‘It may not be a mall forever:’ Checking in on Chapel Hill Mall

by Noor Hindi

I’m standing in front of Chapel Hill Mall, staring at a vacant parking lot and multiple shattered glass doors. Entrances are boarded up. There’s graffiti on multiple walls and a bag of clothes sitting alongside brown shoes.

Inside the mall, a blankness sets in. It’s December, just after Christmas, and my friend Archie the Snowman is situated in the cafeteria, looking as creepy as he did when I was six years old, and 10 years old, and 15 years old. I walk around the mall for a few minutes, looking into the many empty storefronts.

On Feb. 5, I count those vacant stores. Of the mall’s 62 spaces, 37 are empty, a vacancy rate of just under 60 percent. Two out of the three department stores are shuttered. JCPenney remains open, but that chain closed 140 stores nationwide in 2017 and another eight in 2018.

It’s 2 pm on a Tuesday and I count about 20 people walking around, not including employees. There are four kiosks. Three of the 12 restaurant spaces are uninhabited. The Akron Police Department has an office set up.

I notice the carousel is open, but I don’t see it move. As I gaze at it, I realize that I’ve now seen two of my childhood malls decline. I watched the slow death that was Rolling Acres Mall, and now, it feels like Chapel Hill Mall is on the brink.

As I make my way around the mall, I notice that most of the people there are older people who use the mall in the winter to walk. One exception is Taylor Zacharias, a fourth year Kent State University student. She carries a Victoria’s Secret bag. Taylor mentions that Chapel Hill is the closest mall to her, but she wishes there were more shopping options.

“If I wanted to really shop around, I wouldn’t come here. Everything is closed here.”

Longtime Cuyahoga Falls resident Nancy Null agrees. Nancy tries to come to the mall every day to walk. She remembers what the mall was like when she was in high school and is disappointed to see the space that was once Macy’s becoming a storage facility.

“I keep wanting to think yes, it’ll get better, but I don’t know,” she says. “I notice there’s a couple waste bins in here today catching water leaks from the ceiling.”

66-year-old John Jheith is reclined on a massage chair looking at his phone when I approach him. He’s been walking around intermittently throughout my time at the mall. He regularly shops there.

“I walk around, and if I find something good, I’ll buy it,” he says. “I’ve been coming here for years and years. It could get better, but you got to bring people in. Even if they rent them free in the beginning just to get people here.”

John makes a great point, but unfortunately, it’s not that simple. For malls like Chapel Hill, it’s a chicken-and-egg problem. It’s difficult to bring in more tenants when the mall is empty, and it’s equally challenging to bring in foot traffic without more tenants. According to a report from Credit Suisse, by 2022, one out of every four malls in the U.S. could be out of business.

City of Akron planning director Jason Segedy agrees, though he adds that malls can sometimes reinvent themselves with enough effort and direction.

“This is more speaking for myself, but I haven’t seen a lot of effort or creativity on the part of the owner of the mall to try to turn it around,” he says. “When we think about its future, it’s smart planning on our part to think that it may not be a mall forever and what could happen there then.”

Segedy says the area around Chapel Hill Mall is “very stable and solid,” because of its easy access to Route 8 and the way it brings together Cuyahoga Falls, Tallmadge and Akron. He adds that current zoning would allow for the space to be used as housing, retail, or both.

The mall’s owner, Mehran Kohansieh, owns about 30 malls across the United States. Kohansieh says he’s not satisfied with the Chapel Hill Mall’s performance.

“You can not be satisfied with it being 50 percent vacant. I will be satisfied once we get some new tenants in,” he says.

Kohansieh said the City of Akron is willing to work with him, but no plans to alter the mall are in motion. He also mentioned he’s thought about making the mall partially residential, but has not put forth a plan for the city to look at.

In the meantime, Kohansieh is hoping for more tenants. He says he offers one month rent-free to every new business.

