If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, there was nary a more sincerely flattered project than the 1.7 million-square-foot retail component of Easton Town Center during the building boom of a few years ago. Today, 10 years after developers Steiner & Associates and the Georgetown Co. completed the second phase of that Columbus, Ohio, mixed-use project, such town centers dot the map, and each owes at least some degree of inspiration to Easton.
Even a property as far away from Columbus as Istinye Park, which happens to be in Turkey, displays many of the components of a town center as envisioned at Easton: retail and entertainment mixed in a setting with gathering spaces, fountains and other facets of urban design. In fact, the town center model has become so common that one can hardly recall the skepticism that initially greeted plans for Easton in the late 1990s.
“I don’t believe the industry considered cinemas or restaurants as viable anchors for a property,” said Yaromir Steiner, CEO of Steiner & Associates. “Entertainment as a driving component wasn’t well understood. That was one thing that Easton demonstrated in its early days, and the industry has made the concept its own since then.”
The genesis of Easton Town Center was not precisely an accident, but it was unexpected, according to Steiner. His company had earlier developed a much smaller project in the Coconut Grove neighborhood of Miami, at the behest of a French bank that had foreclosed on the site. The bank was willing to try something different: an entertainment-anchored retail property. That project is CocoWalk.
“At first CocoWalk’s success wasn’t apparent, but after about a year and half, we realized its stores were outperforming most others in their brands in many cases,” said Steiner. Later came an opportunity to replicate the CocoWalk formula, but not from an expected source, and not in a similar warm-climate setting. Leslie Wexner, chairman of Limited Cos., wanted to build retail on a 30-acre site in Columbus, and also wanted something different from a standard mall. According to Steiner, the plans for Easton drew inspiration not just from CocoWalk, but also from the urban environment in which it was built: Coconut Grove, with its mix of entertainment, retail, residential and other commercial uses, its gathering spaces and its town-square elements, such as pedestrian-friendly streetscapes.
“There’s a rational explanation as to why the Easton project made sense, but that didn’t come first,” Steiner said. “We learned something from Coconut Grove, and then Wexner opted for something different, and then management of Nordstrom was willing to take a place in an open-air project. The idea for Easton grew organically and opportunistically.” (Nordstrom anchored Easton’s second phase.)
Easton has always been a popular destination, drawing some 21 million visitors annually. Retailers have responded well to both phases, establishing a pattern of high occupancy, well over 90 percent throughout the last decade and currently about 99 percent. The property has been popular as a launching pad for a number of brands in metro Columbus or in Ohio at large, including restaurant chains Brio Tuscan Grille, Cheesecake Factory and McCormick & Schmick’s, and retailers Anthropologie, Bang & Olufsen and The Container Store. There were also a good many early locations of now widespread brands, such as the sixth Apple Store.
Even during the worst of the recession, retailers continued to lease at Easton. The more recent influx includes well-known names such as Burberry, H&M and Tiffany & Co., and relatively new entities like Five Guys Burgers.
Given such success, Easton is likely to continue for some time to inspire flatteries of the very greatest sincerity.