2007 Person of the Year
At a July 31 press conference, Mayor Mike Coleman announced the plan to terminate TL-Columbus's lease at City Center. "I don't like absentee landlords," he declared. "We are going to battle."Photo by Dan Trittschuh.
This story appeared in the January 2008 issue of Columbus Monthly.
A lopsided smile sweeps across Mike Coleman’s face when he’s feeling cocky. There’s a hint of a sneer—not as overt as Dick Cheney’s, but it’s there. Coleman was sporting that expression on the hot summer evening of July 31 when he summoned the media for a press conference on High Street in front of City Center. Flanked by Nationwide Realty Investors president Brian Ellis, Capitol South Urban Redevelopment Corp. CEO Guy Worley, City Council president Mike Mentel and other civic and business types, Coleman announced he had taken steps to finally wrest City Center from its operators.
Working with the city, Capitol South was terminating its lease with TL-Columbus, a corporate partnership comprised of the General Motors Pension Fund and Simon Property Group. On the city’s behalf, Capitol South was the proprietor of a 90-year lease, established in 1986, that allowed TL-Columbus to operate the mall. Hoping to negotiate a better deal, TL-Columbus hadn’t paid its last rent check. Rather than be lured to the bargaining table, the mayor and Capitol South decided this was the opening they’d been waiting for.
At that press conference, Coleman wanted it known this was more than just a negotiations tactic. While Worley and power attorney John Zeiger soberly explained the legalities, Coleman brought the swagger. “I don’t like absentee landlords,” he said. “We are going to battle.”
The mayor can be theatrical sometimes, but in this case his attitude suited the occasion. In a way that surprised even some of his friends, Coleman, as well as the Capitol South trustees, had abandoned the Columbus custom of working out differences through consensus. Fed up with a situation that had been worsening for the past decade, the mayor reared back and threw a punch. “If you really want it done,” Coleman says now, “you’re going to have to take the bull by the horns and then put the pieces together after that.”
It was the most significant moment in what was an eventful 2007 for Coleman, serving his eighth year as mayor. It began with a scandal surrounding his wife, Frankie, who had missed considerable time at her new job with the Ohio Department of Development while still getting paid. It was a post many suspected she’d received in part because the mayor had chaired Gov. Ted Strickland’s transition team. After initially denying the allegations, Frankie Coleman checked herself into alcohol rehab. Eventually, she was convicted of attempted theft and falsification and slapped with probation, community service and a $1,000 fine.
Coleman’s triumphs in ’07 included the launch of Skybus, the Columbus-based discount airline for which he had provided crucial early support. He also solidified his political dominance by getting elected to a third term, defeating Republican lawyer Bill Todd, his first mayoral opponent since 1999, in a landslide.
Plus, those maddening Short North arches were finally relighted.
But Coleman’s biggest move of the year—perhaps of his mayoral career—was his City Center grab. The mall, which began in the late 1980s as a glamorous retail destination, had become a downtown embarrassment as shoppers vanished and stores followed, resulting in an 80 percent vacancy rate as of July. In hindsight, Coleman says it’s easy to explain City Center’s downfall. “It’s a defective suburban mall plopped down in the middle of an urban community,” he says. “It was doomed for failure from the beginning. There’s one window in it.”
As the Coleman administration focused on revitalizing downtown, City Center became the elephant in the room. Due to its location in the heart of the city, it’s been impossible to imagine a truly vibrant business district with that hollowed-out mall sitting in the middle of it. The mayor’s opponent in the November election tried to seize on that issue. Early in his campaign, Todd sensed the mall could be a political problem for Coleman and held his own press conference outside City Center. “Mr. Mayor, tear down this mall,” Todd said in May, knowing that Coleman didn’t have the authority to do anything of the sort.
Coleman says he’d wanted to act on City Center for a couple of years, but he hadn’t seen any clear options. Just in case, he’d asked Nationwide Realty, which developed the Arena District, to take charge of the mall’s redevelopment effort if the city ever gained control. “I was very concerned that Mills Corp. would never redevelop the site,” Coleman says, referring to the company that operated the mall before TL-Columbus. “I frankly contacted Nationwide, and I said, ‘I don’t know how this will happen or when it will happen, but if it does I need somebody to step in with some experience and expertise and gumption to help get this site developed.’ ”
Nationwide agreed, and Coleman kept waiting for something to happen. In March 2007, Mills was acquired by Simon. Initially, there was some optimism Simon might tackle the City Center problem, but that hope soon began to fade. “Simon had no interest in City Center at all, but they were still partners with GM Pension,” Coleman says. “And then to, I think, everybody’s surprise, they didn’t pay their rent.” At first, Cap South’s Worley checked with the company to see if there was some mistake. There wasn’t. So he and other business leaders huddled with the mayor.
