I first featured the plight of the City Market on my personal blog, American Dirt, back in 2009, when it was in dire straits, just as it had been for many years. Decades, even. It was a pretty grim place: most of the perimeter simply offered unnecessary seating, the central vendor stalls were only-half full, and the ambiance of the market was cavernous and sterile, even during the peak lunch hour. I specifically interviewed local businesses for their opinions on City Market—successful operations like Moody’s Meats and Goose the Market—but neither one had much positive to say: the former business operated a stall for a year in 2007-08 then quit, while the latter said that they didn’t even consider it. (Ironically, Goose the Market chose a then-untested location in the emergent Fall Creek Place neighborhood, a decision that proved serendipitous.)
But the City Market’s ascendency is obvious to anyone who visits more than once a year. (And, since I haven’t lived in Indy that much since then, sometimes that’s about the extent of my forays.) Sure, it’s still a far cry from Philadelphia’s Reading Terminal Market, but that expansive agora remains the national gold standard for urban marketplaces, in my opinion. But, at any rate, the market is unquestionably headed in the right direction.
Note that I’m taking these pictures feature the market way off its peak time. And it’s busier than it was during the lunch hour back in 2009.
What’s the biggest factor that has influenced the Indianapolis City Market’s revival? In the last five years, the management has shrunk the overall seating space. That’s right: the market has succeeded while at the same time the space for both vendors and (particularly) for seating diminished. In 2010, the management closed the two wings, forcing the few tenants either to relocate or close. The east wing became a new YMCA/Bike Hub; the west wing became a blend of offices and shared meeting space called The Platform. The mezzanine, previously used for exorbitant amounts of seating, hosted the Tomlinson Tap Room in one corner, along with a smattering of movable kiosks.
By reducing the market’s footprint, the place became more cramped and ultimately more bustling. I revisited the market on a 2012 blog post (which also had an excerpt on Urban Indy), and the changes were monumental. Concomitant with the increase in activity, the array of vendors expanded, as did the eclecticism of the offerings. Prior to 2010, the Indianapolis City Market was a drab food court. After the renovations, it felt, looked and smelled much more like a real market. And while it still offered a variety of prepared foods to be consumed on the spot, many vendors begun selling items cooked to order. While the produce offerings or original ingredients still seem fairly limited (produce vendors have often failed to flourish), the aggregate effect is much more in the spirit of Reading Terminal than in the past.
Now it’s time to visit the market again. But this time, I’m focusing the discussion here on Urban Indy instead of American Dirt.
Overkill? Perhaps. But, to avoid beating a dead horse, I begin with an assertion: the City Market is continuing to succeed, but it may have less to do with the significant space modifications from 2010/11 and more with organic transformation. It helps that population density to the east of the Market has steadily increased in the last five years, and will continue to grow with new developments currently under construction. But that’s not the real meat and potatoes.
The fact is, the City Market is an old, attractive building in excellent condition, and sentimental fondness for structures such as this has skyrocketed. Whereas the nearby Circle Centre Mall was previously the go-to spot for a wide selection of quick meal options, its star has faded somewhat, replaced overwhelmingly with the locally owned establishments in the City Market. Much of this has taken place due to the escalating public interest in old buildings and our growing association of historic structures with eclectic entrepreneurship. I’m not sure if it’s simply an anti-establishment gesture—that is, we associate new construction with chains and national brands—but old buildings have become the coded method for fledgling small businesses to assert themselves. Sometimes the rent is cheaper: the old buildings are higher risk, neighborhoods offer questionable safety, and parking is inconspicuous if not outright difficult. So maybe these businesses gravitate to the older buildings simply out of frugality. But the City Market is not in a dicey area, and it’s hard to say at this point whether the rent is all that cheap. Yet, even more than in my 2012 review, most of the City Market’s leasable area is occupied, and when a tenant vacates, it doesn’t usually remain empty for long. If the vendor space is as high-demand as it seems, chances are the rents aren’t that cheap.
Rent calibration is the primary argument here. I touched upon it in the 2012 article, but now it’s more obvious than ever. My assertion from 2012 remains:
“[T]he older vendors (from before the revitalization) have some of the most generous space, while the vendors from the last year or two are comparatively cramped. . . They began their leases at a point when costs were rock-bottom because the City Market as a whole was not a terribly desirable venue. . .
Thus, the older tenants are probably paying considerably lower rates per square foot, thanks to their mature leases which, depending on how long they are, helped grandfather them in and shield them through the Market’s metamorphosis.”
Just take a look at the floor plan for the market:
Most of the tenants are taking up relatively little real estate. But a few—like numbers 19, 23, 29, and 16—are space hogs. These tenants correspond to the following: Jumbo’s in the Market, Grecian Garden, Just Cookies, Café Olivia.What do they all have in common? They all pre-date the renovations. After the market surged in popularity, it goes without saying that the real estate became more valuable. Yet these four tenants remain, taking up as much as four times the space of the newbies. And they don’t seem to muster much consumer report. All of them—with the exception of Café Olivia—have generally negative Yelp reviews, which I hyperlinked above. While one could argue that it isn’t fair to judge them when not one of them has more than 25 reviews, it’s hard not to compare that to post-renovation businesses like 3 Carrots and 3 Days in Paris, which have amassed over 100 reviews (overwhelmingly positive) in their short life spans.
So how do places like Jumbo’s and Grecian Kitchen survive, when they take up so much more space yet ostensibly offer less quality?
The only conclusion I can draw is that they are locked into cheap lease agreements. Bully to them. And what a shame for all the other prospective tenants who could use space much more strategically and offer a competitive product. Take a look at the “kitchen” for Jumbo’s—it’s massive.
And I have good word from another newcomer tenant (and, incidentally, a regular reader of Urban Indy) that none of the food is cooked to order or prepared before the market opens. The team at Jumbo’s just pulls it from a freezer.
I’m being petty by singling out these businesses for a flogging. Unless I’m way off base, the real fault lies in management of the market, which hasn’t yet calibrated its individual leasing agreements with the demand for its real estate—at least not for those long-term tenants who are shutting out numerous other prospective vendors willing to pay the price, to offer a competitive product, and to operate in comparatively little space. The City Market is getting so much right that it’s unfair to let the perfect be the enemy of the good (a phrase I used three years ago as well). After all, management has continued to remove seating on the mezzanine to make room for more tenants, like the very new Mile Square Coffee Roastery seen below, after it had closed for the day:
And, perhaps most significantly, the market is now open 13 hours on Saturdays. Just five years ago, the public would have laughed at the idea that the market could ever support a full day’s operation on a weekend. Many vendors refused to open; they couldn’t justify it. Now it opens only an hour later than Monday through Friday. Someday, the market might even support Sunday hours, and it might happen sooner than anyone would anticipate.
At any rate, improvement at City Market is incremental, as one would expect. For it to continue on the trajectory it has enjoyed for the last four years, here’s what I see that needs to happen:
The capitalist in me hesitates to recommend #5, because, ideally, as the City Market becomes more desirable, it would cease to support tenants like the aforementioned. Thus, I list it as the last and lowest-priority goal, hoping that numbers 1 through 4 will be enough to kick the City Market into high gear.
With that, I finally fold my hands on this tried-and-true topic. That is, until reader suggestions prompt another article.