Saturday, October 31, 2009

Reinventing the Indianapolis City Market, Part I – External and Internal Influences.


With new, independently owned restaurants and shops opening in downtown Indianapolis even in this weak economy, why does the City Market continue to underperform just as it has for years? It claims to be one of only five original Public Market Houses in the country, and one of only a handful of other original market houses remaining. The site has been reserved as a market since Alexander Ralston’s original design and plotting of the city in 1821; the current structure was built in 1886 and entered the National Register of Historic Landmarks in 1974.

However, the market has never come close to recovering the level of activity it enjoyed prior to post-war suburbanization and the emergence of the modern supermarket. At about the same time that it entered the National Register, the City Market underwent a significant modernization, placing it in compliance with current health codes and improving operational costs. This refurbishment also integrated a significant expansion with two new wings having nearly symmetrical floor plates; though preservationists would scorn such an intrusion on the historic integrity of the building today, it was deemed acceptable at the time and generally retains the façade and identifiable character of an urban market, at least from the outside appearance.

But these enhancements occurred at a time when the scene at downtown Indianapolis was dour: aside from rolling up the sidewalks at 5 pm (which was the case for most of the second half of the twentieth century) the downtown business population—long the bread and butter of the City Market—was hemorrhaging white collar workers as businesses began relocating to the city’s far north side, at Keystone at the Crossing, and the earliest suburban office parks in the affluent suburb of Carmel. The market retained a weekday lunchtime crowd but its appeal could not expand much beyond those narrow parameters, and since there was virtually no downtown residential population to speak of, the City Market did not have a large enough demographic demanding fresh produce that they could tote to their homes nearby—virtually nobody with disposable income lived in the area.

Hundreds of billions of dollars spilled into the historic Mile Square—a combination of private, public, and charitable grants from key players such as the Lilly Foundation—in the 1980s and 1990s, stimulating a renewed interest in downtown Indianapolis that elicited new sports arenas, a mild office boom in the late 1980s, and, at last, a renewed interest in downtown as a residential address by the late 1990s. Today, Indianapolis has one of the strongest downtowns in the Midwest in terms of residential population, and, particularly in the Wholesale District south of Market Street, the downtown offers a variety of dining and entertainment options.

But before I sound too much like a mouthpiece for the Convention and Visitors Bureau, I offer this caveat: the City Market has lagged throughout this time. Despite the fact that activity along Indianapolis streets during the day and night is stronger than it has been since probably the Great Depression, most locals and tourists bypass the City Market completely, squandering this handsome historic structure’s potential and reducing it to little more than one of many lunchtime options for neighboring office workers.

As Urban Times reported in their April 2009 newsletter, the most recent effort to shoot some life into the City Market involved a $2.7-million facelift completed in early 2008. The improvements included the installation of a new floor, plumbing/electric upgrades that are more vendor-friendly, painting, and restroom upgrades, among other things. The goal was to expand the appeal of the structure beyond a lunch counter, ameliorating the options for fresh produce and locally farmed goods, increasing Saturday hours, and offering other entertainment options in the outdoor plaza space.

The facelift has yet to yield visible results. A gourmet food and wine vendor pulled out of the project after renovation delays, while the persistent scaffolding and construction scared enough patrons away to drive several other retailers out of business. One fresh-food vendor specializing in fine meats closed within a few months of opening at a prime location. If anything, occupancy levels (at about 50%) are worse than they were prior to the overhaul. The City Market remains a lunch-counter option. To add to its woes, the Indianapolis Star recently reported that a persistent water seepage problem suggests leaky pipes, which explains why monthly water bills have recently risen from $1,000 to $2,000. (See the full article while it remains public.) This leak may augur the complete replacement of the water system, an infrastructural element that did not undergo improvements during the renovations a few years ago. Meager revenue due to high tenant vacancies, combined with abnormally high operating expenses, has essentially turned the building into perhaps the City’s biggest albatross. (Okay, maybe the second biggest: the recently vacated historic City Hall is probably first—it generates no revenue whatsoever.)

Explanations abound for City Market’s perpetually disappointing performance—to this day, it receives a city subsidy for the utility bills, which annually run over $250,000 (no doubt much higher this year after the pipe leak). Of course the causal origins involve a supremely complicated web of sociocultural, demographic, historical, economic, and structural considerations, but, for the purposes of this analysis, I will divide City Market’s struggles into two components: the exogenous and endogenous factors.

Outside Influences on the City Market

The exogenous forces seem to receive the lion’s share of analysis. The apparent principal aim of the Indianapolis City Market, if its current website and visible function remain accurate, is to aggregate both locally grown meats, cheeses, and produce as well as freshly prepared foods all under one roof. Thus, it strives to provide the services of both a grocer and a cluster of quick-delivery meal options served over a counter. In order to achieve even the barest minimum of either of these goals, it must first have a market, and most studies of the City Market’s intended trade area would suggest that in this capacity, it succeeds.