For months, Coleman and civic types had debated the best way to go about redeveloping City Center if they ever had the chance. Some suggested Columbus simply needed a “friendly developer”—someone with a stake in downtown—to take over the site and revamp it. “We chose not to do that because it was just half a loaf,” Coleman says. “The primary problem we’ve always had is that, even with a developer, we still are in the same position that we were in the ’80s in that we don’t have control over its destiny. Five years from now and 10 years from now if it’s developed and it runs into hard times, what do we do?”
Coleman and the Capitol South board—which includes Dispatch publisher John F. Wolfe, Nationwide CEO Jerry Jurgensen, Huntington leader Tom Hoaglin and other downtown power players—determined it was important for Columbus to control the site. “When they didn’t pay the rent, the possibility of getting both a friendly developer and controlling the destiny was the best of all worlds,” the mayor says. “It would take some legal challenges, but we felt after much discussion about the merits of a lawsuit that we would win it. And we decided we would collectively go for it.”
Wolfe, no cowboy himself, is said to have been among those arguing for the more combative strategy. Zeiger, who has long represented the Dispatch, was confident the law would be on Capitol South’s side and hoped TL-Columbus would see the handwriting on the wall. Jack Kessler, chairman of the New Albany Company and a Capitol South board member, says the company had simply left the city with no choice. “Obviously, they didn’t pay the rent,” he says. “I don’t know whether their heart wasn’t in it or whatever.”
It wasn’t reckless, but it was risky. There was a possibility that the city would lose in court. More likely was that the city would win, but only after an expensive and lengthy legal fight. A hallmark of the Coleman administration—and Greg Lashutka’s before it—has been the importance of dealing with issues diplomatically rather than combatively, and a few of Coleman’s friends in the business community were unsure about making such an aggressive move to reclaim City Center. Some figured TL-Columbus would give up the property sooner or later. Why the rush?
Bob Milbourne, president of the Columbus Partnership, says most of the city business leaders in his organization supported the gambit, but a significant minority felt nervous. “There was some worry that going to court—or racing to court, which might be a way some people might say it—ran the risk of things being delayed,” Milbourne says. “Once you get into court, you never know how long things might take.”
The early signs weren’t encouraging. The night of Coleman’s news conference, David Simon, CEO of the company that bears his name, slammed the city’s move as “bush league” in an interview with the Dispatch, telling reporter Mike Pramik, “We think something sinister is going on.” Furthermore, Simon said TL-Columbus was working out a deal to sell City Center to a group that included developer Don Casto, who would fit Coleman’s definition of a “friendly developer.” Casto himself said the city’s eviction notice had disrupted his group’s constructive negotiations with the Simon folks.
Had Columbus’s cautious mayor been too hasty?
The answer came less than two months later when TL-Columbus caved. The night before its eviction hearing was scheduled to start in the Franklin County Court of Common Pleas, the company surrendered. In a complex deal that included an adjacent plot of land, the city agreed to fork over a measly $2.87 million and won control of City Center.
Casto is apparently no longer complaining—a Casto spokeswoman is referring all inquiries about the mall to Capitol South—and is believed to be in conversations about possibly participating in the City Center redevelopment. “In hindsight it seems to have worked out,” says Milbourne.
Now comes the hard part. The city and Capitol South have been besieged with ideas for how to redevelop the property, and many of them are probably very exciting. But the city’s responsibility isn’t to do something exciting; it has to do something smart. “At least now we’re in control of it, the city is,” says Kessler, “and, hopefully, we will do something with it.”
“We all have ideas of what it could be,” Coleman says. Most likely is “a mixed-use combination of office and some retail that will support the market,” he says. “It’ll never be a million square feet of retail again. But there needs to be some level of retail to accommodate the residential in the area and German Village and Franklinton and Victorian Village and areas around it. It is not a regional shopping center ever again. It’s not going to market to Mansfield. It’s going to market to Short North and near east side and downtown.”
Coleman says it would be a mistake to develop City Center in a vacuum. “That High Street portion adjacent to the site needs to be redeveloped. Town Street needs to be redeveloped,” he says. “When City Center was created, it should have been part of a multiple-phase redevelopment effort beyond the building, and that never took place.”
Whatever it turns out to be, for better or for worse, it will be Coleman’s. Thirty years from now, when people walk along High Street between Main and State, the credit for whatever is there will go to Mike Coleman, as will the blame. The only certainty is that some people will be disappointed. The mayor, though, says he can live with that. “Well,” he says, “I think the biggest disappointment you could ever have is to allow it to be vacant, the largest vacant abandoned building in America. That’s the biggest disappointment. And I am confident it will not be that.”
Dan Williamson is a senior writer for Columbus Monthly.