Re-Imagining the Shopping Mall

Photography by Tracy Doyle

In Butler County this fall, people were using words like “game changer” and “transformative.” 

The excitement was justified. After all, the quiet bedroom community of Liberty Township (population 39,000) found itself with an instant downtown when Liberty Center, a unique mall-meets-urban-village development seemingly sprung from the cornfields. There are tree-lined sidewalks, apartments, office space, small public areas and, of course, shops and eateries. Lots of them. At least 92 as of January 1. 

“This changes the dynamics of our community forever,” says Christine Matacic, Liberty Township trustee. “It will enhance our quality of life. The direct and indirect impact will be significant for years to come.” 

Of course, there was nothing instant about the 65-acre Liberty Center project, with more than 1.2 million square feet of retail and mixed-use space. It has been in the works for more than a decade as township and county officials courted developers to the rural fields at the Liberty Way exit from Interstate 75. 

The $350 million complex opened for business in October touted as the largest development in Butler County history. 

“Not only does it bring roughly 3,500 permanent jobs for the surrounding area, it is a magnet that will help us bring in people from outside the area to basically shop, play and enjoy,” Matacic says. 

The development was a decade-long dream come true for township trustees and Butler County officials. After some proposals for the site were derailed by the recession, Columbus-based Steiner + Associates stepped up as the master developer with a track record of building mixed-use projects since the early 1990s. The firm
mimicked its biggest success story – and one of the most successful shopping centers in the nation – the Easton Town Center in Columbus, still the highest-volume shopping destination in the state. 

“Back in ’06, we sat down and identified the site along I-75 with a vision that a mixed-use development would be good here,” Matacic says. “Steiner showed up with the perfect development to move our vision forward.”

In this case, that “perfect development” captures the new trend in retail where the traditional mall is being reinvented and renovated across the country. Liberty Center was designed to open its doors with a viable community feel that combines alluring streetscapes, apartments, offices and plenty of retail gems. 

Turkish-born developer Yaromir Steiner, founder and CEO of Steiner + Associates, thinks it would be absurd to open a traditional shopping mall today. 

“Shopping environments of tomorrow will have to become the civic centers of their communities. They cannot be just places to buy goods. They have to go beyond that,” says Steiner. “At Liberty Center, we created an environment with many public amenities and a residential component for people who love living in this environment.” 

As shoppers no doubt discovered this fall, Liberty Center captures that civic center, community feel in a number of small ways that lets the development have a synergy with the community that a traditional mall rarely achieves. For example:  

  • There is the open urban feel that combines green spaces with a traditional storefront streetscape for almost half the stores. The rest are in The Foundry, a more traditional mall area. 
  • Park spaces will host regular music concerts and other community and family events. 
  • There is a non-denominational chapel, for those who want to shop, work, play and pray. 
  • A relaxing living room with overstuffed sofas and free Wi-Fi is a great spot to lounge inside the mall. 
  • Entertainment options include the Funny Bone Comedy Club and CineBistro, a unique dinner-and-movie theater. A children’s Discovery Center and play area is sponsored by Cincinnati
  • Children’s Hospital Medical Center. 
  • There is free parking for some 3,000 cars. Closer spots with parking meters ring the immediate village. Money from those meters, and any fines, are donated to a charity. 
  • The urban village ambiance is enhanced by some 260 apartments, beginning occupancy in January, and a 140-room AC Hotel by Marriott, also opening in the new year. There is 75,000 square feet of office space. 
  • Those who prefer supporting small, locally-based entrepreneurs over corporate chains will find Celebrate Local, an incubator store for 90 Ohio-based small businesses, including artisans, brewers, bakers and farmers that is said to represent every county (88) in the state. 

Liberty Center boosters hope a snowball effect for development will grow from the project. Matacic says the area has already attracted other developments that would be considered essential to a civic feel such as the new the 125,000-square-foot Christ Hospital medical center and emergency room, the hospital’s largest expansion outside of its Mount Auburn campus. 

“We have been somewhat of a bedroom community for a number of years. In the last 5-7 years we have seen more commercial development,” says Matacic. “With Liberty Center we are seeing a lot more interest from the business community in our community.” 

There are many stores at Liberty Center that are not new to Southwest Ohio shoppers such as Dillard’s, The Limited, Foot Locker, Dick’s, Old Navy and eateries like Five Guys, Graeter’s, Cheesecake Factory and others. The already accessible stores may make Liberty Center less of a destination draw for shoppers in Dayton and Cincinnati, unless people are interested in the very different feel of this shopping experience. Steiner says the anticipated success of Liberty Center is based on research that shows Butler and Warren Counties, between the two cities, is an underserved retail area. 

“If we can draw just from the area around (Liberty Center), we will be very successful. We don’t need to go south, or north,” Steiner says.  “We have put in everything we have learned over the last 25 years. The market conditions are very favorable for this project and we have done one of the best projects in the country right now.”