According to a research project I had to perform of downtown populations for the Brookings Institution a few years ago, the census tracts that comprise the Indianapolis Central Business District had 17,907 inhabitants by Census 2000 measurements. That might not sound large, but the downtown of Columbus OH—the city most overtly comparable to Indianapolis by nearly all metrics—had a population of 6,198 in its CBD census tracts during that same year. Population within a trade area is always difficult to assess when downtowns are the focus, because of the inordinate number of people employed in the area; like most downtowns, Indianapolis’ population spikes from 9 am to 5 pm on weekdays. By most estimates, the downtown population has grown steadily since then; according to Indianapolis Downtown Inc, more than 2,700 residential units have been built since Census 2000. The majority of these residential units have been constructed east of the city center at Monument Circle, and particularly northeast of downtown, in various infill sites surrounding the St. Joseph, Lockerbie Square, and Chatham Arch neighborhoods. While the median household size in downtowns tends to be significantly lower than a metropolitan area in totality, I will be extra conservative and assume that each one of these residential units houses only one person, bringing the downtown population as it has grown census 2000 up to about 20,500 persons. At a certain point a downtown residential population should reach a size that it can support basic retail components expected of developed neighborhoods such as a supermarket, and in the past decade, downtown Indianapolis has apparently achieved that—in the form of Lockerbie Marketplace, just three blocks away from City Market.

The store had long been an O’Malia’s, a local grocer bought several years ago by Marsh, a larger grocery store that, in turn, was recently acquired by Sun Capital Partners, an investment firm and private equity owner attempting to salvage the chain when it was struggling in 2006. Despite the aforementioned indication of a confusing shift among multiple names, all visible evidence suggests that the O’Malia’s/Marsh/Lockerbie Marketplace is successful.

The store fits comfortably into its rapidly gentrifying neighborhood, occupying an old Sears and Roebuck Building with a strong window presence to help identify it from the pedestrian’s perspective.

One drawback is that the entrance to the store is configured around a parking lot in the interior of the block, favoring an automobile based clientele over those that reach the store by foot. Here is what would be the main entrance to the store along Alabama Street:

No handles on the doors, so truthfully this is only a cosmetic entrance for the sake of maintaining the integrity of the appearance of this historic building. Here’s how everyone must enter in the back:

Regardless of the somewhat car-centric entrance, this store offers a convenient means of grocery shopping that is appropriately scaled to its urban context. It seems a fair compromise for an urban market in city long dominated by automobile-oriented development. However, the City Market offers the exact same degree of accessibility within a historic building—it may, in fact, be even better suited for pedestrian visitors than the Marketplace at Lockerbie. Yet it fails to draw even a fraction of the clientele. The Marketplace at Lockerbie is a successful, full-scale grocery store, with a deli, meat counter, fish market, pharmacy, and liquor store—though not upmarket like a Whole Foods, but it is sufficiently well-managed and effectively caters to a white collar clientele that lives nearby. Its hours surpass that of most of its suburban counterparts: open from 7 am to 2 am daily, it clearly found a model that has connected with its targeted demographic.

The other large food purveyors in downtown Indianapolis is a major concentration of over-the-counter eateries that also rests just a few blocks away from the City Market, found in the food court of the Circle Centre Mall. With over a hundred in-line stores spread across over 750,000 square feet of gross leasable area, the mall intends to meet the majority of retail needs for the downtown residential population, the daytime office workers, and (perhaps the largest factor) visiting tourists and convention-goers. By most measurements, it is successful: the mall typically boasts a 90% occupancy rate filled with tenants geared to a middle and upper-middle income tenants. Compare this with Indianapolis’ neighboring peer cities, such as Columbus, Louisville, and Cincinnati, all of which have seen their downtown malls flounder or shut down completely in recent years. The continued success of Circle Centre Mall amidst its other struggling counterparts (and the decline of the mall as a retail typology in general) is largely a testament of the desirability of downtown Indianapolis as a destination for shopping, tourism, and urban residences. The food court, on the third level of this four-story complex, bears little to distinguish it from any other mall food court seen across the country, but it does appear to be a well-patronized one. (The photographs below, taken during the FFA Convention—one of the city’s biggest—may skew the mall’s attendance a bit, but conventions are a normal occurrence and are the lifeblood of much of the downtown’s retail.)

My suspicion, however, is that the majority of people do not enter the Circle Centre Mall exclusively to purchase a meal at the food court; tucked on the third floor of the facility, it is hardly as convenient or as visible as a number of other street-level establishments nearby. It works more effectively as an option for shoppers already on the premises. Nonetheless, it cannot help but function as an alternative to the City Market for people seeking food options: while Circle Centre offers fast food, two department stores (Nordstrom and Carson Pirie Scott), and a variety of in-line stores under one roof, City Market offers little in the way of durable goods.

One final exogenous challenge to the City Market is the built environment in the immediate vicinity. Both Lockerbie Marketplace and the food court at Circle Centre share the advantage of having dense development surrounding them in all directions; the City Market does not. Returning to the City Market, the streetscape when leaving through the main entrance on Market Street presents an active environment when one looks to the West, with the Soldiers and Sailors Monument in the distance:

However, looking to the east, the landscape is much bleaker:

Nearly two full city blocks have been reduced to surface parking lots, on the site where the Market Square Arena once stood, stretching across Market Street. The old arena, demolished in 2001, has languished as a parking lot as one redevelopment proposal after another faltered. Most of these proposals incorporated residential high-rises to surpass the city’s Riley Towers in density and luxury, but none generated enough consumer excitement for the developers to meet pre-construction goals. Very little has transpired during the prolonged recession, which is to be expected, though many anticipate that developer interest will resume as the economy improves. In the meantime, the space reveals itself as a gaping void in the downtown landscape, creating an unappealing windswept chasm between the City Market and the extensive array of successful condo, apartment, and urban townhome developments immediately beyond the parking lots, in the background of the photograph. Some analyses have suggested that filling these two lots on either side of Market Street with a high density mixed-use would catalyze the pedestrian activity needed to endow the City Market with continued success.

