Builder’s Market

A building boom is poised to bring new stores—even fancy, stone covered ones—to west side shopping centers. But is it all really necessary?
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The sign announces “Coming Soon Western Hills Plaza,” which stops me every time I see it. The large shopping center sprawled behind the sign is Western Hills Plaza and has been there since its grand opening on November 15, 1954. True, the plaza is undergoing significant construction to make way for a new Target that will sit smack in the middle. But come on, it’s pretty much the same place it’s always been.

Still, the sign is a sign of a retail revolution erupting on the west side. For years—for decades, maybe even forever—folks on this side of town have complained about our lack of shopping convenience and selection. So you’d think that the buzz about a number of new retail centers would spark a lot of enthusiasm. Though I’ve taken no quantitative surveys and conducted not a single focus group, what I’ve heard people say in person, in the newspaper, and on Web forums is: not really.

In fact, we’re a little bugged about it.

Since 2005, west-siders have battled the plan to put a retail complex called Legacy Place on Harrison Avenue in Dent; a plan to build another retail center on the 3.5-acre property formerly occupied by Glenway Dodge, announced at the end of last year, has inspired more indifference than vitriol, though the prospect of yet another strip mall along the busy corridor isn’t seen as a particularly good thing; and news of the possible sale of Western Bowl, one of our most venerated landmarks, to a retail developer ignited a mixture of shock and outrage. Tear down an icon to build more stores while so many sit empty? What’s going on?

Those of us who aren’t quite as upset still have to wonder about the sudden bonanza of new places to shop. With gas, energy, and food prices soaring, banks foreclosing, Wall Street suffering, and the economy generally recessing, Americans are buying less, forcing retailers to trim staffs while concocting no end of incentives to get customers to cross their chiming thresholds. It seems like a bad time for a building boom.

Not to mention an unlikely place for one. When I was a kid, my mom led my brothers and me on several bus excursions per year to the big stores downtown. Shillito’s, Pogue’s, Mabley & Carew—we’d hit them all. In later years, when west-siders sought selection, they packed a lunch and headed for Kenwood or Tri-County. Eventually Northgate Mall opened on Colerain Avenue, but that’s hardly the west side and definitely a trek for someone traveling from Price Hill or Delhi.

The main reason we’re in a retail desert: poor highway access. No one’s going to build a big mall on the west side because only west-siders will be able to get to it easily. Also, we’re stereotyped as a frugal bunch—tight-fisted folk who won’t support upscale shopping. Sure, there have been attempts to appease us, but truth be told, they’ve mostly failed. The Glenway Crossing retail area came in with a parade of significant anchors and lots of fanfare. At last! Good stores! A few have done well—Best Buy, Dick’s, Cost Plus World Market. But after only a decade or so, the place looks more like Tombstone than Park Avenue. Farther north on Glenway, Western Woods Mall struggled for many years, re-inventing itself every so often in hopes of attracting shoppers. But before the wrecking ball arrived, you could have safely plotted to kill the president in the middle of the center promenade; privacy would not have been a concern. Today the property is divided between a Home Depot and a Dillard’s.

Other strip centers have come and gone—or, more often, come and then slowly eroded into empty storefronts, with the occasional down-market budget box (Big Lots, Family Dollar) hanging on by a thread. And so it is, then, that we watch the construction of the “new” Western Hills Plaza with a gimlet eye.

THE PLAZA’S RENOVATION, if not eagerly anticipated, seems to be OK with us; at least the plaza is already, well, Western Hills Plaza, so stores aren’t being created from scratch. According to the site plan for the center, the new Target appears to be roughly the size of Vermont (all right, 137,000 square feet, to be exact). With the Target scheduled to open next March, the new-and-improved plaza may regain its place as the retail vortex of the west side. East-siders claim that, in fact, there is no such vortex, which is why they always get lost over here. But if a central hub can be said to exist, it has long been Western Hills Plaza.

