CINCINNATI - What do Apple, Amazon and FC Cincinnati have in common? They’ve all been invited to be part of the future at the former Forest Fair Mall.
A team of Cincinnati real estate brokers is turning every stone to find a new use for the region’s biggest white elephant. The 90-acre mega mall, now known as Forest Fair Village, was built in 1989 and sat mostly empty for more than a decade. But its New York owner listed the property last year with an asking price of $55 million.
And Chris Nachtrab has been chasing crazy notions ever since.
“We pitched it to Amazon,” said Nachtrab, a managing director in the Cincinnati office of Newmark Knight Frank. “Honestly, they looked. The project they’re doing at the airport now takes precedence. But they looked.”
Nachtrab is one of at least seven brokers who have pitched the property to potential buyers and tenants. So far, the strongest interest has come from a Christian media company in Nashville that proposed using the mall as a TV and movie production studio.
“We’ve had an offer,” said John Thompson, also a managing director at NKF. “It was under the asking price, unfortunately. We’re still vetting that offer, responding to it and we are expecting an offer sometime in August from another user” who wants to bring a warehouse and distribution facility to the site.
The city of Forest Park appreciates the effort.
“There is a marked difference in terms of how the property is being marketed now compared to the past,” said Paul Brehm, economic development director for the city of Forest Park. “They’re good brokers. They’ve been given some resources to get the marketing done. I think that’s real change from where we’ve been in the past. There appears to be a legitimate interest in trying to move this property forward.”
Forest Park, Fairfield and the Port of Greater Cincinnati Development Authority all have huge stakes in the property, as they partnered with prior owners, Mills Corp., to redevelop the mall in 2004. Thompson said about $16 million in public bond debt is still owed on the property. Brehm said economic-development incentives could still be offered if the right user brings new jobs to the site.
“We see this as a gateway project,” Brehm said. “Whatever goes there, we want to be able to highlight this as a real catalyst.”
Brehm is painfully aware of Forest Fair’s complicated history, starting with the 1989 bankruptcy of its Australian developer, L.J. Hooker, one year after opening. After finding brief success with a discount-retail format in the 1990s, the mall hit another downward slide in the 2000s, ultimately selling at a steep discount in 2010.
An investment affiliate of World Properties Inc. in Floral Park, New York paid $4.7 million for the property, according to Hamilton County records, down from a $52.6 million sale price in 2002.
All of that leaves Brehm cautiously optimistic that the site will be reborn.
“What it comes down to is what the owner’s willingness is going to be if we get a viable offer,” he said. “At the end of the day, it’s going to be what his reaction is to those offers.”
Redeploying that much space is a tall order. At 1.9 million square feet, the mall is big enough to house 16 Kroger Marketplace stores or office space equivalent to 3.7 Carew Towers.
But it does have a few things going for it. The 120,000-square-foot Kohl’s store on the property’s northern border has a lease that runs through 2021 and has so far resisted attempts to relocate it to Tri-County Mall. Bass Pro Shops’ pending acquisition of Cabela’s has delayed the outdoor retailer’s relocation to West Chester.
Bass Pro announced in 2013 that it would leave Forest Fair for a new location on Union Center Boulevard, but Cabela’s opened a store near Liberty Center in 2015 and Bass Pro struck a deal to buy Cabela’s last fall. Analysts following the companies have been speculating that Bass Pro wants out of the deal.
“They own land over on Union Center Boulevard that they paid $300,000 an acre for," Nachtrab said. "It’s very good land. They could sell it to somebody else, but until the acquisition gets settled either which way, they don’t know. The store has always done very well. We talked about retail not working, but this store done very, very well. It’s a very profitable location.”
Thompson said about a half dozen potential buyers have toured the property and others have looked at leasing portions of the building. NKF brokers have pitched Amazon on the idea of setting up its own resellers’ operation for merchandise its customers return after online purchase. They approached Apple’s Foxconn manufacturing subsidiary, which reportedly considered Ohio before announcing a $10 billion investment in Wisconsin. And they’ve hand-delivered marketing materials to FC Cincinnati.
“Everybody has to take off their Forest Fair Mall glasses,” Nachtrab said. “That’s the hardest thing here locally because we all look at this as a retail project that didn’t work. But if you look at it as something else, that pricing – there’s nothing like it. This property sitting in Manhattan is worth $500 million.”
The asking price of $55 million breaks down to about $28 per square foot, which is less than 15 percent of what it would cost to build. While $600,000 per acre might sound expensive, it beats the more than $1 million per acre paid on some of the sites acquired for Paul Brown Stadium.
Previous attempts have focused on finding retail and entertainment users, including an indoor hockey rink that never panned out and the Bee Active Adventure Zone, which opened in 2012. Nachtrab is trying to get potential users to see how adaptable the property is for non-retail uses.
“If you look at the Biggs space, it’s 250,000 square feet of warehouse space,” he said. “There’s 20-foot bay heights, docks in the back. You can walk in and use it as a warehouse today. You look at these two-story buildings. You punch some holes in the wall and put some glass in, it’s an office building. There’s value here. We just need to find someone that has that vision and has a use for at least part of it.”
In the meantime, the mall is being maintained. Its bathrooms are regularly cleaned and security guards patrol on Seqways. General Manager Delmer Helton even decorates the place for Christmas.
“We still have Santa here at the mall, especially Black Friday weekend,” he said. “We have a lot of kids that come in, pass out toys. It’s a good time. Forest Fair Mall is still alive and kicking.”