Therein lies the problem: Indianapolis downtown has a residential, commuter, and tourist population that is robust enough to justify the existence of a mid-sized mall, an urban grocery store, and a historic downtown marketplace, but not quite enough to generate the sort of sales volume for all three to flourish. Vacancy levels indicate that, of the three, City Market invariably suffers the most. But is it purely a numbers issue, where, given the numerator of X sales volume, the City cannot have a denominator of 3 and expect the result to prove uniformly satisfactory? Many in the past have argued this to be the case: after all, the Illinois Building another two blocks away from Circle Centre had a food court directly across from the statehouse until it closed in 2001, vacating the space along with all the other tenants. (This building has remained vacant to this day, languishing under the stipulations of a ground lease that potential renovators have been unable to negotiate.) The market did not seem to support two food courts so close to one another, and, regardless of the other management problems in the Illinois Building, the Circle Centre food court clearly emerged victorious. Ant brief observation suggests that City Market has also struggled to compete with the retail titan just a short block away. But why is a City Market even trying to compete with a mall food court? Shouldn’t it be able to forge an identity of its own, in which its own inventory of vendors offers sufficiently different products and services, as well as a vastly contrasting customer experience from that of a food court that could just as easily (at least from its inside appearance) function just as well in one of the suburbs?

Inside Influences on the City Market

The City Market simply fails to offer a competitive retail environment, and the vast majority of its shortcomings sit within its own property boundaries. Recent modifications to market have valiantly tried to reconceive the relationship between the vendor and the patron, but they have yet to elevate City Market to anything more than just another food court. By no means do I intend to fault the historic architecture: as one of the oldest continuously operating markets, the structure obviously housed a number of bustling trades back at its peak. But executive decisions over the decades have altered the internal and external organization of space as well as mandated the construction of additional leasable space, and very little of this has succeeded despite the best of intentions. I’ll begin by looking at the heart of the market in its historic interior, camera pointing downward from the mezzanine, at the commercial staging area.

Viewed from this wrap-around balcony above, the market doesn’t look particularly lifeless. The vendors below operate in an orderly grid, with narrow passages between various food counters. But this photo was taken at the peak time of around 12:30, on a Friday afternoon. Granted, the cool and rainy weather that day might have made a trip less appealing, but if it weren’t for the conditions outside, this would most likely be the single most popular hour in any given week at the City Market. In light of these considerations, the market is not crowded. Look again at this photo where I have highlighted a space where customers are standing; if the market were prosperous, this area would host vendors.

Climbing down to the main floor of the commercial area, vacancies are immediately apparent.

One vendor has either or introduced or (most likely) rented a cart to sell various knickknacks in a space that should be occupied by a vendor; the space to the right of his cart could easily accommodate two vendors. This may be the most forlorn picture I could muster, but there are plenty other good ones. The same image that I outlined in red earlier looks much more desolate when viewed at the ground level:

The piping to service this completely vacant row is clearly visible close to the floor along the partition. In other vacant “cubicles” the Market’s management has offered additional seating, as seen below:

While the location of this furniture may just reflect a temporary oversight, does management honestly think anyone is going sit here?

Despite the fact that the entire mezzanine features balcony seating, management needed to devote what would otherwise be valuable space for a vendor, or two, or three, for more seating.

With only about half of the leasable spaces occupied, it should come as no surprise that the number of people eating at tables is comparatively small. The upstairs mezzanine, lacking any vendors and used almost exclusively as overflow seating for patrons, not surprisingly shows little sign of true life.

Half-full at best. And again, this is during the peak of the lunch hour, and the tables are clearly not spaced that closely together. Activity in the market is rarefied: based on the commerce that currently takes place, the market would only need to be about one-fourth its current size and it could still operate without any sense of overcrowding.

Unfortunately, this only touches upon a portion of the market’s spatial mismatch. As mentioned earlier, the 1970s renovation also inaugurated the expansion of the facilities through two symmetrical, three-story wings. Although the third floors of these wings feature office space off limit to the public, the first and second floors are open and are an even greater disaster. Here’s the east wing, featuring Enzo’s Pizza, a shoe repair kiosk, one vacant space for another standowner, and lots more seating—looking at it from the doorway of the old original market (looking eastward).

And here it is within the east wing, looking back westward with the original City Market appearing in the window.

Out of no fear of beating a dead horse, I’m going to reiterate that this is at the peak of the lunchtime crowd. Empty chairs and tables are abundant. And here’s a corner to this east wing, formerly housing Al’s Shoe Repair, now completely unused and measuring at least 200 square feet. At least two vendors could easily fit here with the correct infrastructure installed along the two walls, but there is no visible intended use for this space; Al’s Shoe Repair (indicated by the sign in the upper left) has moved to a new corner.

The west wing is definitely more prosperous, with all of its six vendor spaces occupied. Granted, one Mexican establishment was coming soon at the time of these photos, and one vendor is simply an information center for Indygo, the local bus transit system. But at least these are secure tenants. Not surprisingly, the west wing’s configuration devotes far more space to vendors and far less to seating.

Particularly curious is a large stairwell, leading to a tunnel that provides underground access to the adjacent office building.

