Forest Fair Mall demolition given another year to happen

Credit: Nick Graham

Credit: Nick Graham

Majority of mall property is in Hamilton County.

The state has approved a one-year grant extension to raze the old Forest Fair Mall, so officials say the developer is moving forward to purchase the properties and begin revitalizing a key gateway to Butler County.

Butler County Land Bank Executive Director Seth Geisler told the Journal-News the Ohio Department of Development demolition grant extension came through on Friday, moving the deadline from May 31 to June 30, 2024. He spoke with the developer on Wednesday, “we are all invigorated to have the extension given to us by the state.”

“Hillwood is actively working with all parties involved to keep this project moving forward. As the project continues there will be zoning meetings held for the site plan,” Geisler said adding in terms of the land bank’s involvement with the demolition, “I am satisfied that the steps that are being taken by the Hillwood group will meet the new timeline for the ODOD Building Demolition and Site Revitalization Program.”

When the state biennial budget passed in June 2021, it allocated $150 million for commercial and residential demolitions and $350 million for brownfield remediation. The land bank won $7.9 million of the demolition money to raze the old Forest Fair Mall — now called the Cincinnati Mall — along Interstate 275, the total demolition is estimated at $10.5 million and there is a $2.6 million local match the developer pays.

Each of the 88 counties automatically received $500,000 for demolition and $1 million for brownfield remediation, which is the removal of hazardous materials left when industrial, or even commercial such as dry cleaners blight is downed.

The remainder of the money was to be awarded on a “first-come, first-served” basis. The land bank applied for $11.5 million to topple 51 eyesores with the ODOD last February and was awarded $8.7 million in October. The bulk of it was for the mall which straddles Fairfield and Forest Park, in partnership with developer Hillwood Construction Services.

The majority of the mall property is in Hamilton County, but those officials had already submitted demolition applications to the state so Hillwood came to Butler County for help. Ben Davis with Hillwood told the land bank board a year ago they were just beginning redevelopment talks with Fairfield and Forest Park, but they hope to put light industrial buildings on the site that could have a value of $150 million and potentially produce 900 to 1,500 jobs. According to the funding application, the property is currently valued at $9.2 million, with $2 million of that on the Butler County side.

The land bank has no say over what is eventually developed on the 90-acre site, the municipalities have full control. Fairfield Mayor Mitch Rhodus told the Journal-News previously while he would be thrilled to see the eyesore demolished, he isn’t wild about warehouses at the city’s front door.

“Getting it demolished is a great idea, we’ve been wanting it done,” Rhodus said. “We’re very encouraged but we’re more concerned with what’s going to be the next product. It’s a gateway to the community so we’re concerned with what plans and what companies want to bring to us.”

The land bank board met this week and expressed some concerns over the project, like Fairfield’s stance on the future plans, whether any mortgage holders have agreed to the demolition, how quickly the sale of the property and zoning changes can go through and what happens if the new deadline can’t be met, among other issues, “is it realistic for them to be able to get all this done,” board member and West Chester Twp. Trustee Ann Becker asked.

The board members want more clarity on the many moving pieces attached to the major project.

“I’m just wondering if it might be wise for us to get some sort of roundtable with the developer, a couple members of the board, to get them and Fairfield and the current owners together to see where we are,” board member Dan Acton said. “I like the end project, but it just seems like the cart’s before the horse in so many different ways in this thing.”

Geisler said this has definitely been “a chicken and egg” situation because the developers didn’t want to get too far ahead on the project without assurances they would get the demolition grant and now the extension. Geisler told the Journal-News the DoD led him to believe the June 2024 deadline could also be extended into the following year if need be.

Board Secretary Kathy Dudley cautioned the board that it must comply with open meeting laws and told the Journal-News a meeting with the current owner and the developer is inappropriate.

“We are not the ones that are going to be closing on the deal if there is one, that’s up to Hillwood,” Dudley said. “To me it would be counterproductive because we really shouldn’t be in the nitty-gritty details of what makes it financially viable for the developer.”

Dudley said a meeting with some of the other players could be necessary at some point, “but I don’t think they’re even close to that.”

“I think it’s very legitimate that the board would like a clearer timetable and staff will facilitate that very quickly,” Dudley told the Journal-News.

Davis could not be reached for comment but told the Journal-News previously they couldn’t comment because they didn’t yet own the property. According to the Butler and Hamilton county auditor’s websites, the properties have not been sold.

Fairfield Economic Development Manager Nathaniel Kaelin told the Journal-News previously there have been discussions about keeping the Kohls store intact and they expect “the developer will work with Kohl’s to determine how they fit into a redevelopment project.”

He could not be reached for comment on whether they have had recent discussions with Hillwood, but said previously the developer is well aware of the city’s redevelopment preferences for the property.

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