The cranes that punctuate downtown Indy’s skyline should bear some real fruit within the next two years. Finally. Urban bloggers have recently observed—with no small amount of criticism—the relatively meager increase in downtown Indianapolis’ housing construction that took place during the previous decade (from 2000 to 2010) when compared to other peer cities in the Midwest. No doubt this is true: when I think of major housing projects that took place during that time frame, I draw a blank. It’s possible that, because downtown Indy enjoyed a comparatively brisk pace of housing construction during the 1990s—when many other Midwestern downtowns were still fairly stagnant—that the relative paucity of housing construction in the 00s correlated directly to the demand for housing calibrating with the supply.
Yet within the past six months, we have witnessed the groundbreaking on multiple large developments, totaling over 1,600 units when complete. A significant portion of this new housing construction will take place on a block of Massachusetts Avenue over which the Barton Tower currently presides.
The remainder of this block hosts the grassy park surrounding the tower on one side of Mass Ave, and the Indianapolis Fire Department headquarters and credit union sprawl across the other side of the street. Construction on the Barton Tower has already begun, in the space to the east of the tower, fronting East Street. Before long, the vast lawn to the west of the Tower will turn into additional multi-family housing. And, in due time, after city leaders have found a new location for the Fire Department facilities, another large residential structure will commence construction on that side of the Avenue.
Eventually the buildings in the above photo will come down.
Almost the entirety of the Mass Ave street-level frontage for these developments will host retail. No doubt many readers of Urban Indy have labeled that segment of Mass Ave (seen in the photos above) as the “dead zone” or the “missing link” needed to catalyze diagonal corridor into a truly vibrant upscale urban retail/entertainment district, on par with (for example) the southernmost six or seven blocks of the Short North district in Columbus, Ohio. The ambitions for Mass Ave over the next few years help precipitate the worthwhile question: “Where are we now?” Massachusetts Avenue is a desirable entertainment district, no doubt, and the Chatham Arch and Lockerbie Square neighborhoods command some of the highest per-square-foot housing costs in the entire city.
But virtually no one who has visited Columbus’ Short North would claim that Mass Ave boasts a comparable level of activity and desirability. Why not?
Taking a look at some of the current retail offerings may help to shed some light.
At its best, the corridor successfully offers an entertainment experience (mostly restaurant and specialty retail) catering to the affluent demographic that lives in the surrounding Chatham Arch, St. Joseph, and Lockerbie Square neighborhoods. On an unseasonably warm day in early March, the street feels like a vibrant neighborhood, where I suspect a huge proportion of the people strolling, riding bicycles, or walking their dogs are their more as “free riders”—not so much to buy the goods and services but to consume the urban leisure experience, which has become such a salient aspect of city revitalization that it operates as a variant of economist Paul Samuelson’s “public good” in and of itself. These passive shoppers along Mass Ave are doing absolutely nothing illegal or even unethical, but it may help to explain why the corridor as a whole still seems to fall short of its potential.
Despite the lucre of the corridor, many storefronts linger in a vacant state. The second photo above, the site of the Bu Da Lounge before it relocated to Market Street, has remained empty now for about a year. One could argue that it is having trouble finding a tenant because it is too small to attract most restaurants, but it would seem just the right size for a boutique. No luck. And clearly size isn’t a real factor: a much larger space, the former site of Bazbeaux Pizza, languished until the new restaurant Bakersfield took over just a few weeks ago.
But after Bazbeaux moved across the street, the old location sat vacant for nearly two years. And then there’s the other end of Mass Avenue, sometimes called the “East End”, which has lacked the same prominence as the blocks closer to the city center. And it shows.
Trail Side on Mass, a mixed-income multifamily development, opened last year with approximately 70 units and over 10,000 square feet of retail. To the best of my knowledge, it had no problem leasing out the apartments. But, almost year after opening, the retail component remains completely vacant.
This end of the Mass Ave commercial corridor has always suffered from reduced visibility. When a pedestrian stands at the intersection of Massachusetts and College Avenues and looks eastward, it is difficult to discern that there is any further activity along that block. Many of the small businesses at the “East End” have survived thanks to word of mouth. But that hasn’t been enough to attract new tenants, despite the added population density induced by Trail Side on Mass. Perhaps the property managers are seeking excessively high leasing rates; I don’t feel it is my place either to investigate or pass judgment on that. (No doubt Mass Ave in general commands some of the priciest per-square-foot leases in all of metro Indianapolis.) But the fact remains that, despite the development’s many merits, it does help advance the assertion that Mass Ave’s retail corridor is flourishing.
Vacancy levels, though, are not the only viable means of gauging retail vibrancy along the avenue. It’s time to look at what’s going on in those occupied storefronts as well. Obviously, more than a few spots host restaurants, boutiques, and bars.
The retail ostensibly attempts to capitalize on the demographic that lives in the Chatham arch: affluent professionals with few children. Maybe they’re empty nesters, maybe they’re single, maybe they’re gay, maybe they only have one child not yet of school age. Whatever the situation, the ensuing neighborhood retail indicates that they have a lot of money to spend on themselves (evidenced by the high concentration of “personal care” outlets: spas, hair/nail salons). As materialistic as this may seem to those who have no interest in city living, these storefronts comprise the essence of an idealized urban recreational corridor—a metropolitan lifestyle niche that shows no real evidence of flagging in popularity.
But, interspersed between these successful and (mostly) locally run establishments are tenants who don’t divert the gaze of the passer-by.
Behind those large storefront windows sit a variety of white-collar services.
