Wexner’s World: The Spatial Impact of Columbus’ Billionaire
With economic and political power, an individual billionaire like Les Wexner tends to take on the roll of a city planner and architect. His spatial impact on the city of Columbus, Ohio is hard to miss.
New Albany High School, New Albany, Ohio.
‘I think the Arts Center represents that only in a democracy can you have entrepreneurs and really have freedom of expression,’ said Leslie Wexner at the reopening of the Wexner Center for the Arts in 2005. His quest to build democracy, freedom and a more centralized landscape in Columbus has had skewed results, but the breadth of his spatial impact on the city is undeniable — from the Easton shopping center to the entire suburb of New Albany and all of the buildings with his name on them.
The specific architectural structures of his real estate empire and the vastness of it exposes something much more revealing in the current state of our political economy here in the U.S. and central Ohio — the accelerated market importance of space. As the philosopher Fredric Jameson put it, ‘today, all politics is about real estate.’ This puts billionaires and corporations in a place to gain a monopoly on the real estate market and therefore privatize space, using their political power to do so at the public’s expense. Wexner’s impact on the city is a representation of the wider political and economic power of the ultra-rich in the U.S., which is unabashedly on display in Columbus.
Following in the footsteps of his parents who owned a clothing store, Leslie Wexner made his fortune in retail, starting The Limited in 1963 in a mall outside of Columbus. Now called L Brands, Columbus became the HQ of his retail empire, making the city the third largest fashion hub in the US behind NYC and LA. Wexner grew his holdings to include Abercrombie & Fitch, Victoria’s Secret, and Bed Bath and Body Works. Starting in the 1980s, however, he expanded his portfolio to include real estate.
In Kevin R. Cox’s new book Boomtown Columbus, he argues that Columbus has three ‘-Lands’, each run by their own centralized node of power: OSU-land, Nationwide-land, and Wexner-land. Wexner-land is ‘a real estate empire on the northeast side covering, intermittently, an area stretching from Easton to New Albany and taking in the [L Brands] distribution center on the other side of the freeway from Easton.’¹
The development of Wexner-land was, and is, shaped by a team of lawyers, developers and companies that make sure all development within Easton and New Albany is on-brand and benefits their wider developmental interests. If something were proposed to be built close to his real estate empire that would be a potential threat to the flow of rent and sales at Easton, the leadership in Wexner-land would promptly push for this to be shot down by the city — and it very likely would do so successfully.
It also means that when land in New Albany is sold to outside developers, the designs for architecture and planning have to strictly match the rest of the New Classical style of the suburb. The Easton highway exit, for example, was made to blend the highway exit into the brick ‘town center’ aesthetic so the bridge over the highway is fenced by a large black gate with ‘EASTON’ spelled out with old fashioned lamps overhead. As Tim Feran wrote in The Dispatch back in 2009, ‘It’s not dissimilar from New Albany with its white fences, which give you the notion as you’re arriving that New Albany is a special place.’² It’s natural that Easton blends the New Albany-style brick buildings with an art deco theater and stores at Easton. It combines the feeling of 19th century southern plantations with the decadence of laissez faire capitalism from the 1920s.
Easton Town Center, Columbus, Ohio.
At the time of the construction of Easton’s exit there were other more urgent highway projects that needed attention — the Mid-Ohio Regional Planning Commission (MORPC) listed two ahead of the extremely expensive Easton project paired with a New Albany bypass — but this was overridden by the Ohio Department of Transportation.³ An article in The Other Paper pointed out that it was Wexner’s connections that helped him secure the state’s clearing the way and funding the over $230 million project — including donations to the Ohio governor at the time, George Voinovich ($55,000 between 1990–1994 and a $25,000-per-plate fundraiser in 1993).⁴
In a move to secure cheap sewage and water for New Albany without integrating into Columbus City Schools (which was required under Columbus’ ‘Win-Win’ law at the time), Wexner and his lawyers threatened to get water and sewage from surrounding townships. They did this with the intent of forcing Columbus into making a deal. The Win-Win law was created to help improve Columbus City Schools and to help with desegregation as the city expanded. But Wexner and his developers couldn’t allow this integration to take place for fear of reducing appeal to wealthier home-buyers.