Centro Properties owns the plaza, along with the Western Village shopping complex across the street, which got a facelift when the Kroger moved over there awhile back. We certainly can hope for a revival. The plaza still sprawls in a convenient location and has a more substantial look than the average strip mall. It also has a long history, opening in the first wave of suburban retail centers when Cincinnati, like many cities throughout the country, expanded during a much more optimistic era than the one we’re in today.

Like many shopping centers built in the 1950s and ’60s in what were then spanking new ’burbs, the Western Hills Plaza has slowly declined. The days when anchors Mabley & Carew and McAlpin’s stood proudly at either end—while between them stood two grocery stores, a Woolworth’s, a Walgreen’s, and a host of smaller specialty shops, not to mention a cozy breezeway perfect for teen loitering—are long gone. For years now, it’s been way too easy to get a parking spot close to the stores. The likes of Pier One have fled while TJ Maxx, Deals discount store, and Payless Shoes, among others, remain, suggesting that today’s crowd isn’t seeking a bountiful retail experience so much as a cheap one. 

FORGIVE MY DOUBTS that Western Hills Plaza 2.0 will ever recapture its former glory. Though it may provide more than adequate shopping, the west side simply has moved on. Or rather, moved west. And north. Its new commercial heart beats loudly on Harrison Avenue in Dent.

Some places are aptly named, and Dent is one of them. The name is usually credited to Charles Reemelin, a successful farmer, vintner, businessman, and politician who lived in the area through much of the 19th century. The less-than-lyrical moniker referred to the area’s topography, which certainly boasts plenty of dents. Even those of us in oh-so-cosmo Bridgetown looked down on the people who lived amid Dent’s trees and hollows. You could say that we were, to use a Seinfeld-ian term, anti-Dentites. But these days, Dent, if not exactly “swinging like a pendulum do,” has become a key shopping area with new establishments breaking ground all the time.

The problem of topography hasn’t so much been solved as ignored. Widespread residential development in the area has sparked interest from retail developers, who have built at the bottom and top of Dent’s steep hills. Actually getting into the shopping centers requires braving declivities and escarpments worthy of Machu Picchu.

Still, the boil of traffic on any given day suggests that business is booming. Locals, however, aren’t eager for more. In fact, they’re fighting it. The most notorious case in point: Legacy Place. In May 2005, Blue Ash–based developer Silverman & Company announced a plan for an upscale retail complex on 106 acres along Harrison Avenue and Filview Circle. The plan included a park, amphitheater, and ball fields, along with high-quality stores and restaurants in what the Silverman Web site calls a “main street concept.” No eyesore strip mall this. Rumor had it we’d even get a decent bookstore on this side of town, which, I admit, made it a tempting prospect for me. Many of my fellow citizens were less enthused. At public meetings, on Internet message boards, and in the Western Hills Press, they complained about the traffic and congestion a retail center of that size would cause. “Don’t let Harrison Avenue become another Colerain Avenue” became an anthem of those opposed, a warning that Colerain’s cacophony of suburban blight—a succession of strip malls, store signs, and traffic—would scar the growing area.

Whichever side one takes in the Legacy Place fight, the Harrison corridor, and the west side in general, don’t seem to be in desperate need of new stores. Right across the street from the proposed Legacy Place property, Manchester Plaza strip mall isn’t a ringing success. Opened in the 1980s with the high excitement only a new Kmart could create, the plaza now limps along with the likes of Dollar Tree, Dollar General, Aldi, a vacant anchor space, an office of the Bureau of Motor Vehicles, and a Chinese all-you-can eat buffet. It’s not exactly a commercial developer’s dream lineup when the priciest place in a mall is the BMV.

More to their point, those opposing Legacy Place fear that Green Township is becoming less and less green. Though the plan includes a park, for which the state granted $500,000 to the township, a group called Safe Clean Green remains entrenched against the project. Beyond the proliferation of unneeded retail, the group and its supporters oppose destroying 100 acres of forested area and the streams running through it. The EPA is scheduled to rule later this year on the impact of changing the flow of streams on the property.

Tracy Winkler, chair of the Green Township Board of Trustees, says growth along the Harrison corridor is being managed carefully. “Most of that property is zoned retail or land use retail,” she says. “What we’re trying to do is either partner with developers or gather up property for green space. We value our green space as much or more than the development. What people want is a nice balance. They want it to look nice. As we redevelop these properties we’ll be able to do that.”