Since it occupies a good 200 square feet of floor space in the center of this wing, the stairwell further reduces the room for seating, pushing people closer together and enhancing the feeling that the space is better-used than its complementary wing to the east. Here’s a view of the west wing from the above balcony, which features (you guessed it) more seating:

But it’s hardly bustling, nor does the environment add anything in particular to the market as a whole. Thirty years after their construction, it remains unclear to the onlooker what the intent of these two additions to the market really were, aside from expanding the leasable space. But they offer nothing programmatically different from the central structure, and the lack of a distinctive role for them makes them seem a bit more faded than they actually are.

The grounds of the City Market show far greater evidence of an intention to wield multiple overlapping programs that take advantage of the structure’s unusual massing since the addition of the two wings. Here’s a view of what is probably the most commonly seen entrance, facing northeasterly at the intersection of Market Street and Delaware Street, the latter of which is one-way northbound. The heavily glassed façade in the central part of the photo is the west wing of the market.

The plaza here is impeccably maintained, with an attractive wrought-iron gate and abundant seating at both benches and tables. To the right of the west wing’s entrance, the designers have made intelligent use of the niche created by the perpendicularity between the original market (to the right, behind the canopy) and the newer wing (to the left). This space provides a venue for live music on days with good weather, as well as an extended platform for vendors on the days of farmers markets, which the City Market currently hosts once a week. Instead of a makeshift, collapsible stage, the designs have permanently embedded this and other features into the grounds of the market that they hope will attract more visitors. Slightly west of the plaza and stage is an appealing turf area that adds much needed pervious surface to this relentlessly bricked fortification.

Beyond the timing of special events, this outdoor plaza is used minimally. In the evenings, after the market closes, it often becomes a popular lair for panhandlers. But at least it remains bright, well-maintained, and inviting. The same can’t be said for the portion of the grounds closer to the east wing, which, like its interior counterpart, is almost lifeless.

One can only presume the bizarre depression here in the east plaza was intended to harbor a fountain or some centerpiece. Now it is simply a spot for people to sit and stare at one another.

The space is nearly always deserted. The adjacent north-south artery on this side, Alabama Street, is one way to the south, so cars driving by won’t even face this plaza; instead they see the back end of the market. It also doesn’t help that this is the side of the property that faces the former Market Square Arena, now a vacant lot, so guests approaching from this side of the City Market get this view of their surroundings:

This portion of the plaza also features a bizarre drive that cuts into the property at a 45 degree angle, forming a sort of right triangle with the intersection of Market and Alabama Streets.

This space is used for unloading of supply vehicles servicing the market, but it offers metered parking to visitors outside of those early morning delivery hours. And, when unmonitored, it offers vehicles a chance to bypass the stoplight at the Market/Alabama intersection. Strange.

The back of the market offers some landscaped pedestrian walkways to the adjacent buildings, as well as ample seating. While well-maintained, these corridors offer little of interest besides a refuge for smokers.

By now, most readers have probably detected a common thread to my heavily moderated criticism of the organization of space in the City Market thus far: why is there so much seating? Though I’m sure it is hardly unique in this country, the abundance of chairs, benches, stools, booths, et cetera in public place reveals, in my opinion, a confusion over what to do with large open spaces more than it reflects actual demand. Both civic leaders and managers of these spaces naïvely (or perhaps cynically) presume that they can magically transform into a popular node of congregation simply by throwing a few benches into the mix. We obviously see this in outdoor spaces but we can also witness it in more selective, refined interiors: think of any large atrium, lobby, or hallway in a plush hotel or office building, with its bountiful walls in which expensive settees or wooden chairs rest at impeccably ordered intervals. Virtually no one ever sits there. Chairs have become just about the only recourse for fields of empty space, when no one involved in the planning or design can think of anything better. Why would they want to sit against a wall and stare vaguely into a vast room? Any observation of human behavioral tendencies would reveal that: 1) humans in general aren’t very particular about where they park their caboose, and 2) if there’s something in which to focus their attention they’ll sit there, regardless of whether it’s intended to be sat upon. Which is why, in great public spaces where there is plenty to avert the gaze, one could see ledges, railings, tree stumps, fences, stairs, statues, bollards, or even just the solid ground substitute for chairs and benches. By no means am I suggesting that all seating in public spaces should be removed. But America could probably fight a minor war with the money its municipal governments have invested in aggregate on seating.

Sometimes the seating can overwhelm a public venue to the point that it erodes its diversity of uses, which is precisely the problem with the City Market. The ridiculous amount of seating on both the first level and the entire mezzanine reminds me of the plateaus of parking lots surrounding the typical suburban mall, 80% of which will never be used except during peak periods like Black Friday, because it is too remote. The City Market already suffers from weak patronage; is it really necessary to supply hundreds of seats when the majority of people will only sit there for 25 minutes between the hours of noon and 1 pm on weekdays? Even more depressing is the fact that some of the vacant booths have, themselves, been transformed into additional seating. Though obviously not a permanent condition, I can’t help see this remedy as somewhat comparable to demolishing a building downtown in order to provide more parking.

