Illustration: Rebecca Zisser/Axios

COLUMBUS, Ohio — In a surprising twist on the manufactured downtowns that have spread across suburbia, a developer in this central Ohio city — looking to survive amid a retail apocalypse — is doubling down on the much-derided mall.

Why it matters: Turkish developer Yaromir Steiner plans on expanding a mall into a bona fide town at a time when thousands are downsizing. Columbus has long been known as a test market, as its population is a near-perfect microcosm of the country. If a new model for malls as towns works in Columbus, it'll work across America, experts say.

Steiner tells Axios he envisions a real town where you can rent an apartment, go to work, do your groceries, go out to eat and even go clubbing on Saturday night. It won't be known for a while if Steiner is onto something. But he is spending $500 million on the gamble.

"Twenty years ago, malls were conduits for delivering goods ... now, it's about selling experiences."
— Yaromir Steiner

The big picture: Sixteen years ago, there were 6 bustling malls in Columbus. Today, after the same shakeout that has killed malls across the country, just 3 are left. Developers are reaching for ploys to save millions of square feet of mall real estate.

By the numbers: Columbus' Easton Town Center is building 700 apartment units, an additional 230,000 square feet of retail space, 300,000 square feet of office space and a new hotel. The development will add to Easton's 90-acre plot, which has 240 stores and makes around $900 million a year.

Why Columbus could be a model:

  • Many traditional retailers and restaurants try their newest, craziest ideas in Columbus because they know successes there can scale. The city has been dubbed the "Silicon Valley of retail."
  • As we reported Monday, Columbus has shoe stores with nail and hair salons, outdoor apparel stores with freezers to test the warmth of jackets and Wendy's restaurants with robot waiters.
  • "They're completely rethinking the future of retail," says Amy Liu of Brookings.

The backdrop: The heavily forecast apocalypse of brick-and-mortar retail as a whole has not happened — over 90% of shopping still happens offline, and last year saw more store openings that closings, per the research firm IHL Group. But most malls may indeed fall victim to the meltdown.

  • "Many malls are struggling because they have not been invested in over the years," Neil Saunders, managing director of GlobalData Retail, tells Axios. "They were built in the 1970s and the 1980s, and they've just not been kept up to date" in terms of the diversity of stores and offerings.

So 20 years ago, when Steiner — along with co-developers Les Wexner, the CEO of L Brands, and the Georgetown Company — thought up Easton Town Center, he landed on the country's first open-air design that was anchored not by department stores, as is standard for malls, but by restaurants and bars.

The entire mall is built around squares and main streets, instead of in a big concrete box.

  • Easton has mall staples like Nordstrom and J. Crew, but it also has a comedy club and a futuristic pod called "Shop Lab," a concept launched a month ago where online-only brands try out physical retail.
  • The dining options include food court favorites like Five Guys and Sbarro as well as five-star restaurants run by famous Columbus chefs.

Now, with expansion plans, what began as a swanky shopping destination for millions of Midwesterners will have a Costco and office buildings and apartments — all part of Steiner's bet that the mall can be saved if it's part of a small, contained town that you never have to leave.

"Easton was set up for the e-commerce future 20 years ago. We are online-proof."
— Yaromir Steiner

Go deeper

Updated 36 mins ago - Politics & Policy

Coronavirus dashboard

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

  1. Health: Fauci says U.S. may not return to normal until 2022 — Trump's testing czar: Surge "is real" and not just caused by more tests
  2. World: Taiwan reaches a record 200 days with no local coronavirus cases
  3. Europe faces "stronger and deadlier" wave France imposes lockdown Germany to close bars and restaurants for a month.
  4. Sports: Boston Marathon delayed MLB to investigate Dodgers player who joined celebration after positive COVID test.

In pictures: Storm Zeta churns inland after lashing Louisiana

Debris on the streets as then-Hurricane Zeta passes over in Arabi, Louisiana, on Oct. 28. It's the third hurricane to hit Louisiana in about two months, after Laura and Delta. Photo: Sandy Huffaker/Getty Images

Tropical Storm Zeta has killed at least two people, triggered flooding, downed powerlines and caused widespread outages since making landfall in Louisiana as a Category 2 hurricane on Wednesday.

The big picture: A record 11 named storms have made landfall in the U.S. this year. Zeta is the fifth named storm to do so in Louisiana in 2020, the most ever recorded. It weakened t0 a tropical storm early Thursday, as it continued to lash parts of Alabama and the Florida Panhandle with heavy rains and strong winds.

3 hours ago - World

Taiwan reaches a record 200 days with no local coronavirus cases

Catholics go through containment protocols including body-temperature measurement and hands-sanitisation before entering the Saint Christopher Parish Church, Taipei City, Taiwan, in July. Photo: Ceng Shou Yi/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Taiwan on Thursday marked no locally transmitted coronavirus cases for 200 days, as the island of 23 million people's total number of infections reported stands at 550 and the COVID-19 death toll at seven.

Why it matters: Nowhere else has reached such a milestone. While COVID-19 cases surge across the U.S. and Europe, Taiwan's last locally transmitted case was on April 12. Experts credit tightly regulated travel, early border closure, "rigorous contact tracing, technology-enforced quarantine and universal mask wearing," along with the island state's previous experience with the SARS virus for the achievement, per Bloomberg.

Go deeper: As Taiwan's profile rises, so does risk of conflict with China