The Cincinnati Mall, while not entirely vacant just yet, is hanging on by a thread. It’s unclear exactly how much longer this mall has, but it’s sad to see such an incredible place on its way out. Walking through this mall is like walking through a dreamworld. Vibrant colors compliment unique architectural elements decorated by playful items like cards and wavy pianos that hang from the ceiling, or fish that float in one of the many atriums inside the mall.
Over the years, the Cincinnati Mall, known currently as Forest Fair Village in 2022, has changed names numerous times. The mall’s former names include Cincinnati Mall, Cincinnati Mills, and Forest Fair Mall. The mall sits in the northern suburbs of Cincinnati, Ohio.
The initial plans were to construct just a standalone Bigg’s, a former hypermarket chain. When Australian developer LJ Hooker stepped in and purchased the property, his plans changed to include a large enclosed shopping mall including other anchor stores, which would be connected to Bigg’s, which would become the mall’s first anchor.
In 1986, plans for construction of the 1.5 million square-foot retail space were underway, placing about 70 percent of the mall in Forest Park, and the other 30 or so in Fairfield. Over the next two years, developers were able to bring in other anchors to commit before construction was started.
Construction of the mall started in 1988, and was carried out over multiple phases between 1988 and 1989. Upon completion, Cincinnati Mall was the second largest mall in the state, right behind Randall Park Mall. Despite its unique design, and high popularity of malls at the time, the Cincinnati Mall almost instantly failed. But how did the second biggest mall in the state of Ohio have such a negative history attached to it? What happened that nearly shut down this mall almost right after it opened?
Issues arose even before the mall was opened, when Higbees withdrew from the project just a month prior to its July 11, 1988 opening date after being purchased by Dillard’s. B. Altman took over the space Higbee’s had left behind, but this left one anchor store vacant, which held up the project’s completion and caused delays in the opening of some areas of the mall. Almost directly after the wing of the mall where Bigg’s was located was completed and ready to open, Elder-Beerman took over the empty space. The mall’s full opening was delayed until March 1, 1989.
However, things weren’t all bad. The Cincinnati Mall was known for having some unique anchors, including Wallaby Bob’s, which boasted that it was “the first brewery-restaurant in the nation that operates in a suburban shopping mall.” The mall also had Koala Klubhouse, which was the first daycare to be licensed to operate within an American shopping mall. The mall came under more negativity from the city of Cincinnati, due to the higher priced stores like Sakowitz and B. Altman not matching the demographic of the area.
Less than a year after opening, the mall’s owner LJ Hooker filed for bankruptcy after losing three anchor stores – B. Altman and Company, Bonwit Teller, and Sakowitz. As far as many were concerned, this immediately spelled disaster for the future of the mall, and it quickly gained a negative reputation. The mall was put up for sale in June 1989 for $200 million. The Cincinnati Mall at this point had already lost 35 percent of its stores, and was struggling to stay in business.
Another factor that played quite heavily into the mall’s downfall was that it had been built so close to both Northgate Mall and Tri-County Mall.
The three department stores that were on their way out started liquidation sales in August 1990.
The mall pushed forward past the bankruptcy and loss of its anchors and was sold to a partnership called FFM Limited in October 1990. This group was actually headed by the same banks that had given LJ Hooker his $250 million loan for construction. The new owners announced that by 1992, they would be rolling out a new concept for the mall, and renaming it as The Shops at Forest Fair. Each wing offered a different theme of shopping. Four different areas were sectioned off. The former Parisian and Elder-Berrman wing had become “The Fashions at Forest Fair,” focusing on apparel and the like. Home decor and sporting goods could be found in the former B. Altman wing, which had been renamed “The Lifestyles at Forest Fair.” The eastern wing, which formerly was home to Bigg’s, had become “The Markets at Forest Fair,” which focused on general services and convenience. The center court, which formerly housed Bonwit Teller, was now “The Festival at Forest Fair,” and offered entertainment and new restaurants.