The City Market is a microcosm for exploring our cultural aversion to density. But aren’t the most successful markets bustling precisely because they are crowded with a variety of vendors? I can’t help but conjure images of the original Greek agoras from history class, in which booths are cramped together, forcing the crowds of customers to proceed slowly amidst retailers shouting to direct attention to their particular goods, even though the agora most likely wasn’t even enclosed by four walls as is often necessary in North America’s wet, unpredictable climate. Philadelphia’s Reading Terminal Market enjoys much of this atmosphere, and the old train shed that houses the vendors wasn’t even intended as a marketplace for its original use. Customers have to fight for seating, and it isn’t uncommon for a person to share a deuce table with a complete stranger. Many of the vendors will have a row of stools for eating right along the counter, but there will be very little else close by. During peak periods the customers will have to give leave the building to sit elsewhere—on an outdoor bench, ledge, back in their office cubicle, wherever. They’ll find a place to sit. Even a region notorious for its economic malaise, such as Cleveland, still can boast a vibrant urban market. The Indianapolis City Market just has lots of chairs.

Perhaps this is being unfair, because the Indianapolis City Market might have demand for all that seating if only there were fewer vacant booths. So is it then perhaps a chicken-and-egg problem? I’m not entirely convinced. It remains the decision of the City Market’s management to subdivide the interior space and devote a certain portion to seating, but do they really fear people will spurn the market if there isn’t a place to sit? Insufficient seating is typically an excellent sign for the vendors because it means there is more room for the commercial exchanges that this large open space desperately needs. I can’t help but believe that the plethora of seating cultivates a certain atmosphere which, in turn, attracts a certain tenant type. Whether they thrive in one consolidated chamber like Reading Terminal or the more linear, beads-on-a-string configuration at Seattle’s Pike Place, the most successful markets offer a mix between prepared meals consumed immediately and unprocessed natural products (mostly produce or homemade crafts). The City Market in Indianapolis skews heavily toward the former. But this is only natural, because the organization of space in the City Market replicates a food court, which deals solely in prepared meals. If, for example, a vendor of fresh fish were scoping for a location in the City Market, he or she would probably reject the space after seeing that it overwhelmingly favors clientele who immediately sit down to consume the product they order. People seeking produce aren’t going to consumer their products immediately and do not need all of those chairs and tables. A market that rarifies its tenant space through abundant seating will inevitably only appeal to lunch-counter style vendors. Thus, I cannot criticize the market enough for depriving itself of its own revenue stream. By devoting so much space to furniture and so little to the utility provision necessary to sustain real tenants, the management of the City Market is effectively shooting itself in the foot.

The second half of this post will continue with an investigation of the retail mix, interviews with vendors who could benefit greatly from a vibrant city market, and recommendations for how to reconfigure the space so that it might achieve long-term viability.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Minor tweaks.

I have updated my own post on ADA Compliance at Indianapolis' Hammond Block Building, including the photos promised that help clarify the accessibility issues. Plus these news photos feature the gingko at the peak of its fall colors!

I have removed "identity" from my index under the "Terra Firma" category. I simply do not think this is a sufficiently specific label to have any real meaning--nearly all of the blog posts here are about identity to a certain degree.

The Indianapolis Star beat me to the finish on a topic for which I was about to post at length. I've been taking my sweet time on the subject, but at least now it appears my blog entry will be that much more relevant. Stay tuned.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

The cosmetology behind civic art.

At a time of high unemployment and sharply declining property values (and their ensuing assessed values), nearly every large city is wrestling with budget deficits. Among the first programs frequently to face the chisel is public art. While relatively uncommon until the last 20 years, most civic leaders now perceive a public art program as a pre-eminent “soft” benefit—one whose actual monetary value is often difficult to quantify, yet its absence can quickly drain a city of a certain marketing cachet in the face of its peer city competition. While monuments typically boast a commemorative function and plazas can serve as critical nodes of congregation, a true piece of public art at most becomes a makeshift jungle gym for children, but its preeminent intended role is aesthetic. Rarely does a piece of civic art become iconic—an emblem synonymous with the city’s basic identity—in the same way that the Washington Monument has achieved in the nation’s capital, the Statue of Liberty in New York, or the Hollywood sign that presides over much of Los Angeles. But public art plays its own distinctive, reticent semantic role in an urban landscape; at its most effective it poses a question, and the absence of a conspicuous answer alerts the senses of passers-by while penetrating the subconscious.

The nation’s sixth largest city, Philadelphia, has an involved but somewhat conflicted relation with its civic iconography. Perhaps the fixed object most representative of the city is the Liberty Bell, although it served a precise function in the decades preceding and following the Revolutionary War and didn’t even assume the “Liberty” name until it became associated with abolitionists prior to the Civil War. Some local Philadelphians may argue that the city’s true icon is the grandiose City Hall, the perceived center of the city, whose famed clock tower and William Penn statue briefly made it the tallest building in the world; others would claim that Rittenhouse Square, the most successful urban park in the city (and one of the best in the country) is the primary point of congregation. None of these, of course, qualify as formal public art; in Philadelphia that honor would go to the famed “LOVE” sculpture by Robert Indiana, where its strategic placement in “LOVE Park” overlooking the Benjamin Franklin Parkway and, at the Parkway’s opposite terminus, the Philadelphia Museum of Art. However, Indiana only intensified his image’s ubiquity (originally for a Christmas card) by producing duplicate sculptures across numerous cities, such as New York, New Orleans, Indianapolis, Wichita, and even elsewhere in the City of Brotherly Love. Perhaps all of the aforementioned icons take a back seat to the single image most associated with outsiders across the world—the famed steps to the Philadelphia Museum of Art immortalized by the original Rocky movie and several of its sequels. It is the most consistently visited site in the city by tourists and remains forever wedded to the city’s global profile.

