Insights From 25 Years of Easton Town Center

by Hayden Spiess

The property offers shopping as an experience, with a sense of place.

The 25th anniversary of Easton Town Center in Columbus, Ohio, provides an excellent opportunity to share best practices in authentic placemaking and experience-creating at a mixed-use development totaling more than 1.7 million square feet. It also allows a candid glimpse into the future, gleaned from operating a leading Midwest destination with more than 30 million annual visitors per year.

One of the keys to success is always looking forward. In the 1950s and 1960s, malls grew because people were coming out of times of deprivation — the Depression followed by the rationing of goods during World War II. Malls in that era gave consumers a reason to get dressed up and get out, but much of the joy was simply in the ability to purchase needed goods.

In the 1990s — when Easton was born — we knew it was about more than creating a place to buy essential things. We predicted that it would be about experiences.

Out and about

The expression “let’s go out” puts the emphasis on out. People like the energy and atmosphere of a bustling street or carefully curated neighborhood, whether it’s the 3rd Street Promenade in Santa Monica or SoHo in New York City.

Easton was created with urban design in mind. We took (and continue to take) great care in shaping everything from the width of sidewalks and type of shade trees to on-street parking. We made it pedestrian friendly, with town squares and activated gathering places.

There are about 50 restaurants at Easton, and only a handful of those are a spot to get a slice of pizza or quick bite. Most are chef-driven dining and local kitchens where patrons can revel in a memorable night out: a steakhouse to celebrate a wedding anniversary; an Irish bar to have a Black and Tan and watch soccer; or an authentic Mexican restaurant to enjoy margaritas with friends.

Easton’s experiences

We have more than 200 events each year, but we don’t have them to drive more foot traffic and sales. We do them to build a brand, community and sense of belonging. People come for concerts, races for charity, yoga in the park and our weeks-long seasonal celebrations. These events create lasting memories and, as a result, an emotional attachment.

Retail real estate development is about creating a cohesive place. Easton is 99 percent leased because concepts like the comedy club, movie theatre, burlesque bar and other entertainment options work in concert to create a destination in which people are immersed in best-of-class attractions amidst diverse shopping and dining options.

When we started planning the development roughly 30 years ago, we could not have known to label it as “experiential retail.” We did know, though, that we wanted to create an open-air development with a strong sense of place and diverse mix of uses. We aspired to add (and have delivered) hotels, Ohio’s largest movie theater, parks, fountains, town squares and public art. We were not simply creating a mall or group of retail anchors; we were crafting something vibrant — like a new town. A city within a city. 

With each new phase of development, we have improved our public spaces, adding curated public art and updating outdoor elements for contemporary consumers. Easton’s latest expansion, which opened in 2020, features art interwoven in alleyways, seating areas and store exteriors and is home to many locally owned dining and entertainment uses.

Easton Town Center’s design features an emphasis on public spaces and walkability.

Originally developed on vacant land, Easton’s phases are connected with organic design and pedestrian paths. Details, from furniture to wastebaskets, are designed for appeal. This approach by Steiner + Associates, which operates the center, has ensured that Easton has thrived, even during eras of dramatic declines in the number of traditional malls and a global pandemic.  

Reactive retail

Easton will continue to evolve to strengthen the relationship between its diverse attractions and the surrounding community. No one can predict the exact future of retail development and merchandising, but the industry will need to be responsive to shifting trends. 

Looking ahead, we are paying particular attention to several themes as we manage Easton’s ongoing evolution and elevation. 

The first focus is environmental responsibility and sustainability. This applies not only to the physical premises, but to the merchandise sold as well. According to one study conducted by Boston University, people in the U.S. throw out about 34 billion pounds of used textiles annually — equating to more than 100 pounds of textile waste per person per year. Similarly, a 2020 World Economic Forum study found that the fashion industry produces 10 percent of all humanity’s carbon emissions — more than all international flights and maritime shipping combined.  

Yaromir Steiner is the founder and CEO of Steiner + Associates and co-developer and manager of Easton Town Center.

This is a carbon footprint issue that we can take a leadership role in resolving. Because the best town centers function like cities, we can create space for reselling, recycling and reusing clothing and other textiles. While they may not be the latest style, we could make it very fashionable to serve the community by putting perfectly good textiles back into use and, more importantly, diverting billions of pounds of waste from landfills.

A second trend is that of interest in immersive education and learning opportunities. This might not manifest as museums at lifestyle centers, but there is an opportunity for activations such as traveling art exhibits. 

The third trend we see is the need for people to get out of social media silos and truly connect with one other again. Current generations are going to need a physical environment that allows for this connection, and retail centers will need to evolve to fulfill this need, becoming places where people can meet friends both old and new.

One thing is very clear 25 years into operating Easton Town Center — it has been an immense pleasure and honor to create and maintain a destination that stands the test of time. We value our team, guests, tenants and partners who have helped make our town center possible. We are committed to making Easton even more remarkable in the 25 years to come. 

Yaromir Steiner, founder and CEO of Steiner + Associates, co-developer and manager of Easton Town Center in Ohio. Steiner can be reached at [email protected].

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