referred to as Westland, after the grand, suburban mall that once stood at the center of the community. Even the neighborhood high school is named Westland High School.

westland-mall-02

When my grandfather was building interstate highways in the 60s, they built Route 23, Broad Street, right through this neighborhood and it was the place to be.

Even when I was in middle school, we used to hang out at the mall and drink Orange Julius. But then, the some mall developers decided to build new malls in the newer, trendier, farther-away suburbs and you know what happened after that.

Columbus retail tycoon Les Wexner spent a bizillion dollars building Easton. I think this was one of the first “lifestyle center malls.” He built it in a farmtown he personally converted into a first-rate McMansion patch called New Albany.

Nobody wants to go to indoor malls anymore. Don't get me started on this.

Easton: The best thing to ever happen to malls

Anyway,  few years ago, they started having gun shows in Westland Mall, it was so empty. I think they recently tore it down, as they have venerable old Northland and soon-to-be demolished City Center.

RIP Northland

RIP Northland

I’m tempted to pick on Columbus, but I guess you really can’t blame them. The new malls, with the exception of one, were built outside city limits, and I’ve got to credit Columbus with the shrewd maneuvering it took to annex Polaris Mall.

I'm pretty sure this mall is already suffering

I'm pretty sure this mall is already suffering

Columbus is a mall town if there ever was one.

I heard an urban theorist say the malls are the new downtowns and I think he has a point. Development, residental and retail, follows these malls like those little fish that eat the scraps from sharks. He said malls were like downtowns with all the “scary people” removed.

So there’s my account of the undoing of Columbus’ Westland neighborhood.

Funny thing about this new study is Indianapolis, which along with Columbus, has managed to avert the massive population declines that have plagued its neighbors, also fared poorly.

Cincinnati’s Over-The-Rhine neighborhood gets prominent play as well. Story authors say  despite recent development, the neighborhood is still suffering from population declines that occurred in the 1980s.

Of course, Buffalo and Flint get mentioned in the article too.

7 Comments

Filed under Urban Planning

7 responses to “Welcome to the Forefront of the Housing Crisis, Cincinnati, Columbus and Indianapolis

  1. Indianapolis doesn’t have an ‘Over the Rhine’ type neighborhood. Where most of its empty areas are were mostly due to ‘white flight’ of the 1960’s (Mapleton Fall Creek ), rather than job losses in the 1980’s. The interesting thing is watching the demographic shift. Once poor, downtown neighborhoods are now affluent, and once middle class “near burbs” are now poor with lots of section 8 housing, as poorer downtown residents were forced further away from the city core. Malls in the near burbs die while the downtown mall thrives.

    Indianapolis has sufferred from overbuilding more than anything else as it just keeps expanding. FYI: I am moving from my Urban Neighborhood in Indy to Cincinnati because frankly our historic neighborhoods are pretty much restored and I see great opportunty in Cincinnati and my Indy neighborhood looks more like a ‘Stepford Wives’ suburbia now than an Urban neighborhood minutes from downtown, I like diversity.

    If the city will ‘get out of the way’ of historic preservationists and “urban pieoneers” OTR could look very different. The problem is the city holds most of the property and only wants to work with prefferred developers. the only thing holding OTR back is the city. But I look for OTR and West End to do the same thing Indy did. The downtown Urban “ghettos” become affluent and the near burbs/townships will become poorer. There will be a battle to keep the poor there but in the end they will get moved out. Perhaps not “politically correct” to say but true.

    It is only a matter of few years before we are talking about suburban McMansions being converted to section 8 apartments. People who used to pan downtown areas will lament that they didn’t buy when it was affordable. Demographic shifts, downtown charter and private schools will cause a shift back to the city core as people get tired of 2 hour commutes, suburban sprawl and dare-I- say-it, the poor being pushed into their “enclaves of civility”. “White Flight” of this century will be the affluent returning to the city core.

    The poor will just be shuffled around as they always are, Sad but true,

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  3. Just a few points of clarification… the “neighborhood” that the article is referring to is mostly one single mega apartment complex called Wingate Villages. According to this Dispatch article:

    At Wingate Village, only one in five units — 352 of 1,712 apartments — is occupied. And that’s up from last year’s 12 percent occupancy rate, said Bert Hyman, a project manager for property owner Matrix Realty.

    That doesn’t mean that the Westland area around is in good shape… but that individual anomaly apartment complex vastly skews the numbers for this area.