As far as the number of empty stores and suffering strip centers already among us, Winkler says the situation is common in all areas and that redevelopment of these properties not only creates renewed interest but also more aesthetically pleasing properties. She notes the Glenway Dodge property as an example: “Any property that redevelops is going to look better than it does now and that improves the community.”

In its current state, the old Glenway Dodge property isn’t exactly a garden spot. Having existed as a car dealership for more than 60 years, it could use a nip and tuck or two. When it was taken under contract in late November of last year, west-siders didn’t shed many tears. Though originally projected to open this fall, ground has yet to be broken. According to Dave Metz, vice president of land sales and acquisition for NAI Bergman, which manages the property, tenants have already committed to what will be a 10,000-square-foot strip center, including, among others, a Chipotle restaurant and a T-Mobile store. The property will also include a second building still seeking a tenant, either a restaurant or a bank. Building will begin later this year and the center will open next spring, Metz says. 

“It’s a traditional strip center, but it’s upscale in that it has a lot of stone in it,” he says. “It’s a center that doesn’t look like anything else over there.” I guess almost anything would look better than the barren car lot, though we’ll wait and see if a center with a lot of stone really rises above the rest. Because it’s smaller than Western Hills Plaza and the Legacy Place property, Metz isn’t concerned about competition from other retail projects, such as the one that stirred up the locals back in May—Western Bowl.

WEST-SIDERS GRABBED their scythes and pitchforks (and I’m being metaphorical here, east-siders) when word leaked that one of our area’s most hallowed institutions could soon be turned to rubble. If Cincinnatians don’t come to this side of town to shop, they sometimes come to bowl. With 68 lanes, Western Bowl is the city’s largest bowling center. Built in 1958, it was purchased by the Hoinke family in 1962 and since 1970 has hosted the renowned Hoinke Classic bowling tournament. The property also includes Cancun Mexican Restaurant, Fehr-Calhoun Bowler’s Corral, Royal Trophy Hair Design, and General Custer’s Golf and Gulp.

In May, Russell Hoinke mentioned on the Professional Bowler’s Association’s online discussion forum that Knoxville-based Azure US, Inc., has retained an option to purchase the seven-acre site for retail development. According to a number of media reports, the proximity of the new Target store, the continued growth of the area, and the availability of possible tenants should the Legacy Place deal flow unimpeded downstream, make the property attractive. Hoinke said on the PBA forum that no deal has been struck yet, and that the option expires at the end of the year, but the land value is five times more than the value of the business.

Surely no one can begrudge the family a chance to turn a profit, but who would be happy to see Western Bowl turn into yet another clump of stores? True, many of the people who have written to local papers and Web sites to publicly note their ire admit they haven’t actually bowled there in quite some time, leading busy lives and all, but ah, the memories they hold dear of strikes and spares past.

And maybe that’s mostly what we’re doing in objecting to our retail boom—holding on to the past, resisting change just because it’s change. Having spent many years on the west side, I don’t like the thought of Western Bowl or the forests of Dent turning into a whole a lot of new stores that we really don’t seem to need. But Paul Ruffing, president of the Green Township Historical Association, provided some perspective for me, noting that times do, in fact, change. “I could parallel this with what happened in the 1930s, ’40s, and ’50s,” he says. “Before then, this area was mostly farmland. But with improvements in transportation it became more valuable as residential land. The farms became suburbs. With Western Bowl, it’s the same thing. People get so emotional on both sides of the issue. You like to keep things as they were, but you can’t do that. You have to grow.”

And that growth will happen even if it’s not something you particularly need or want. It’s a perverse part of human nature, I suppose, to be happy to be getting something new. All the attention feels kind of nice. And so I’ll join my fellow west-siders in pointing with pride at our shiny new stores, even as I insist they aren’t necessary, even as I decry the loss of trees and streams, even as I admit that I really, really hate to shop.

 
Illustration by Ryan Snook
Originally published in the September 2008 issue.

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