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                OLD CAPITOL MALL: IOWA CITY, IA


Dan Faltesek's Commentary

Posted January 9, 2011 (user submitted)

There are been further changes at Old Capitol Mall:

Due to the flooding of the summer of 2008, a large amount of University of Iowa retail space near the river was rendered unusable, the bookstore in particular. These operations have now been in the mall for two years, and feature a small Apple store affiliate.

The food options now include Chipolte, a Sushi counter, Seoul Grill (Korean), Zaiaka (Indian), and a coffee shop.

The entire second floor has been converted into the University Information Technology Service and a conference center. Other areas are now used by the college of music, whose facilities had been destroyed by the flood as well.

In this configuration, there are no vacant store fronts, and during the academic year the building is bustling.

Jason Hancock's Commentary:

Posted March 24, 2005 (user submitted)

In the late 1970s and early 1980s, downtown Iowa City went through a phase of urban renewal. One project involved the construction of a two-story mall, with an adjacent parking ramp, in a two-block area right next to the University of Iowa campus. The mall opened for business in 1981, as Old Capitol Center; by 1995 it was renamed Old Capitol Mall, as a new logo inspired by the nearby Old Capitol building's dome was put on the mall's facade.

In its heyday, Old Capitol was anchored by JCPenney and Younkers. It also had the Campus Theaters, many nationally-known specialty shops and restaurants, and several locally-owned stores. Thanks to the Internet Archive, I found a list of Old Capitol retailers from circa 1996, the year I started attending the U of I. (http://web.archive.org/web/19970121141421/http://www.jeonet.com/ocmall.htm). The list included such nationally-known retailers as B. Dalton, Casual Corner, County Seat, Foot Locker, Musicland (later Sam Goody), Victoria's Secret, and Zales, as well as restaurants like Arby's, Orange Julius, and Sbarro. Taco Bell came later.

Old Capitol Mall did well for years, attracting U of I students and other downtown shoppers. Then came July 29, 1998, the day that Coral Ridge Mall opened in neighboring Coralville. The General Growth-owned Coral Ridge Mall was the first "regional" mall in Johnson County and the largest mall in Iowa at the time. JCPenney closed its Old Capitol store to move to a larger store at Coral Ridge. Younkers also opened a store there but vowed to keep its Old Capitol store open. But on December 20, 2004, parent company Saks Inc. decided to throw in the towel after six years of operating two Younkers stores in the Iowa City/Coralville area and announced that the underperforming Old Capitol store would close at the end of January 2005.

As expected, foot traffic at Old Capitol dropped after Coral Ridge opened. Parking in downtown Iowa City tends to be a hassle at times, whereas Coral Ridge, which is right off Interstate 80, offers plenty of free parking. Many locals figured, "Why pay to park downtown when I can park for free at Coral Ridge?" One by one, tenants left Old Capitol. Many specialty retailers who had auxiliary locations at Coral Ridge closed their Old Capitol stores when their leases expired, and some of the local stores folded as well. The biggest void in the post-Coral Ridge era was the former JCPenney store. A book market that sold out-of-print books at discount prices set up shop on its lower level for a few months. The Iowa City Public Library even considered moving there, but they ended up expanding their current building instead (that project was finished in June 2004). Finally, in 2001, a family fun center called Planet X took over the upper level of the old JCPenney. The University of Iowa -- -- which has been trying to curb alcohol use among students in recent years -- offered them money to relocate to the mall as a way to give students an alternative to the downtown bars. But Planet X struggled and was gone two years later. By the end of 2004, a church group called the 24-7 Young Adult Ministry (www.ui-247.com) was holding Thursday night church services in that space.

The mall also started going through financial problems. Old Capitol was purchased by the Pittsburgh-based Madison Realty Group in 1998. They changed the name of the mall to the Old Capitol Town Center in 2000, even though the signs on the building still say "Old Capitol Mall." In 2001, the lending company that gave over $11 million to the owners foreclosed, and a year later, the mall's owners filed Chapter 11.

At this point I should mention Iowa City's other enclosed mall, Sycamore Mall, which is off US Highway 6 in the southeast part of the city. Sycamore predates Old Capitol by over ten years and its anchors were Sears, Walgreens, and Von Maur. Sears moved to Coral Ridge when that mall opened, and Walgreens later moved to a free-standing store a mile to the north. As 2000 dawned, Sycamore was pretty much dead, as Von Maur, the cinemas, and a handful of specialty stores were all that remained. But a group of local investors bought the mall that year. They remodeled it and were able to attract some new tenants such as Dollar Tree, Panera Bread, former Old Capitol Mall tenant Talbots, and former Coral Ridge Mall tenant Four Seasons (a women's clothing store). Sycamore held a "grand reopening" in early 2002.