The city controversially caved to their demands. The city council president at the time, Jerry Hammond, was later sued when it was discovered that Wexner, Kessler and other New Albany developers had invested in Hammond’s jazz club, the Major Chord, and donated heavily to his and other city council members’ campaigns who were involved in the decision.⁵
It becomes apparent through these kinds of examples that Columbus’ ‘-Lands’ are focused on holding power that is economic (profits), spatial (development), and aesthetic (design) — each relying on politics. All appear to feed into one another.
New Albany and The Truman Show
With its own schools and access to the city’s cheap water and sewage, New Albany was built by Wexner’s New Albany Company in the spirit of what’s called ‘New Urbanist’ planning. This is a style of planning that attempts to push back against car-centric, sprawling suburbs by creating a kind of town center and trying to prioritize pedestrian traffic. As The New Albany Company put it, their goal with New Albany was to avoid ‘the pitfalls of post-World War II suburban sprawl.’
In the 1998 film, The Truman Show, Truman lives on a perfect little island called Seahaven. Seahaven is, according to the show’s creator in the film, ‘the way the world should be.’⁶ In the film the town is a literal island, a bubble of perfection; there is no outside world. The island is perfectly planned to live on with bike paths, sidewalks, a town center, and beautiful beach homes.
That unsettling, almost haunting, feeling is much more obvious in The Truman Show, but there’s still something off putting when you’re in New Urbanism. If New Albany feels like Seahaven, that’s because the most prominent example of New Urbanist planning is the Florida town of Seaside; it’s the town where The Truman Show was filmed and clearly attempts to offer an Americanized blending of car, bike, and pedestrian traffic from the outskirts to the center with a very streamlined beach house aesthetic. New Albany does this too with sidewalks and bike paths lined with white fences guiding people from the surrounding houses towards a central ‘Market Street’. The houses in New Albany, however, look more like a modern theme park for a 19th century town than Seaside’s beach homes. That not everyone can afford to breach New Albany’s bubble is what led the geographer and historian Robert Fishman to call suburbs ‘bourgeois utopias.’⁷
Within the bubble, New Urbanism really seems like a kind of utopia — nice houses, good schools, the best fast food chains (located inside a brick strip mall) — but to get in requires a certain income and to build that kind of town requires capital. As the geographer David Harvey observed, New Urbanism sells ‘small town nostalgia in a suburban setting to a very affluent clientele.’⁸ The bourgeois utopia of New Albany is connected to the city of Columbus, greatly relying on public funds to support its private development, whether it be highway exits, water and sewage, or tax abatements. While a studio light might not fall from the sky like in The Truman Show, a further look at the architecture and planning exposes the same apprehension.
During the BLM uprisings, the lawn of the Ohio Statehouse became a kind of social condenser, a temporary commons. Spending time there, I couldn’t help but admire the architecture and the democratic values that the Greek Revivalist building puts on display, naturally communicating that the building is home to the state legislature. Marches through the downtown streets would then inevitably lead to the Columbus Division of Police’s headquarters, a green postmodern skyscraper that’s much less honest; it looks less like a police headquarters and much more like a corporate office building. When I attended a protest in the suburb of New Albany, however, the town’s design and architecture was much more complicated than being either honest or subversive. The march stayed on the wide walkways and the brick buildings, instead of being tall and ominous, were short, astute, but authoritative — as if they knew we didn’t pose a threat.
If the statehouse’s architecture tries to be honest about its purpose and the police headquarters tries to subvert it, New Albany’s New Classical architecture does both. Looking at the wider inequality that the US is undergoing, New Albany’s New Classical architecture, referencing the plantation architecture of the south, seems to be able to both subvert and expose the political unconscious of the suburb and the US more generally.
On the New Albany Company’s website, they mentioned that Les Wexner and local developer Jack Kessler visited the James River Plantations where they found inspiration not just in the architecture, but also in the ‘intrinsic relationship to the land’ (although after I used this quote in a previous essay, they took it off their website). The James River Plantation was a notorious slave plantation in Virginia, now preserved as a tourist destination. The New Classical architecture of New Albany and its New Urbanist design both carry with them these unsettling associations with slave plantations because they were explicitly built in their image.