“I want to welcome anybody in the community — the smaller tenants, larger tenants —it really doesn’t matter at this point. We are welcoming anyone,” Kohansieh says. “You have to look outside the box. If you think about office, call center, entertainment, you name it. That has to be the approach… we’ve been pretty successful in some malls and not very successful in others.”

Since the beginning of the year, the mall has brought in Reflection Hour, a women’s business center. Reflection Hour helps women start businesses by providing business classes and mentorship opportunities.

Chief financial officer Walter Mcmahan says they’re excited to open up and that mall management has been helpful. He says Reflection Hour and the mall have been working “closely” together to rejuvenate the shopping center.

“They have some new managers and they’re doing some things and they’re awesome,” he says. “We have some really big plans in the next six months to bring more awareness to Chapel Hill Mall.”

Walter works alongside Laquan Chappell, who says management and Reflection Hour are “all on the same page with the same goals.”

“Our goal is not only to rejuvenate the mall but also the City of Akron as well. We’re trying to liven it back up again. That’s our goal.”

Chapel Hill Mall management has been active on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram lately and has been hosting events at the mall. A Chili Cook Off was held on Feb. 23.

In the meantime, empty malls seldom make people feel safe. Many were afraid of visiting Chapel Hill after the stabbing of Terrance L. Rogers Sr. in August 2015. According to the Akron Police Department’s Community Crime Map, between Feb. 11, 2018 and Feb. 11, 2019, there were 52 instances of theft, one instance of aggravated robbery and one instance of rape reported at the mall.

Compare this to Summit Mall, which had one instance of aggravated robbery and no instances of robbery reported the Fairlawn Police Department within the last year, says Fairlawn Police Department Records Custodian Amy Wentz.

APD has an office set up in the mall.

“Chapel Hill Mall employs off-duty officers on a daily basis. The mall management feels that the storefront is a deterrent to potential problems and shoplifters. The office is used for officers to do any paperwork or take individuals out of the public’s sight, if there is an arrest,” says APD Lieutenant Rick Edwards.

Signs posted throughout Chapel Hill Mall forbid photography. I realize the last mall I took pictures of was Rolling Acres Mall. In 2015, a few of my friends and I visited the abandoned mall. By that time, Rolling Acres had become a sore spot in Kenmore. We snuck into the space by walking around the perimeter, searching for a rupture in the walls. It was summer and the sunlight fell on the colorful graffiti lining the outside of Rolling Acres. The parking lot was disturbingly vacant, save for the four of us tiptoeing around, too cool to admit we were a little terrified by its silence.

Rolling Acres in 2015:

Eventually, we found a way in. I remember the glass crunching under our feet, the broken escalator with the handrails dangling mid-air, clothes and paraphernalia left over from homeless residents, and the remnants of old store signs, still hanging with letters missing. I remember the distinct feeling of emptiness permeating my body as we wandered around the mall’s hollowness.

The quietness was jarring. At some point during its timeline of neglect, the glass ceiling in the middle of Rolling Acres had shattered, bringing rain and snow into the mall. The elevator, which I remember riding in as a kid, was overtaken by dead plants and algae, a gentle reminder of the strength of nature and the ongoing death of malls in the United States.

Like many Akronites, I have hazy memories of Rolling Acres when it was alive and busy with shoppers bustling to and from. Mostly, I can recall the distinct smell of soft pretzels and I have a blurry recollection of buying licorice at one of its stores on more than a few occasions. When the mall entered its years of decline in the mid-2000s, my family would continue to visit JCPenney Outlet.

Chapel Hill Mall management declined to comment for this story. But on Feb. 5, the mall posted on its Facebook the following message: “Breathe a sigh of relief everyone.. We’re not going anywhere!!” The message came with a custom image, reminding viewers that “Chapel Hill Mall is NOT closing.”

I hope they’re right.

Noor Hindi is The Devil Strip’s Senior Reporter. Contact her at noor@thedevilstrip.com.

Photos by Noor Hindi and Rosalie Murphy.