After the foreclosure case was settled out of court in 2003, a local investment group -- including some investors that were responsible for Sycamore Mall's revival -- purchased Old Capitol Mall. The new owners sure have their work cut out for them. Old Capitol has gone from about 60 stores and restaurants in its prime to about 20 now. One blogger recently called it "Iowa City's Great Covered Sidewalk."

The upper level gives Old Capitol the feeling of a "dead mall." All that was left at the end of 2004 were the Campus Theaters, La Nails, an optometrist's office, and the restrooms. For a while some of the empty storefronts were home to political offices (particularly leading up to the 2004 Iowa caucuses) and the Johnson County Historical Society. You can easily see label scars on some storefronts in the mall, including Aladdin's Castle, Foot Locker (now at Coral Ridge), and Sam Goody (now at a separate building downtown).

The lower level still has Osco Drug, which does very well since it's the only store of its kind in the downtown area. (The closing of Younkers has left Osco as Old Capitol's largest tenant.) It also has Regis Hairstylists, Sweets & Treats (a candy shop), Linx (a new high-speed internet gaming place), a Hallmark shop, a few wireless retailers (including a Verizon kiosk), a tax preparer, Express, Gamers, GNC (which moved from an upper level space directly above it), Eicher Florist, and UniversiTees (which, as you may guess, sells U of I apparel). The old Things Remembered space became a store where students could sell their textbooks for what the store said were better prices than what the University Book Store offers. (I wish they were around when I was a student there!)

Several restaurants have also opened on the lower level during the post-Coral Ridge era. Sbarro, Orange Julius, Cookies & More, and Taco Bell have been joined by Quizno's, China Star, Buffalo Wild Wings, and a coffee shop called T-Spoons (which now has some stiff competition in a Starbucks that opened across Clinton Street from where JCPenney used to be). Diamond Dave's, a Mexican restaurant and bar, moved from the upper level to the lower level. By the end of 2004 a seating area had been placed in the corridor between Osco and the old JCPenney.

I visited the mall on December 27, 2004, two days after Christmas. While Younkers was holding its store closing sale, some construction was going on to put windows on the northeast corner of the mall's facade. This later became the new home of the Cedar Rapids Gazette's Iowa City news bureau. Meanwhile, the former Talbots space in the northeast corner of the lower level will eventually become home to a branch of Hills Bank, and the lower level of the JCPenney space is being subdivided into smaller retail units. It seems like the new owners plan to put all the stores and restaurants on the lower level and turn the upper level into office space. It will be interesting to see what happens.

Anonymous' Commentary:

Posted October 2, 2005 (user submitted)

I made a couple of trips to Old Capitol Mall in 2005 and have some updates:

  • The old Younkers space has a new tenant: the University of Iowa. According to an article in the Iowa City Press-Citizen on June 14, the U of I plans to move its International Programs, its English as a Second Language program, and the UI Hospitals & Clinics' patient financial services administrative staff there. It also plans to add classrooms at the mall to replace classrooms at another facility where vandals broke in and removed research animals last November. The U of I paid about $11.3 million for that space, which isn't much less than the $12 million that the entire mall sold for just two years earlier.
  • Although the main Younkers signs had been taken down when I visited on July 1, the store hours were still visible on the outside doors, and the 1980s Younkers logo (not the Saks cookie-cutter flower logo that they currently use) was still visible on the glass doors inside the mall. By my next visit on July 28, the Younkers space inside the mall had been drywalled over as renovation work was going on inside.
  • The renovation of the old JCPenney's lower level into smaller retail units is finished and the main corridor has been extended. New restrooms were put on the lower level in this area, and Blick Art Materials moved from its old downtown location to one of the new spaces on the lower level. Blick has an exterior entrance along Clinton Street in addition to a mall entrance, like Diamond Dave's, Buffalo Wild Wings, China Star, Gamers, Quizno's, and Taco Bell do. By the end of July, La Nails moved to the lower level, leaving a grand total of zero retail stores on the upper level. The old La Nails and a couple nearby upper-level storefronts were drywalled over.
  • While Orange Julius has pulled out, a new locally-owned restaurant, J's Fish & Chips, has opened.
  • Old Cap now has a website, www.oldcapitoltowncenter.com, with photos of some of the remaining stores. The old site, www.iowacity.com/ocmall.htm, links to this very article as a way to read about the mall's history, but notes that "to paraphrase Twain -- the reports of its death were greatly exaggerated."









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