Earlier this year, real estate editor Al Urbanski set off on Interstate 71 from Cincinnati to Columbus to Cleveland in search of the greatest retail centers the Buckeye State had to offer. This stop: Columbus.
It was the late 1980s when Les Wexner had a vision of the future of physical retail. It was to be about places, not stores; experiences, not convenience. The founder of The Limited shared his perspective with the mall owners he’d worked with for years, but they were not ready to depart from a concept that still was working for them. So Wexner decided to play pioneer himself on a large tract of land he owned on the outskirts of Columbus.
“There were no national specialty retail chains until Les came in with The Limited. The Limited had 7,000 stores. Simon, GGP, all the mall developers were joined at the hip with Les. When they wanted to expand, they’d ask Les where he would go,” said Adam Flatto, president and CEO of The Georgetown Company.
Wexner had bought the land near the airport with the intention of building a large distribution center on it, but decided it had become too valuable for that use. In 1992, he called New York-based Georgetown in to discuss using the land for a new kind of retail development in the area that came to be known as Easton, a name invented by Wexner.
“Les felt that people were less excited about going to the mall, that they were seeking better experiences, so we put together the town center concept,” Flatto said. “We had to have a big enough footprint to make a mark, over 4 million square feet of retail. But we downplayed department stores and put our money into food and beverage.”
When Georgetown unveiled the model for Easton Town Center at RECon, it caused consternation. It had no highway frontage and no department store anchors. It was a grid with streets and outdoor shopping. “People thought we were kind of nuts,” Flatto said.
Today, Easton is a destination for people across the state of Ohio. “People started coming here for dates, proms, weekends,” said Yaromir Steiner, the architectural designer whom Wexner hired to plan Easton after seeing his work at Coconut Grove in Miami. His Steiner + Associates is on-site at Easton and still manages the property.
“It was one of the first efforts at placemaking. We wanted trees, fountains, squares. I was inspired by Boston, where you have interesting places strung together like pearls,” Steiner said. “Les came to us and said to forget the old mold and start from scratch.”
Though it doesn’t sit on the side of the highway, it’s hard to miss the ironwork of interlocking “Eastons” on the overpass at the exit for the town center on I-270 in Columbus. The first thing one sees on approaching the development along Easton Way is the expansive Hilton Hotel, behind which is a plaza with restaurants, shops, and buildings reminiscent of the center of a vibrant town.
We were early for our tour with Easton’s chief executive Jennifer Peterson, so stopped for lunch at Fado’s Irish Pub, one of 60-plus places to eat and drink at the town center. It was like walking into a Pub in Donegal. Irish soccer team banners hung from the ceiling, a fire was burning in the corner, HP Sauce sat on the tables, and the bartender had a Brogue. Steiner later told me that even the wall paneling was imported from Ireland.
Attention to detail is found in every facet of Easton.
“Les saw where the world was going,” Flatto said. “Twenty years ago Easton was an empty field. Now it generates $200 million in tax revenue for Columbus and the state of Ohio.”