Sunday, January 31, 2010

Why the Greenwood Park Mall gets it right, Part II: design prescience.

In the first part of this post, I explored two primary characteristics that explain why Indianapolis’ only true shopping hub on the south side, the Greenwood Park Mall, remains a retail powerhouse. It defies the odds for the suburban shopping malls, many of which are struggling with high vacancy rates, while hundreds more have already closed in the past 20 years. While the dying mall is not an entirely new phenomenon—some, like Chicago’s legendary Dixie Square Mall of Blues Brothers fame, kicked the bucket as long ago as 1979—the trend has only escalated in recent years, with malls that were fashionable as recently as 1998 closing their doors. But Greenwood Park Mall is showing no sign of slowing down, as it takes on increasingly higher-end tenants that betray the heritage of the surrounding fiscally conservative German/Southern community.

Most of the features I analyzed in the first half of the post dealt with its location. Factor Number 1 explored how the mall is relatively isolated from the other major malls of the city and serving a huge trade area. But the Greenwood area’s reputation in the past three decades has risen, distancing the southern side of Indianapolis from its previous perception as a cultural backwater to contrast with the white-collar north side. Factor 2 analyzes how the southside suburbs have become considerably less insular, more diverse, and the households cover a broader socioeconomic range, much of it skewing toward the affluent. While nearly all of the population growth on this side of town has been of the auto-centric, suburban variety, the region has not yet decentralized to such a degree to justify the construction of a second mall, and Greenwood Park retains its centrality for a huge spread of south-central Indiana—one might even call it a dominion of sort. The mall’s location within the metro has played a huge role, but today’s post focuses more on the details within the mall itself: the physical structure and layout that have helped promote its continued success. So I continue with the other critical factors.

3) The mall has adapted with the times, undergoing major renovations to fit with shifting consumer tastes. Most malls that survive beyond the 20-year point demand some sort of extensive interior renovation. The typical retail center shows its age within about fifteen years. Some of this could be attributable to quality of construction, but it derives primarily from continually evolving shopping typologies. As I have noted before, easy credit access, relaxed approvals and affordable exurban land have given retail developers carte blanche to build, build, build in response to consumer demands for new, new, new. The more we see new shopping centers crop up, always featuring better amenities than their slightly older competitors, the more likely the ones that are over a decade old are going to appear faded and will struggle to retain tenants. The United States is mind-numbingly overbuilt with retail, which is why tenant occupancy is more rarefied here than anywhere else in the world. Storefront supply outpaces demand, manifesting itself in spread-out retail activity, or, more clearly, in our thousands of half-vacant downtowns, main streets, strip plazas, and regional shopping malls.

Whether or not retail serves as a microcosm for American culture’s relentless tendency to change (for better or for worse), it’s clear by now that those in the commercial development industry must adapt to shifting tastes through perpetual reinvention. Fixed real estate cannot uproot and move to the hottest new neighborhoods where households with deep pockets have decided to build, so it must physically modify itself to compete with the shiny new shopping centers opening in the booming exurbs a few miles down the road. The management of Greenwood Park Mall has kept up with the times.

It no doubt helps that the center’s management has for the most part been Simon Property Group, the locally based leader in mall management, whose shrewd business operations have elevated the company to the nation’s largest mall manager and world’s largest retail Real Estate Investment Trust.

The original Greenwood Shopping Center was about a decade old when Melvin Simon and Associates bought it and completely upgraded it in 1977. The new owners enclosed it and expanded it considerably, interlinking five department stores with corridors that featured over 1,000,000 square feet of retail space, all unveiled in 1979. In addition, a sixth big box sits immediately adjacent to the mall, not accessible directly but reachable by a 30-pace walk outdoors. For decades the tenant in this space was Service Merchandise but today it’s Dick’s Sporting Goods, still closely linked if not attached, as seen below:

The mall never has really faced an economic lull, but by the mid 1990s, its brown-brick/vaulted ceiling/fountain combination—an extremely popular mall design prototype in the early 1980s—was beginning to look tired. The result?