Insurance brokers, realtors, doctors, cosmetic dentists, PR firms, law offices, engineering—you name it. All of these agencies are essential to an urban environment; less critical is that they occupy highly-visible first floor retail space. I’m certain it doesn’t hurt their bottom line, but the fact remains that plenty of realtors, doctors, and so forth can function perfectly well in a virtually windowless building set quite some distance from the main road, or tucked away in the upper floor of some office building in a corporate park. Compare that with a clothing boutique, or art gallery, or a restaurant—more often than not, they need to be seen to attract passers-by, either by foot or by wheels. Rare is a pet supply store or chocolate bar that can flourish solely through ad space and an address/phone listing in the yellow pages. But plenty of insurance agencies derive their business from people researching before they visit—not spontaneity.
By no means am I trying to begrudge these realtors/chiropractors/doctors their broadly visible first-floor retail space, nor would I ever dream of advocating that landlords and property managers deny them first-floor tenancy. But the fact that Mass Avenue has so many of them only serves as proof that landlords don’t have the leeway to be that choosy. They take what they can get, and, more often than not, these service providers are far more stable and recession-proof than a specialty haberdasher or perfumery. For example, Mass Ave Chiropractic has occupied storefront space here for as long as I can remember, well before the street was a very coveted address. Yet it sits at this site with 80% of its window space covered in an opaque sheath.
Weird. Or maybe not. The way a tenant “dresses” the windows underlies the difference between the FIRE (Finance, Insurance, Real Estate) industry and conventional goods-and-services retail. You can often tell which type of use a storefront is hosting, even when standing from a huge distance. Why? It’s all about those venetian blinds.
Chances are, the employees behind this storefront are sitting close to the window, at desks, in front of computers—quite a contrast from a purveyor of doggie biscuits. An insurance agency understandably needs the blinds pulled because the sun emits an uncomfortable and sometimes unworkable glare. At the same time, this treatment of the broad storefront window space only corroborates the notion that lawyers and doctors don’t really need the storefront space. In fact, they rarely even use it to their advantage. They can take it because the landlord isn’t demanding high enough rates to repel them, and the reason the landlord isn’t offering high enough rates is because he or she can’t; the corridor simply hasn’t attracted enough base line of coveted high-end retailers.
Within downtown Indianapolis, Mass Ave is hardly unique to this phenomenon. Several other new developments have struggled to find retail, and when they do, they have to settle for FIRE or design/engineering firms. Take the Cosmopolitan on the Canal, for example:
It took well over a year to find any tenants along its Senate Avenue and Michigan Street frontage. When it finally leased space, it went to an ad agency.
I have absolutely nothing against Three Sixty Group, and I commend them for not shrouding their office activity behind curtains. But I’d still imagine that 60% of the Cosmopolitan’s GLA remains unrented. The same situation presents itself at another fairly new development, the Maxwell in Lockerbie Square, visible on the right-hand side of the photo below:
As far as massing and general urban design principles go, it’s a pretty solid building. But it has struggled to lease its first-floor retail. On my own blog, I hinted at why I thought its view of an electric substation seriously dampens its attractiveness, but that’s not necessarily a game changer. Eventually the Maxwell has leased out most of its space—but with engineering firms.
More of those blankety-blank blinds, but considering what they have to look at across the street—
–can you entirely blame them? And don’t even get me started on the Canal Walk, where expansive storefront space has always belonged to offices, the vast majority of which keep their curtains drawn.
Obviously we don’t want to make the perfect the enemy of the good, and it’s wonderful that these spaces are finding tenants in a persistently weak economy. But for the PR teams responsible for boasting about Indy’s active downtown—not to mention the people seeking to move there—this trend does not bode well. Truly great downtowns can enjoy 24/7 activity, with the FIRE, design, law offices contributing the lion’s share of energy during the 9-to-5 working hours. But they all close in the evenings, leaving Mass Avenue with some serious longueurs during a typical stroll between the boutiques and bars. Shuttered storefronts can still provide interest if there’s a display, as there inevitably is at a toy store even after its doors are closed. But an engineering firm closes after 6pm and draws the blinds closed too. There’s nothing for people to see.
Is there a solution? I’m sure there are more nuanced ways of evaluating this, but I think more density is key. Mass Ave is well on its way. Filling in the “dead zone” in front of the Barton Tower is a huge step in the right direction. Eventually, one can hope for infill in many of the other parking lots that today we take for granted. Sure, the Marrott Center is a finely restored building, but its first floor doesn’t offer much to the neighborhood that couldn’t be nudged into the upper levels.
And what about the parcel adjacent to the Marrott Center? A big parking lot, where a similarly fine building inevitably once stood.
And, along Mass Ave, of course, there are plenty more parking lots where that came from.
With no major effort, I could have easily identified at least a half-dozen more. Obviously these smaller, unusually shaped parcels will face barriers to entry: the current owners will ask steep prices to give up their lucrative off-street parking, the local NIMBYs will fight the exact density that made them seek to live there in the first place, and some will argue that a mural or window along the party wall is part of the vital cultural essence of the city and should never be concealed. But the Short North in Columbus experienced a gradual, incremental “healing” across its long-damaged High Street retail corridor to get where it is today; nothing suggests that the right densification here won’t achieve a similar result. More people equates to higher income density, which in turn will most likely drive those rental rates, pushing the insurance offices (who do not depend on the storefront space) into the upper levels. And eventually, market pressures could very possibly transform the Avenue into the lucrative (and, yes, just a little bit vapid) consumerist paradise that its cheerleaders have always hoped it might be.