It’s a question on a lot of people’s minds: Now that the city of Akron owns the abandoned Rolling Acres Mall complex, what should be done with it?
The mall closed in 2008 after years of decline. Akron took ownership of 277,000 square feet of the interior of the mall and 54 acres outside last month following a lengthy tax foreclosure process. It does not own the five former department stores. At least two of those owners have said their businesses are successful and they are not interested in selling.
After touring the mall days after the city took ownership, Akron Mayor Dan Horrigan said the “apocalyptic feel” confirmed for him that the structure is a public safety hazard and needs to be demolished.
City officials have said the top priority is securing the site and demolishing it, as opposed to vetting proposals now. But the city has already received at least two proposals from developers to turn the former mall into a youth sports complex or a light-industrial hub.
The Beacon Journal asked former shoppers, nearby residents, business people and others for their ideas. Here’s what they had to say:
City officials shouldn’t be so quick to demolish the former mall without a proper structural engineering study, said Brewster, a Wadsworth designer of retail and small urban projects.
Brewster said he’s aware that the heating and air conditioning systems and much of the mall’s infrastructure is gone, but he argues that “if it is structurally sound and useful, then I think it would be a shame to rip down 277,000 square feet of climatized space and start from scratch.”
Brewster, a designer of 45 years who was on the team for downtown Akron’s original Quaker Square redevelopment, said he sees potential for a multipurpose residential-service-retail complex or a college campus.
But first, Brewster said he thinks the city could make some money by allowing a zombie movie or a big-name movie like Batman, to film before redeveloping it. The notoriety could then help bring on its new life.
Akron city councilman
Forget retail and housing.
Freeman, who represents the Rolling Acres area, wants to see the property devoted to light industrial. Retail has failed there and housing wouldn’t do much for the tax base, he said.
But the city has had plenty of success with light manufacturing moving into vacant properties along Romig Road. Akron rezoned the area to allow light industrial.
“Past history has proven when parcels of light industrial are available, they fill up,” Freeman said. “I just don’t want to see this really big, really accessible open field go for something that wouldn’t be best overall for the city.”
Deciding the future use of the property is one of the biggest decisions facing the city. Freeman noted that community leaders have been focused in recent years on keeping Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co. and Bridgestone in Akron.
“We have the ability now with one of the largest parcels left in the city of Akron to not retain something but to get something new in the city,” he said. “Imagine if we brought in something that provided 2,000 jobs.”
Skotschir can see the back of Rolling Acres Mall from her front yard.
She and her family have lived on Harlem Road, across the street from the back entrance to the mall property, for about eight years. They can watch as people drive on and off the property to get to the various businesses that are now using the buildings.
Skotschir, 31, isn’t sure exactly what she’d like to see happen with the site, but she doesn’t want low-income housing built there. Neighbors complain that there already is a problem with crime and homelessness in the area.
“Something to bring in jobs,” she said. “Even more factories. There’s a lot of unemployed people around here so something that would bring more jobs in would be lovely.”
John “Skip” Summerville
Owner, Regency Seating Inc. office furniture on Romig Road, and a Green city councilman
“Level it,” Summerville said.
Then use the property for light manufacturing/industrial, he said.
“It’s the largest piece of developable land in the city. I think it’s better without buildings,” he said.
Summerville said he has no idea if a proposed sports complex could succeed on the site.
Another possibility would be a racino or other gambling, he said.
The site benefits from a nearby low-cost, competitive workforce and also from having a major bus stop, he said.
Ty and Falon Gable
Nearby business owners and Barberton residents
The Gables aren’t ready to give up on Rolling Acres as a shopping mecca.
They’d like to see Walmart open there because the store would attract shoppers and other stores and restaurants. He cited the growth around the Walmart in Brimfield Township as an example.
There is an ongoing fight about Walmart opening a superstore in Copley Township so why not shift the project to the Rolling Acres corridor, Ty Gable asked.
The married couple, who are both 31 and live in Barberton, would like to see more people visit the area because they operate the family-owned Acorn Rug Cleaning, an oriental rug business located on Harlem Road behind the mall. A healthy Rolling Acres could mean more business for it.
“It’s really the only thing I can think of to bring people in from the surrounding area,” Ty Gable said.