New Albany High School, New Albany, Ohio.
On the one hand, the architecture subverts the plantation association in pastiche — this style of architecture is simply used to attract the upper class suburbanites, not to be historically loaded. On the other hand, it represents the current social relations that allow for the existence of these ‘bourgeois utopias’ — increased inequality at the public’s expense and wealth made on the backs of sweatshops in the global south (specifically in reference to Wexner’s retail empire that funded much of the development).
Corporate Bunkers: The L Brands HQ
Columbus shares very little with older cities that have a bustling city center and expansive public transportation networks. To engage effectively with the fragmented city, you have to be an appendage of the automobile, reliant on superhighways and a landscape of strip malls. Without a car to inject into the network of highways and splintered sectors of commerce and culture, a pedestrian is just a fragment of a person — or so the city tells you.
Although Wexner contributes to and thrives off of today’s fragmented postmodern/post-industrial landscape, there’s still this yearning from him to re-establish an old fashioned center. This can be seen in New Albany and Easton’s New Urbanist design (Easton is literally called Easton Town Center) and his investments in OSU as a cultural center. However, the reality of Wexner’s development shows an even more fragmented city with increased and scattered pieces, divided into more ‘-Lands’ instead of creating one center.
While New Albany’s architecture may look like an old fashioned town, the buildings that are at the financial base of Wexner’s postindustrial fragmented retail empire offer a much more honest depiction of this fragmentation. The most clear case of this architectural honesty of urban fragmentation is the L Brands HQ buildings — the main one being across the highway from Easton, called DC3. The black bunker-like structure is almost brutalist; similar to what we’d imagine futuristic military barracks to look like with tight security and surveillance. To even get a photograph of the fortress is nearly impossible. With long lines of trees and no sidewalks, the corporate headquarters looks as if they’d hold out longest in an apocalypse.
L Brands HQ, New Albany, Ohio.
The brutalist L Brands HQ is honest because the bunker-like structure doesn’t attempt to gloss over the implications of how a retail brand can generate so much revenue and profits. In many ways Wexner’s retail empire was the start of what’s known today as ‘fast fashion’ — affordable clothes made in sweatshops. It would make sense that a company’s headquarters looks like an ominous bunker considering the use of prison labor for Victoria’s Secret and sweatshops for Abercrombie, the glossy interior matching the wealth that’s re-distributed.
When taking the political and economic power of Wexner and developers paired with the exploitation needed to get that power, the buildings they create are exposed as physical manifestations of this combination of power and exploitation. Since buildings are built with this money, how they’re designed can either reflect this exploitation (L Brands HQ) or subvert it (something like The Wexner Medical Centers). However, like New Albany, the Wexner Center for the Arts building at OSU both reflects and subverts private power and exploitation.
Although each is different, Wexner’s L Brands HQ, Easton and New Albany are all a testament to the postindustrial landscape. This landscape is decentralized, reliant on super highways and dependent upon the power of the private sector to direct where public money goes.
In a piece Wexner wrote for The Dispatch back in 1983, Wexner complained about Columbus’ fragmented development that lacked a true center. ‘[T]here is no center… You have a bunch of people just spread out.’⁹ He blames this on a lack of collaboration, saying that the city is ‘cooperating with individual segments, each going his separate way.’ He goes on to say that cities should instead grow on ‘collective wisdom’, which, he argues, consists of ‘tax abatements, tax incentives, strong zoning, strong leadership in the private sector.’
