Article originally published in The Columbus Dispatch | By Marla Rose
Shopping centers have been in the news recently for the wrong reasons as a rush of store closings have triggered a new round of worries about the future of traditional, enclosed malls. The outlook isn’t dreary everywhere, though.
Easton Town Center is thriving, attracting 25 million visitors a year, including developers and designers from around the world looking to replicate its success. Lifestyle centers in places as far flung as Turkey and China have incorporated ideas from Easton.
Constructed in 1999, Easton put a stamp on the “lifestyle” concept, mixing retail, restaurants and entertainment with surrounding housing and offices while giving it all a downtown feel.
It remains the blueprint that many are still trying to copy.
“It becomes a neighborhood. It’s not a shopping center,” said Leslie H. Wexner, founder and chairman of L Brands and the mind behind Easton. “I saw a general trend in the world of people going back to urbanization. The idea that you could build an urban shopping area in a suburban location and have it become a neighborhood on its own is something I thought and thought about. It’s not just a shopping center anymore.”
Downtown Columbus, once the premier shopping destination around the holidays, no longer has a tree-lighting ceremony. The tree lighting held in one of Easton’s “town squares” attracts hundreds of people each year.
“A second generation is starting to come,” said Yaromir Steiner, founder and CEO of Steiner + Associates, Easton’s co-developer and management company. “Traditional malls were temples of buying things. That’s what baby boomers wanted to do. I think now boomers are echoing the younger generation, who seek out experiences.”
Easton’s experiences range from lingering over coffee or a cocktail at one of its dozens of restaurants; playing video games at KDB or watching stand-up at the Funny Bone Comedy Club; and watching children play in the fountains during warm weather. Many retail stores, such as the Lego store and the Apple store, have an experiential element, reflecting an industrywide trend of “retail-tainment.”
Wexner presented the idea of Easton, along with developer Georgetown Company, to a number of major mall developers in the early 1990s. All of them, “at least 10,” Wexner recalls, rejected the idea.
“They thought we were nuts,” Georgetown CEO Adam Flatto recalls of developers’ reactions. Mall developers couldn’t conceive of an open-air shopping center without traditional anchor stores, he said.
Easton’s success quickly became apparent after the first phase opened. Although Easton has been known for years in the retailing and commercial-development industries, it continues to be discovered by national media outlets that find it astounding that such a renowned example of retail development is in Columbus.
“Nearly every aspect of the American shopping experience can be traced back to one second-tier city in the Midwest,” marveled lifestyle website Racked.com this month.
Brian Shafley, CEO of Columbus-based retail strategy and design firm Chute Gerdeman, said Easton is a high-profile example of Columbus’ role as a test market and a place where ideas are perfected for the mass market. His firm has worked on several stores at Easton Town Center.
“Easton is kind of a test market, a template. Brokerage houses visit Easton to see where concepts are headed. Les Wexner has used it as a test market for his brands. Store like Macy’s try new concepts there.”
There have been other open-air shopping centers that replicate an urban neighborhood with housing, offices, hotels and shops, as anyone who remembers the Continent in its 1970s and ’80s heyday can tell you.
Wexner points to Country Club Plaza in Kansas City, which is often credited with being a model for the modern lifestyle center. Built as part of a new suburban housing development in 1922 in the style of a Spanish village, Country Club Plaza today features such upscale brands as Burberry, St. John and Tiffany.
But Easton has taken the concept and made it into a template that appeals to others around the world.
Shafley said his firm often shows off Easton to out-of-town clients and takes new employees there because “it provides a retail education in real terms.”
Wexner laughed at the notion that he would build another Easton, calling it a “one off” for him.
Steiner said Easton has become a “calling card” for him, but he quickly added that he turns down many more projects than he takes on. Among his others are the Greene in Beavercreek and Liberty Center, which opened in 2015 near Cincinnati.
All agree that Easton’s success can’t be bottled and replicated just anywhere. But Wexner said the basic urban-planning ideas that went into Easton can be successfully applied in other suburban and urban areas if there is cooperation between the public and private sectors.
“Development is often limited by what developers can imagine,” Wexner said. “A lot of things don’t stand the test of time.”