With so many transcendent images vying for attention, it’s a wonder that the city has still devoted so much time and resources to a unified public art vision. The Mural Arts Program of Philadelphia may be the most single widespread initiative in the country. Though far more decentralized than the aforementioned icons, the culture of murals if far more pervasive. Humbly born as a project within of the Philadelphia Anti-Graffiti Network, it has escalated into a public-nonprofit collaboration that has brought international artists to collaborate with community members in the creation of over 3,000 murals scattered across the Philadelphia, the “City of Murals.” The locations, size, content, and representative styles of these murals vary widely—perhaps the most commonly shared feature is that they typically occupy the blank sides of residential buildings and the leaders of low income neighborhoods most frequently harness them as a community organizing and economic development tool. The murals below come from the largely impoverished West Philadelphia neighborhood of Haddington.

I must add a disclaimer that these murals are scarcely representative of the best work of the Mural Arts Program, nor are they particularly good photos. For those unacquainted with Philadelphia’s achievements in public art, I urge them to visit the Mural Arts Program website to see some of the most accomplished results. However, for the purposes of this essay, these photos perfectly capture the fascinating conflict these murals pose as they preside over often broken neighborhoods. Like most public art assessments, determining the financial benefit (in terms of improved property values, diminished commercial vacancy, reduced crime or need for social services) is like catching butterflies with a fish net. In fact, the predominance of murals in Philadelphia’s poorest neighborhoods has unintentionally stigmatized the endeavor, despite the fact that many murals are in more affluent areas). Wealthy enclaves of Philadelphia have rejected commissions for a mural because of the negative association. Meanwhile, in Haddonfield, the professional initiatives have spawned amateur imitations, most likely not sanctioned by the program:

What have all these murals had in common? They occupy party walls of attached residential buildings. The rowhouse remains the most common housing typology in mid-Atlantic cities such as Philadelphia, and in the city’s poorest neighborhoods, the demolitions are often all too evident. In comparison, demolitions in Chicago and Indianapolis seem relatively subtle. Thus, these murals rest on blank side walls that overlook vacant lots where a viable home once stood. The evidence in Haddonfield suggests that the lots often remain unkempt and strewn with litter, regardless of the time, energy, and money invested in beautifying the adjacent brick wall.

Other cities have followed Philadelphia’s lead and instituted mural programs, though none are nearly as advanced. The question these murals pose, particularly when they are in intensely impoverished neighborhoods, is whether or not they accrue value as an immobile installation or if the real value is the way it brings community members together in an act of collective stewardship, cultivating an appreciate for the act of producing art. For example, what should be done in a neighborhood where housing demand improves to the point that someone seeks to build a new home in that vacant lot, thereby concealing the mural? Or contemplate the inverse: if the house on which the mural rests is itself abandoned and a safety hazard (or a drug den), should a demolition order exempt the wall that contains the mural, despite the expense of preservation? Murals simultaneously signify progress and decay, preventing any real cost-benefit analysis from yielding directly quantifiable results. The general reaction among the Philadelphia planning community appears to be that, while the Mural Arts Program remains unquestionably respectable, it should not impede redevelopment initiatives in a city long starved of any real influx of capital. Such a sentiment may show a callous disregard for both the labor and emotional investment involved in creating a mural, but they are volunteer efforts under the aegis of a successful nonprofit; they lack the capacity to build measurable wealth. Would the true signifier of success in Philadelphia be a city that has reached the point where it no longer needs murals? It’s probably naïve to suggest that such an era may ever arrive, but the true glory of the Mural Arts Program—though no more measurable than anything else—may be the process far more than final result.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

With friends like the DPW, who needs enemies?

Other bloggers and I have routinely pointed out barriers to good pedestrianism in our respective cities across the country. Sometimes it requires a sea change in collective thinking on infrastructural priorities, land use, building design, and building regulations. But all too often it’s far simpler than that. It amazes me how mundane some of these gestures are, but the fact that they are routine, omnipresent, and overlooked by all but a few demonstrates how systematic this practice is. Take, for example, the sidewalks just south of the Wholesale District in Indianapolis, barely outside of the Mile Square and just seven blocks south of the dead center of town:

And, just a hundred feet further down this weathered, crumbling sidewalk:

In both cases, signs announcing restrictions to automobile traffic flow are simultaneously restricting the passage of walkers. Granted, this area offers little more to pedestrians than a conduit from Point A to Point B, where Point A in all likelihood is a parking lot. Within a 300 foot radius of the first photograph are cheap surface lots, a drive-thru fast-food restaurant, low-rise logistical staging areas, and one converted old brick warehouse building with a puppet theatre at the street level. But does undesirability of the pedestrian argument justify its current inaccessibility? These caution signs are designated these precise locations by the Department of Public Works—the same city agency that maintains both roads and sidewalks.

Is the DPW cutting off its nose to spite its face? Such a trope may seem hyperbolic, but clearly the Department is inhibiting part of its own right-of-way for the sake of informing about the conditions on another ROW. I honestly don’t think that this derives from a genuine hostility toward pedestrians, since the DPW needs to have engineers who must be fluent in basic sidewalk design standards. They know how to build and maintain a good sidewalk, and will do what their budget allows. The Department’s placement of the sign does not purely reflect the act of sacrificing pedestrian access for the sake of cars, since most able-bodied persons could easily simply walk around these signs.