However, what he prescribes as the problem and pitches as the solution are actually both happening simultaneously in Columbus. The city is continuing to use Wexner’s theory of ‘collective wisdom’ by giving large tax incentives and power to the private sector, yet the city has only become more fragmented as a result. It’s apparent that when the public sector allows private leadership to take the wheel, what we get is more fragmentation and unequal development. Ed Soja went even further to argue that ‘[t]he very existence of capitalism presupposes the sustaining presence and vital instrumentality of geographically uneven development.’¹⁰
The place of The Columbus Partnership, a group of ‘CEOs from Columbus’ leading businesses and institutions, until recently headed by Wexner, and joined by the CEO of every major bank, corporation and real estate company in Columbus, is a testament to Wexner’s private sector leading the public sector. According to Wexner, in the late 1980s J.W. Wolfe, owner of The Columbus Dispatch, asked Wexner if he ‘wanted to join him as one of the three or four people who decides what happens in town — like who’s mayor and where the highways go.’¹¹ Wexner declined only until they could get more people than just him and Wolfe involved. Tax abatements, tax incentives, and the overwhelming influence of a billionaire is precisely the force that physically morphs the city into a decentralized, fragmented, and unequal mega-mall with the results making residents feel as if there’s no alternative to this landscape.
We see this physically embodied most clearly in the architecture of The Wexner Center for the Arts on OSU’s campus. The building, designed by Peter Eisenman, was built where the Ohio State Armory used to be. Opening in the 1980s, the white gridded frame on the outside along with the brick castle-like fortified tower look like a postmodern distortion of New Albany’s New Classical architecture. It’s as if the military bunker of the L Brands building was violently thrown at Wexner’s New Albany estate and twisted into a postmodern sculpture. It represents Wexner’s desire to create a center in Columbus — as an art gallery on OSU’s central campus that he contributed millions towards — but it also exposes the contradiction of his desire in its distorted postmodern design, the opposite of the formal McMansions of New Albany.
The Wexner Center for the Arts, Columbus, Ohio.
Walking into the art center you reach a small desk where you’re directed into what looks like the basement, but instead is the gift shop and the first gallery room. After looking through the medium sized room, it’s apparent that this was only a small part of the space and to see the rest you have to walk up a long hallway, which is actually the gallery itself. The gallery is a hallway of fragmented spaces, the opposite side is lined with small back staircases up to the next space. The flow is linear and uphill, but also distorted in that you can weave to the stairs or the hallway adjacent — in every way the opposite of a traditional white box gallery. It feels like it matches the distortion of the chaotic exterior. When its flow seems predictable, the last staircase is exposed abruptly by a security guard as a staircase leads to nowhere. If you walk around to the other side you’ll see a small rectangle where the staircase drops 6 feet to an off limits area. The architecture and interior both physically represent Wexner’s contradictory desire to create a spatial center while constantly being the private force that further fragments the city.
While attempting to create centers, the material reality is an increasingly more fragmented geographical sprawl. The Wexner Center for the Arts is a part of ‘OSU-land’, but is of course separated from ‘Wexner-land’, the Arena District, downtown and every other piece of the increasingly splintered city. The postindustrial city doesn’t have all of its jobs and housing downtown, but is instead spread out throughout the center and surrounding area. Wexner-land is a geographic project that relies on unequal economic conditions and political power, forming a city built by this equation. It becomes apparent that the developer-run city of Columbus is ‘not just a question of what capitalism does to geography but rather of what geography can do for capitalism…’¹²
- Kevin R. Cox, Boomtown Columbus: Ohio’s Sunbelt City and How Developers Got Their Way (Columbus, United States: Trillium, 2021), 232.
- Tim Feran, “The First 10 Years: Easton Town Center Has Become Such a Popular Fixture , It’s Hard to Remember That Its Concept Was a Risky Decision,” Columbus Dispatch, July 5, 2009.
- Cox, Boomtown, 121.
- “I-270 Widening Stalls; Wexner’s Projects Sail,” The Other Paper, November 3–9, 1994, 10.
- “Bias Suit Revisits ’87 Dispute over Nightclub,” Columbus Dispatch, December 12, 2000, C2.
- The Truman Show. Directed by Peter Weir, Scott Rudin Productions, 1998.
- Robert Fishman, Bourgeois Utopias (New York, NY: Basic Books Inc., 1987), 39.
- David Harvey, Spaces of Hope (University of California Press, 2000), 172.
- “A Different View of Downtown,” Columbus Dispatch, May 15, 1983, p. G-I.
- Edward Soja, Postmodern Geographies: The Reassertion of Space in Critical Social Theory (New York, NY: Verso Books, 2011 originally published 1989), 107.
- Neil Smith, Uneven Development: Nature, Capital and the Production of Space (1984), xi.