    Also, Easton Town Center is built within Columbus, not New Albany. New Albany is where Les Wexner makes his home, and has some major real estate investment and redevelopment going on there. But the mall itself is actually located within the outerbelt and is within the city of Columbus boundaries, which bodes well for our tax base.

    As for Westland, it hasn’t been torn down… yet. there’s been talk over the past few years of a major overhaul (that would probably include a total demolition) but as of right now, it’s still open and operating.

    Despite the problems with our cannibalistic mall culture, there has been a recent resurgence in Columbus in terms of more urban shopping destinations and urban infill projects.

    The Short North is a thriving retail district filled with unique boutique shops.

    Grandview Yard recently broke ground on Phase One, which is a large mixed-use development that will include a significant retail component and is located on a former abandoned grocery store warehouse site in between Downtown Columbus and Grandview Heights (a historic, dense inner-ring suburb).

    And last but not least, the City Center Mall Downtown is currently being razed to make room for Columbus Commons, a short-term greenspace, long-term mixed-used development that will bring new retail life back to where a suburban mall structure used to stand.

    So yeah… long story short… boo for Wingate Villages, hooray for a lot of other good things happening in Columbus. 😉

    • schmange

      I agree. Tons of good stuff happening in Columbus.

      Also, thanks for the correction about Easton. That doesn’t change the fact that the taxpayers subsidized his development to the tune of tens of millions by building I-680 E to a farm community so that he could establish a retail empire thereby destroying established Columbus shopping centers and neighborhoods. Then the city turns around and asks taxpayers to pay for demolitions and revitalization campaigns in Northland and Westland.

      City Center Mall was a gorgeous, ideally located place to shop. I still can’t believe they are tearing it down. Poor planning. Poor regional planning. But Columbus does a better job at that than most cities in Ohio. Columbus still has a healthy tax base because its leaders were forward-thinking enough to annex most of Franklin County.

  4. I agree that subsidizing development that cannibalizes other development is a bad move overall, but many times there isn’t a good alternative. If Columbus had not worked with Wexner on Easton, he would have just built it just outside the city border in another community with their assistance. So not only would we still have the negative impact on other regional retail centers, but Columbus would also lose out on the taxes collected from the development.

    Damned if you do, damned if you don’t. 😦

    I can’t say that I agree with you about City Center being gorgeous though. The interior was nice enough in its heyday, but the exterior is just as ugly as any other windowless suburban mall fortress. City Center was constructed as something where people could drive, park in a garage, enter the mall through a skywalk or stairwell, and shop without ever setting foot outside. This killed sidewalk vibrancy and closed many older businesses in the area that relied on traditional urban foot traffic.

    It took a good 15 years for people to realize that this model doesn’t work well in an urban environment, and I was actually hoping that after City Center was closed that it could be retrofitted as more of an outward-facing structure. It sounds like that was considered, but deemed too costly for any private developer to want to invest in. I think the plan to tear it down is a bit sad and wasteful, but in the long term will pay off, as we’ll be reclaiming the massive 9-acre site in a more urban mixed-use fashion that the area should have been built like to begin with.

    • schmange

      I agree with almost everything you’ve said. Columbus did the best it could and sprawl was inevitable. Sometimes I wish the state government would be more progressive about disincentivising these destructive policies. But I’m not holding my breath.

      Did you ever go inside City Center during Christmas during it’s heyday? It was really beautiful. They used to have live music in the center and when I was a kid my violin class performed. It was a very fun place to go and it belonged to everyone in the city, not just the wealthy.

      I know these new lifestyle center malls are the trend, and I guess it’s nice that they’re outside. But this is Ohio. It also kind of irks me the way they try to recreate a downtown atmosphere in the middle of nowhere. I wish there was more of a preservationist approach and less new building and tearing down. But that’s part of what drives retail.

  5. Yeah, I have a few memories of City Center and Lazarus during Christmas as a kid. I grew up in Marysville, just outside of Columbus, and we’d head down there from time to time.

    The preservation approach has worked quite well in The Short North, which started as a bohemian arts district and has turned into a full-blown mixed-use neighborhood with a variety of art galleries, restaurants, bars, and boutique shopping. There’s a few new buildings in the area, but it’s mostly dominated by historic architecture that is being re-used. It’s great to have a shining example of how well something like that can work, because other neighborhoods are starting to catch on to building more walkable, dense commercial districts.

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