Modification Number 1. In 2003 Simon embarked on an extensive remodel, brightening the interior corridors without (to my knowledge) adding any new natural light. Obviously cosmetic changes such as paint and light-colored floor tiles will usually achieve the necessary effect, but the application here is a bit shrewder than simply a new sheen. Regrettably, I have no pictures of the pre-renovation Greenwood Park Mall, but the principal color scheme involved dark wood trim and brown rectangular floor tiles. In order not to appear too drab, the designers punctuated the corridor with skylights, fountains, and foliage in boxy plantings adjacent to the fountains to give it more warmth. The contrast between these embellishments and the non-embellished portions of the mall was significant, because without the skylights the mall would appear quite dark.

What the renovation has achieved is to neutralize the contrast, equalizing the light throughout the hallways, instead of making it seem prominent only at the occasional skylighted atria. The result is a more consistent theme where the skylights become far less conspicuous. Adding to the consistency was the removal of most of the “organic” touches such as water and plants—only one fountain survives, and artificial plants are relatively uncommon. Benches remain, though many have been replaced with overstuffed sofas. The result may be a bit more sterile, but sometimes cold and antiseptic also translates to upscale chic. This seems to be the intended effect at this mall.

As the photographs prove, the color scheme is white and a pale taupe, or maybe an off-white (apparently no one can agree precisely on what taupe is). This appears a smart move because it’s a soft enough color that it won’t likely ever become super-trendy, thereby making the interior passé five years after the color loses its cachet. (Contrast this with such short-lived color fads as teel in the early 1990s, revived olive in the late 1990s, chartreuse or mustard about five or six years ago, and a burnt orange—Hook ‘em Horns—more recently.) The taupe provides a modest contrast to the white while also disguising dirt and scratches. Meanwhile, white has emerged as a popular indicator of affluence in recent years. (Anyone visiting the Fashion Avenue wing of the Dubai Mall can see the powerful effect that searing white elicits, while the Gold Souk nearby proves a smart, elegant employment of taupe.) Some of the most upscale tenants at Greenwood Park Mall—tenants that would have been unthinkable twenty years ago in this relentlessly middle class area—declare their target demographic through an imperious fluorescent white.

Another common tactic employed by retailers to convey affluence has been the lighting applied to signage. Instead of a plastic/celluloid hollow enclosure filled with neon or fluorescent lights, many major brands are using wood or metal lettering and mounting subtle lighting behind the figures. This backlighting has been a standard practice for quite some time now:

Simon Property Group has wisely deferred the trendiest stylistic gestures to the tenants, using a conservative aesthetic for the common space that will not likely date very quickly. After all, the Greenwood Park Mall’s previous design—that of the brown bricks and deep wood—survived over twenty years. The tenants can be as hip as they want.

But would the Greenwood Park Mall have croaked if not for this design? I would imagine most people who frequent the mall would say no. It’s never really been through a slump, so the decision to remodel in 2003 was pro-active rather than reactive. It could have survived looking dated for another ten years. After all, there’s nothing unique about the mall—no striking architectural flourishes that would distinguish from hundreds of other suburban malls. Its strongest identifiable landmark is the water tower, featured in the topmost photo, which presides over the parking lot. Contrast these design decisions to Greenwood Park with the long-struggling Lafayette Square Mall on the city’s northeast side, in which the mall management (once again Simon) hurriedly renovated that facility in 1997 when it was clear the aging mall was hemorrhaging patrons due to the newly opened Circle Centre Mall downtown. The overwhelmingly white motif has failed to save Lafayette Square from a permanent malaise:

In this case, the remodeling was an attempt to resuscitate a mall that was losing its viability, but it didn’t work. Much of the reason the mall had sunk was not just because newer, shinier centers opening nearby, but because the demographics in the surrounding neighborhood had changed to a lower-income population with less purchasing power as well as a higher perceived rate of criminality, which often further scared the law-abiding middle class from patronizing the facility. No degree of cosmetic changes was necessarily going to reinvent Lafayette Square enough to make it an attractive place to shop again. But I’ve already covered that mall extensively on an earlier blog post.