Mitchell remembers riding in her dad’s truck when he delivered bricks and concrete blocks to the Rolling Acres Mall construction site in the 1970s. She remembers going to the mall as a teenager, because it was close enough that her parents let her drive there. She even bought her wedding dress and an entire set of living room furniture there.
Now the owner of Dine In Diva Personal Chef Services figures the mall will probably be turned into something business-related, maybe warehousing or manufacturing space. But she’d really like to see it converted into a community for seniors.
Mitchell, 53, envisions part of the space being turned into apartments. The rest could house a grocery store, restaurants, services such as a post office and medical clinic, entertainment venues and exercise areas.
“You’ve basically got the infrastructure all set up,” she said. “… It’s kind of a great space.”
Akron director of planning and urban development
Segedy said there have been plenty of ongoing discussions internally and with stakeholders about what to do with the property.
He figures there are four real possibilities: retail, housing, light manufacturing or a category he calls “novelty or unusual uses.”
But Segedy believes the site will never be a viable location for a large shopping center like it once had been. He also questions whether it would be a good site for housing, noting that there are other existing housing needs in other neighborhoods.
“The industrial idea does hold a lot of promise,” he said, noting the easy access to highways.
City leaders also will have to take a serious look at other proposals, such as the massive youth sports complex that recently was presented to City Council, Segedy said.
“We are willing to take a little time to look at what’s the best use for that site and what’s the best fit for that area,” he said.
President and CEO of Habitat for Humanity of Summit County
Sibbio and her colleagues have watched the decay of Rolling Acres Mall, which is just down Romig Road from their organization’s headquarters and ReStore home improvement store.
So when Sibbio was asked what she thought should happen to the property, she threw that question out to some of her staff.
Their ideas were varied: an all-encompassing nursing home that includes rehabilitation, skilled care, independent living and end-of-life care. A manufacturing facility. A retail center. A grocery store. An entertainment complex with everything from go-karts and batting cages to cinemas and restaurants.
Turning the mall into residential housing with single- and multifamily units was a popular choice. “We wouldn’t all work for Habitat if this wasn’t one of our top three answers,” Sibbio joked.
Mostly, though, they just want something that will bring jobs and people to the area, she said.
Founder and head of development firm Industrial Realty Group
Lichter’s IRG specializes in buying and redeveloping abandoned or underused industrial and other sites. Projects in Northeast Ohio include redeveloping the former Goodyear, Goodrich (Canal Square) and Hoover campuses.
“We took over Randall Park Mall” in North Randall, Lichter said. IRG recently demolished part of the empty mall in the Cuyahoga County village.
“We are going to turn it into industrial. I think that’s the only practical idea for Rolling Acres,” Lichter said.
Aging or empty malls are “really difficult” to put back together, Lichter said.
Other uses are possible for Rolling Acres but “it’s not going to be retail,” he said.
Owner, Primo’s Deli, Vernon Odom Boulevard
“What’s been reported is light industrial. I can see that happening,” Mileti said. “That’s what I would like to see.”
The mall property would be attractive to light industry because it is close to airports and major highways, said Mileti, whose Primo’s Deli is located near the former mall.
“First things first. They have to knock it down,” Mileti said.
Other possible uses could be as a low security prison, Mileti said. Mayor Horrigan has dismissed that idea, though.
Mileti does not think that the mall site would work as a youth center, as has been suggested by some. “They tend to fizzle out,” he said.
One Primo’s Deli customer suggested building multiple new car dealerships on the mall property, he said.
Beck, an Akron resident, thinks the city of Akron and Goodyear should combine forces and “buy the property and as much neighboring property they need to construct a state-of-the-art race track capable of hosting a NASCAR event. The rest of the time, it could be used for tire testing and other racing series events.
“I believe the community would support it as strongly as they do the Bridgestone golf tournament.”
Director, commercial Realtor, CBRE Akron
Cooper, who has a long history as a retail landowner and commercial real estate broker, would like to see the former mall be an academic center or innovation campus for start-up businesses.
But Cooper said the best answer is probably a distribution center because of the proximity to so many expressways.
“It’s the simplest answer. Personally, I’d like to see it be something different,” he said.
Beacon Journal staff reporters Rick Armon, Betty Lin-Fisher, Jim Mackinnon and Mary Beth Breckenridge contributed to this story. Armon can be reached at 330-996-3569 or firstname.lastname@example.org.