Some residents who live near Chapel Hill Mall said this week they want it torn down and turned into green space, maybe with a stage for live music, a park to frolic with their dogs and a lake for splashing.
Others suggested the 860,000-square-foot monument to retail could be repurposed, maybe for senior citizen apartments or an entertainment district with a casino and movie theaters.
But few interviewed by the Beacon Journal/Ohio.com this week thought Chapel Hill Mall could survive as it is, with more than half its storefronts empty and warnings this week that its electricity could be turned off if its out-of-state owner didn’t pay the bill.
For now, the lights are on. Kohan Retail Investment Group, which bought the mall in 2016 for $8.6 million, caught up on the overdue charges after the Beacon Journal reported some of the mall tenants had received shut-off notices.
Yet a bigger question looms for Chapel Hill Mall: What do you do with a massive retail structure when not enough people want to shop there?
On Monday afternoon, the mayors of cities impacted by the mall — Akron, Tallmadge and Cuyahoga Falls — and Summit County Executive Ilene Shapiro are scheduled to strategize in a conference call.
Tallmadge Mayor Dave Kline said it’s been about a year since they talked to Michael Kohan, the man behind the property group that owns Chapel Hill. He wants the officials to reach out again and find out what Kohan’s plans are to repurpose the failing mall.
“Do we need to rezone to make it happen? What would a developer need, what tools, and how can we put those tools in the toolbox?” Kline said.
Yet it’s unclear whether Kohan — who has also used the names Mehran Kohansieh, Mike Kohansjeh and Mike Kohen — has any plan to save Chapel Hill as a shopping mecca or anything else. Kohan’s company bought up distressed malls across the country during the online retail revolution and has recently run into tax problems and utility shut-offs at other malls.
That’s boosted some people’s fears that Chapel Hill, on the northern edge of Akron, could end up like the city’s other once-thriving mall, Rolling Acres, which stood empty for years on the south side, garnering a national following as pictures of its collapsed roof, snow-covered escalators and courtyard overrun with weeds circulated online.
Not Rolling Acres
Jason Segedy, director of Akron’s planning and urban development, said there are stark contrasts between the malls that point to different outcomes.
At Chapel Hill, Kohan’s company is engaged. While it hasn’t been as creative to turn around the property as the city had hoped, Segedy said, it has kept the mall clean and in good repair.
The owner of Rolling Acres, in sharp contrast, was absentee and “completely incommunicado” with city officials for years, Segedy said.
Just as important, Segedy said, Chapel Hill Mall sits in a healthy Akron neighborhood and abuts two other healthy Akron suburbs where people have money to spend. Elevate Akron, an economic development strategy, identified the Chapel Hill area as a jobs hub where many people work, he said.
That is unlike Rolling Acres, which was built on an isolated plateau by itself and now appears destined to be taken over by what is often tagged as the killer of shopping malls, mega-online retailer Amazon. The Beacon Journal/Ohio.com earlier this year saw blueprints for a $100 million Amazon warehouse to be built on the Rolling Acres site between September and May of 2020.
But Chapel Hill Mall has other redevelopment possibilities, Segedy said, including residential housing.
Most of Akron’s burgeoning Bhutanese refugee population started their American lives in the city’s North Hill neighborhood. But like North Hill immigrant groups before them — including Italians and Hungarians — the Bhutanese have often moved farther north as they become more successful, buying homes in the Chapel Hill neighborhood and Cuyahoga Falls.
The homes near Chapel Hill are generally newer — many built in the 1960s and 1970s, about the same time as Chapel Hill Mall, which opened in 1967 — and easier to maintain than the century homes in North Hill, Segedy said.
With new housing could come new retail at Chapel Hill, but likely small stores serving the neighborhood, not the big-box stores that draw people from outside, he said.
Rebirth or demise
When the Beacon Journal/Ohio.com asked readers what they thought on social media this week, a handful were rooting for a mall turnaround. Some pointed out that the Howe Avenue project that starts this month will actually force more traffic by the mall.
But most thought Chapel Hill Mall's demise was all but certain.
“The allure of the shopping mall in America isn’t what it used to be,” said Rich Reed, who said he lived across the street from the mall.
Reed said he’d like to see the space used as a combination park, community center and gathering space, sort of how downtown Akron uses Lock 3 for concerts, festivals and events.
“Bringing people to the repurposed area that once stood unsightly and, quite frankly, useless, would certainly stimulate small business in the area” and benefit residents, he said.
Chris Patton, a pastor who lives in North Hill, shopped at Chapel Hill in the past, but said there’s nothing he needs or that is unique enough to draw him there now. He fears the mall will ultimately close and sit empty, hurting the area, before anyone decides what to do with it.
If that happens, the mall’s most famous tenant — a 15-foot snowman named Archie — will lose his home.
Archie for decades entertained and sometimes frightened children at the mall before falling into disrepair and being mothballed. A grass-roots effort to bring Archie back — first to Akron, then to Chapel Hill — succeeded in recent years.
Patton suggested Archie might live on at Castle Noel, a year-round Christmas museum in Medina that collects and displays holiday movie costumes, props and New York City department store window displays.
That might be an especially fitting home for a displaced mall snowman because Castle Noel didn’t start life as a museum.
It was the Medina United Methodist Church until that space no longer fit the community’s needs.
Amanda Garrett can be reached at 330-996-3725 or email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @agarrettABJ.