As more stores moved into the vacant spaces, by 1993 the mall’s vacancy rate dropped as most wings were about 90 percent leased. The only one that fell short was the Lifestyle wing, remaining at only 25% leased. Much of the mall’s empty space was now occupied by stores such as Dawahares, Sam Goody/Suncoast Motion Picture Company and CompUSA. In the food court, both Subway and Hot Dog on a Stick joined around this same time. In Late 1994, Kohl’s took over the former B. Altman store space. This was the first Kohl’s store to open in the Cincinnati market.
In 1995, FFM put the mall up for sale after ownership of only five years. The mall was then purchased by Miami-based company Gator Investments in January 1996. During this same year, Meijer opened across the street from the mall. Over the next few years, the mall would see the closure of Dawahares in 1996, but the addition of Guitar Center, which replaced CompUSA in 1998.
Under ownership by Gator Investments working with Glimcher Realty Trust, who had previously purchased the Montgomery Mall in Alabama, the Cincinnati Mall underwent another renovation between late 1999 and early 2000. At the time of renovations, the mall was attracting some new stores such as Burlington Coat Factory, Bass Pro Shops, and the first Steve & Barry’s store in the state of Ohio. The company also worked to rebrand the modern shopping mall as “a value retail center with new-to-the-market merchants.” During this time, the mall included a nightclub named Metropolis, and a brand new movie theater with stadium seating. The mall was sold to Mills Corporation in 2002, and renamed as Cincinnati Mills. Over the next two years, the mall would undergo a large renovation, and many independently owned businesses would be forced out of the mall. Renovations started almost immediately, with new floors, paint, and signage all throughout the mall. After almost two years, the renovation was complete and the mall reopened in August 2004. The renovation project cost approximately $70 million. With the renovation, Babies “R” Us took over the former Stein Mart space, and Johnny’s Toys took over the upper level of the former Elder-Beerman, as they moved out of the mall in 2003.
By January 2005, things looked good for Cincinnati Mills as overall occupancy reached above 90 percent. However, competition with Northgate and Tri-County malls continued, and by 2006, many stores had started to close. Not helping the case was the addition of the new outdoor mall, Bridgewater Falls, which was built in the nearby city of Hamilton. Many of the larger tenants were filing for bankruptcy, and to make matters even worse, the Mills corporation was involved in an accounting scandal. Way to go.
By 2007, things weren’t looking too great for Cincinnati Mills. Simon Property Group, an American real estate investment trust that invests in shopping malls, outlet centers, and community & lifestyle centers, acquired the entire Mills portfolio during this same year.
While stores continued to close, that didn’t stop North Star Realty from purchasing the mall from Simon in January 2009. The company had planned to convert many areas of the mall for use as office space, and other non-retail operations. The mall’s name was changed to Cincinnati Mall in April 2009.
Stores continued to steadily close their doors, with various mixed uses coming and going in some of the former warehouse store spaces. Around this same time, the cinema was closed. As the property owners had become delinquent on their taxes, the mall was sold to Cincinnati Holding Company in 2010.
Numerous ideas for reuse were walked about, including the idea of opening ice skating rinks in the former Bigg’s store, but none of the plans were ever put into action. Guitar Center was closed, and Bass Pro Shops announced they were planning to relocate in 2013. At this time, the mall was once again renamed to Forest Fair Village. In the same year, the mall lost Burlington Coat Factory. At this point, it was far out of reach to attempt any kind of redevelopment, as stores were dropping left and right, and unpaid taxes continued to pile up.
Only four things remained by 2017 – Kohl’s, Bass Pro Shops, an arcade, and a children’s entertainment complex. During this year, the mall was put up for sale by a brokerage team, but the mall remains in the hands of the Cincinnati Holding Company today.
The owners have been cited numerous times by inspectors for the city of Cincinnati, for code violations including graffiti and sealed emergency exits. From 2020 to 2021, people started to notice that Amazon was using the former mall’s parking lot to stage their deliveries, and even leaving piles of trash, and broken down and destroyed amazon vans behind. In 2022, officials from Butler and Hamilton County submitted demolition plans to the state of Ohio, estimated to cost $9.5 million. They are seeking funds from the state to complete the demolition and rid the area of the mall. There have been talks of converting the property for light industrial use, but as of October 2022, there are no plans set in motion to demolish or do anything else with the mall.