Normally an announcement as modest as the sale of a small, well-maintained historic commercial building shouldn’t cause anyone’s pulse to race. And, outside of this Urban Indy blogosphere, it probably hasn’t. Truth be told, even within Urban Indy readership, nobody’s popping any blood-pressure pills.
But the change in ownership of the Marott Center on Massachusetts Avenue could prove interesting.
According to Stenz Corporation, the property manager, the 1906 building was one of the first multi-level department stores in Indiana. Marott Development Company, which owns the property, is an ancillary of Rubin and Levin, the long-established law firm that has occupied part of the building since it engaged in the renovation in 1985.
By almost all metrics, this law firm’s project has paid off marvelously, since this segment of Mass Ave is now one of the city’s most sought-after addresses. In the early 1980s, though, it was a gamble: the street was Indy’s de facto Skid Row, filled with derelict old commercial buildings, shielding marginal businesses that endured the poor conditions against all odds. (The one surviving institution, Stout’s Shoes, has operated at 318 Massachusetts Avenue since its 1886 founding, apparently making it the oldest continuously operating shoe store in the entire country.) Rubin and Levin rescued a building that otherwise could easily have faced demolition; now it enjoys a listing on the National Register of Historic Places.
The new owner, Gershman Partners, purchased both the Marott Center and its adjacent parking lot. While it appears that the building’s largest tenants will remain, it’s hard not to speculate what a commercial developer such as Gershman might have in mind for the long-term use of this property. And the Indianapolis Business Journal blog article that announced this sale generated a modest swirl of comments.
Like the massive redevelopment of the Central Canal into the Canal Walk (also a 1980s initiative), not every urban design decision holds up to scrutiny by today’s more rigorous standards of downtown redevelopment. But rather than faulting Rubin & Levin for their committed restoration work, it’s best to see the new acquisition as an opportunity to push the Marott Center to its highest and best use. A quick walk around the premises reveals a bunch of possibilities. The one aspect of the property that everyone seems to notice is that enormous parking lot to the northeast of the building:
Mass Ave has enjoyed considerable infill development over the last few years, and this 90-car space remains one of the most gaping oversights—a site which undoubtedly supported a commercial structure similar to the Marott back in the day. Not it serves as the Marott’s parking lot. The space is large enough, and land values are high enough—that any new structure could enjoy Mass Ave frontage and, in the back (along Vermont Street)—
–could find a way to integrate adequate parking for both the new structure and the Marott tenants. While it is rare that a developer can afford an underground parking garage and still generate the needed ROI in a low-cost city like Indy (especially given historic district designations that will limit the height and FAR of any new buildings along the corridor), a savvy developer could both build community support for a variance on those height limits, as well as pursue a City subsidy for the necessary excavation. Obviously the latter of these two decisions isn’t likely to be too popular—and (let’s face it) the former might not get a lot of support from the surrounding community—but it’s the best hope of generating the smart infill necessary to maximize that parcel’s ability to galvanize Mass Ave’s existing energy further.
But there’s something else that could complicate things.
Notice those windows on the northeast side, near the building’s façade. It doesn’t take Sherlock Holmes to deduce that the restoration team added those: not only are they a different shape than the others facing the street, but there are only a few. If the original Marott Center had included windows on that side, why wouldn’t the architects add them throughout the northeast side of the building? The answer is simple: this wall didn’t always front a parking lot and a big open space; another building abutted it.
While these windows help add light and fresh air to some corner rooms, they pose a problem if a developer hopes to add an infill structure at the site of the current parking lot. How would you convince the tenants to give them up? It would sacrifice a great deal in gross leasable area to accommodate those windows with an air/light shaft, so does the construction team simply shroud them with the wall of the new building? In 1985, the installation of these windows was a minor issue, not only because historic preservation regulations weren’t as stringent, but because no one remotely considered that Mass Ave would again become desirable enough to build anew.
The Marott Center also leaves room for improvement in the placement of its various tenants.
Like so many commercial buildings from this time period, the fenestration on the ground level is quite different than all the floors above it. This architecture detail signals that the original builder tailored the first floor for a different use…one that depends on strong visual cues into order to attract passers-by. These are storefront windows.
But the current first floor tenants are a realtor’s office, a special-order pharmacy, and Broadway Across America—not exactly the type of retail that depends on visual prominence to generate revenue. I blogged about this same topic here not so long ago–about how many great buildings downtown with street-level retail have leased their space to architecture firms, accountants, insurance, etc…all businesses that could just as easily flourish on the 24th floor of a high-rise, which puts them at huge contrast to Bakersfield, Bazbeaux, or Silver in the City, all of which benefit considerably from their street-level visibility. But neither of the first-floor tenants at the Marott Center offers that type of walk-in service. In fact, those big open windows might even prove a distraction to people working at their desks, judging from the partly drawn blinds at this storefront.
The final observation might be the pettiest cavil, since it’s only an issue for a small portion of each year. But on a bitterly cold day in January it’s bound to get some attention. The sidewalk on the Massachusetts Avenue frontage of the Marott Center is nicely shoveled and free of snow. But the backside of the building, abutting Vermont Street, is another story:
While we could call it an oversight (since the Vermont side does not allow any physical access to the building), the property managers didn’t neglect the small portion where Vermont intersects Delaware Street, judging from this corner.
The Delaware portion (to the left in the photo) got shoveled. The topic of snow shoveling has reared its head a fair amount in the last year on Urban Indy, either on private residential property (where the City doesn’t enforce the laws) or the top-tier maintenance of the Cultural Trail (where the plows were out even after last week’s polar vortex).
Needless to say, we can only hold high hopes that Gershman Properties will capitalize on some of the overlooked strengths of their new acquisition. Yet with all this carping, I almost feel like I’m throwing Rubin and Levin—the previous owners and restorers of the Marott Center—under the bus. It’s important to recognize that without the law firm’s commitment to a seemingly obsolete building in a bleak part of town, during a decade that offered just a whisper of a hint of urban revitalization, we might not have a Marott Center to discuss and admire today.