Truthfully, this sort of action falls in the same category as individuals who block the sidewalks in front of their home with garbage cans for trash pick-up, or who park cars along the street that straddle the curb, so half of the vehicles’ bodies encroach upon the sidewalk. For that matter, it also resembles the sign advertising parking that is blocking the right-of-way to the Cultural Trail which I blogged about in the past. In short, it reflects a complete negligence toward pedestrians, made all the more egregious when embedded in the operations of a bureaucracy such as the Department of Public Works; the negligence then becomes systematized. Many a Dostoyevsky novel has alluded to indifference as the most toxic psychological state because it involves an absence of emotion; at least both hatred and love share a certain common intensity of experience. This absence of emotion—this bureaucratic indifference—explains why a road sign blocking a sidewalk fails to arouse concern about how persons in wheelchairs would negotiate around it. Or, for that matter, why we've all seen this sort of thing before, but it generally fails to resonate; we overlook it completely. But public works and transportation departments across the nation share a duty to recognize the diverse needs of motorists, manifest in their various responsibilities: applying different paving surfaces depending on climate, measuring and publicizing the carrying capacity of bridges, announcing the height of viaducts, recognizing the turn radii of various vehicles at intersections, and so forth. Seldom if ever will one witness a similar degree of solicitousness toward the pedestrian sphere. Until citizen protests reach a certain fever pitch—the sea change in collective thinking mentioned earlier that shows a genuine demand among constituents—one can expect many more snafus from Public Works and other departments, all of them endowed with the responsibility to use our tax dollars for improving the city to the best of their ability.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

In case it was unclear the first time, say it again.

Sometimes what seems like a message conveyed in an embarrassingly stupid manner actually belies a broader array of complicating cultural implications. Take this sign on the side of a private building in an urban neighborhood, for example:

The universal symbol for female, coupled with writing emphasizing its exclusivity to that one gender. Was it really so unclear that the owner of the restroom needed to post two signs side-by-side? The juxtaposition of two nearly semantically identical alerts suggests that one alone wasn’t doing the trick. The original sign (most likely the larger one in the top left) conveys the message a bit more delicately, while the smaller sign peremptorily restricts men with underlined red lettering. The surrounding population of the neighborhood is predominantly foreign-born, so maybe the English is difficult for some, but even then, it’s hard to imagine that potential users might mistake the woman symbol on both if these warnings, an icon whose crudeness makes it that much more ecumenical.

These postings rest on a building along Newark’s Ferry Street, the principal commercial corridor of the Ironbound, a solidly stable working and lower-middle class neighborhood in New Jersey’s largest and historically most troubled city. The neighborhood, like so many in the immediate suburbs west of New York City, is a melting pot of recent arrivals, but the Ironbound bears the distinction of holding the highest concentration of Portuguese immigrants in the country. Their presence along Ferry Street is manifest through the numerous eateries and variety stores, though other symbolic cues spaced throughout the community remind the visitor of this as well:

Not surprisingly, that’s the Portuguese flag protruding to the left. What distinguishes this community from others across the country—as well as there in northern New Jersey—is it is one of the few remaining epicenters of western European migration. While even as recently as the mid 20th century, the most common nation of origin for foreign-born persons was Germany, today the immigrant pool derives overwhelmingly from Latin America, with some concentrations of Asian born immigrants scattered across various enclaves. This excellent map from the New York Times demonstrates the shift in immigrants’ source countries over the past 120 years. Thus, Newark’s Ironbound is all the more of an anomaly for continuing to this day to harbor a decidedly western European flavor at a time when immigration to the US from that part of the world is relatively minimal. In an era when immigrant enclaves are far more likely Latino, Asian, or African, a neighborhood of immigrants from an EU member nation seems almost quaint. The distinctiveness of a Portuguese enclave has elicited some cachet—it has increasingly become a fashionable destination among New Yorkers seeking a good Iberian meal, and Galician Spaniard or Portuguese visiting the States are likely to pay Newark a deferential visit. (Even this neighborhood, however, is ostensibly showing signs of ethnic erosion, since new Portuguese immigration has dwindled considerably in the past two decades, replaced by a growing Brazilian immigrant population, no doubt drawn to the area through a linguistic affinity.)

Returning to the signage, one cannot help but wonder if the owner was trying to eliminate confusion for the out-of-towners rather than the locals. The choice of the letters WC for “Water Closet” is a curious one, though it is widely used in some western European countries. I know it is preferred by many in Germany, even though the direct German translation of the words “water” and “closet” would start with different letters (or at least “closet” would). The term is virtually unheard of in general American parlance. It could be that the first layer of ambiguity comes from trying to interpret what activity the sign is trying to promote to women; a larger portion of the population is likely not to know what “WC” means in this country than, say, Portugal. The second unclear component could come from the fact that a women’s restroom exists here in isolation, defying the usual standards for gendered restrooms to operate adjacent to one another. Much to the men’s chagrin, there is no counterpart for them, at least not in this location, which defies conventional cultural expectations here in the States. Perhaps it is a more common practice in Portugal to provide a greater spatial separation between gendered restrooms? An initial glance at this sign would suggest that someone (either the creator or its intended audience) is coming up short in the brains department, but like the majority of “folk signage” across the American landscape, its function straddles multiple cultural goals.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Retail goes “boo.”

In the spirit of the Halloween season, I can’t resist but to reference a recent article from Retail Traffic magazine, which observed that, amidst these prolonged economic doldrums, retail landlords who are suffering from extensive vacancies are succumbing to the allure of “pop-up” stores. These tenants earn this name because they tend to pop-up for short times, with no intention of lasting beyond the specialized two- to six-month leases they’ve been able to negotiate. While the photo below derives from a suburban Indianapolis pop-up, I don’t plan to index it as such for this blog post because it could just as easily come from anywhere else in the country.

Seasonal stores such as these are among the most ubiquitous pop-ups, capitalizing on the particularly high vacancies in suburban strip malls: costumes for Halloween, tree-trimming for Christmas, or fireworks for Independence Day (in the states where they’re legal). It doesn’t require much scrutiny for those who know branding and exteriors to see that this tenant is leasing an old Circuit City store. No doubt landlords across the country are filling the footprint from the now-defunct chain with Halloween stores; in this economy, it is unlikely that any other large enterprising retailer has swept the nation, permanently filling an old big box store like Circuit City. Step inside of “Halloween USA” and the transience of this tenant becomes more apparent:

Minimal investment in signage; none in interior design. The store will probably close within a few weeks after Halloween, once inventory is more or less liquidated. A Christmas-themed outlet may immediately replace it, possibly managed by the same tenant but with a new inventory. Such has historically been the destiny of pop-us, of which everyone is familiar even if we have lacked a word for the term (largely out of indifference, no doubt).

Other off-again, on-again storefronts are a bit more subtle. Jackson Hewitt and H&R Block, among others, offer year-round tax preparation office in rare scattered locations, but far more familiar (because of their ubiquity) are the seasonal ones operating from late winter until shortly after that notorious April 15 deadline. Incidentally, the majority of these seasonal tax preparation offices do not function as pop-ups but remain shuttered the other six to eight months to a year, with signs up, furniture in place, and not a sign of life until the next tax season. These offices appear to operate under standard one-year or multiyear leases with no intention of remaining open the full year. The fact that a business can sustain itself on a conventional lease with only seasonal hours suggests the industry shares a few common characteristics: 1) operating costs are low and revenue during the “peak” is quite high; 2) the clientele drawn to these tax preparation services is also lower income; 3) the regional management benefits doubly from choosing low-caliber, largely vacant, or otherwise blighted retail centers to locate the seasonal offices because the rents are low and these tend to be more visible to their targeted clientele. This devastated strip mall in Plainfield (featured in a previous blog entry of mine on retail failure in successful suburbs) is a perfect example; witness the H&R Block sign peeping out behind the façade of a vacant WalMart:

The Retail Traffic article, however, focuses its attention less on the aforementioned retail quirks and more on what is unique to this current profound recession: pop-ups from nationally recognized brands appearing in prime retail sites. Everything from Gap to Gucci are experimenting with new product lines through temporary outlets in major cities, while Toys ‘R’ Us plans to open 70 pop-ups this holiday to fill vacancies left by now closed rival KB Toys. I’m not aware of any major-brand incarnations yet in second-tier cities such as Indianapolis, but if the economic doldrums continue, here is what I anticipate we might see:

- Increasing diversity of holiday-themed pop-ups filling in the smaller outlets. I think I can safely assert that, over the past two decades, Halloween decorations have elevated from a niche market to a fully mainstream phenomenon. Though not as omnipresent as Christmas, a simple scan across suburbia (and urban America too) reveals that Halloween is everywhere, and it’s not limited to children’s costumes on October 31. I have recently seen incipient traces of this same trend with Easter, where the saturation level of decorations may be on par with Halloween in 1985. These seasonal pop-ups will begin conservatively, taking leases in the smallest vacancies in less desirable strip malls, but if there’s a growing market for other holiday decorations, no doubt a vendor will find it and attempt to exploit it in the lowest-risk manner possible. First it might be Easter, but what next? Valentine’s Day, or St. Patrick’s Day? Thanksgiving? Bastille Day?

- Major brands will experiment through pop-ups, peddling risky new product lines in safe Midwest test market cities like Indianapolis, Columbus, or Kansas City. Upscale brands may also see pop-ups as the window to second-tier markets where the demand and purchasing power are less concentrated. The struggling strip malls of wealthy suburbs in the aforementioned cities are far more likely to attract, for example, high-end Italian designers for limited times during peak periods (such as the Christmas shopping season), and such brand names would choose the wealthy suburban strip mall location—where space is abundant, vacancies are high, rents are lower, and a consumer base is assured—long before they would move into the much more limited trendy urban retail corridors.

- Smaller cities and larger towns with high retail vacancy may witness pop-ups as a status quo. In less diversified economies that are highly susceptible to recessions, major retailers may remain unconvinced that a long-term lease is a wise commitment. Such communities (particularly cities under 50,000 inhabitants) may find they no longer inspire confidence for expansion of big box retailers like Home Depot or Petsmart; instead they get scaled down, temporary versions of such vendors until the economy improves. Bricks-and-mortar investments are simply not worth it if the trade area holds no promise of long-term stability, yet towns and cities of this size still suffer an abundance of vacant retail space that strives to be filled, even if only for limited time frames.

Such speculations on my part are based purely upon the cynical notion that this recession will last for years to come. Landlords hardly see pop-ups as desirable during normal economic circumstances, and when real estate fundamentals recover, none of the above points are likely to prove realistic. But the current fiscal crisis has hit home better than any previous recession the nature of how ridiculously overbuilt the American retail environment truly is. And pop-ups at least represent a lemonade-out-of-lemons method of experimentation that may elicit the sort of discoveries that allow those in commercial real estate to learn from past mistakes.