The fact remains that Greenwood Park Mall’s 2003 renovation was a preventative measure intended, no doubt, to stave off any potential competitors that might have arisen in the form of a new regional shopping center in the southern suburbs. The entire history of the management of this mall has been measured and conservative. The fact that it took almost twenty-five years for the first remodeling is remarkable in itself, since many malls necessitate significant alterations in half that time to remain viable. Simon’s local management of this mall no doubt calibrated the 2003 renovation to last another twenty years. Obviously many things could happen that might render the mall passé long before then; that seems to be the direction malls are headed. The spending patterns of Indianapolis’ southside residents reveal a deeply fiscally conservative population that does not embrace new trends lightly or quickly, instead showing repeated loyalty to a few durable institutions. If it appears that I am splitting hairs or stretching this analysis too far, I’m willing to venture that these are exactly the sort of things that the experts in Simon researched diligently in order to time this remodeling appropriately. And lo and behold—the company ended up renovating the mall again just four years later.

Modification Number 2. In 2007, mall management was faced with a new dilemma. The legendary stalwart of the Indianapolis retail scene, L.S. Ayres, stopped operating a local biz as long ago as 1972, and after a series of acquisitions, ended up in the hands of Federated (Macy’s) Department Stores in 2005, who bought its most recent owner, the May Company. Throughout this time, L.S. Ayres had retained its brand name, but this most recent acquisition was the culmination of series of department store mergers, and one of Greenwood Park Mall’s other department stores, Lazarus (originally based out of Columbus, Ohio) was also part of this mix. In Greenwood, the Lazarus became Macy’s and the L.S. Ayres, long a subsidiary of Macy, closed all of its doors in the region. Realizing that department stores in themselves were dwindling in number through the consolidations, the mall’s management decided to take the old L.S. Ayres location and alter that wing of the mall completely. Up to this point, the Ayres building looked much like this Wikipedia photo: the standard blocky, windowless titan. In 2007, Simon Property Group took the wrecking ball to about one-eighth of the mall. The result looks more like this:

In short, the L.S. Ayres wing has returned the Greenwood Park Mall to its open-air roots, back in the days of the Greenwood Shopping Center. The new wing assimilates the retail typology known as the lifestyle center, which essentially is open-air shopping in a more pedestrian scaled environment than a strip mall. This new component features about ten new in-line stores, five upper-middle priced chain restaurants, and a Barnes and Noble Booksellers. In short, it replaced a phased-out department store with more specialty in-line tenants and a national bookstore chain, the latter of which comes the closest to equating to an anchor tenant, though its leasable area pales in comparison to the old L.S. Ayres.

It hardly takes an MBA to figure out that this was a wise move: anyone in Greenwood would most like argue that the new addition is “nice”. Lifestyle centers have largely replaced enclosed shopping malls as the new preferred shopping experience, and while not much of anything is getting built in the current punishing economy, when a developers assemble parcels for a regional shopping destination, they are almost always thinking in terms of open-air options these days. Few retail analysts, however, hold much confidence that lifestyle centers are here to stay: it largely reverts back to a more embellished version of the original open-air plazas under which most malls began, Greenwood Park included. In fact, it baffles many experts that these centers have become so popular, particularly in cold climates where shoppers are exposed to the elements. However, when the weather is good, they vaguely approximate a main street shopping experience like the days of yore, minus the struggle to find good parking. In fact, the lifestyle center of Greenwood Park Mall offers a combination of sidewalk activity juxtaposed with angled parking.

The configuration seen in the photo above suggests a tight competition for spaces, but immediately to the left of this image is a field of copious parking, as seen by this distance shot:

This new section of the mall offers a hierarchy of spaces, with “teaser parking” for the rockstars who get a space right next to the storefronts, as well as quite a few handicapped spaces. A nearly infinite supply awaits those who cannot locate those ideal spaces. This duality gives precedence to the spaces that more closely resemble an actual urban street, and the clear intention through the lifestyle center component is to mimic city street life, manifested in warmer weather through casual strollers and al fresco dining:

Unfortunately I only have a winter picture of the fountain, but this has become the new “centerpiece” entrance to the mall:

And viewed from the other angle, blurry but in much better weather, with the abundant parking in the background:

You get the idea. One minor shortcoming to this lifestyle center component is that it only provides retail on one side of the sidewalk and street. Unlike a truly successful main street (and the most enduring lifestyle centers), a pedestrian cannot walk along the sidewalk here and see storefronts on the both the left and right. None of the open-air pedestrian corridors are flanked with stores on both sides, with one minor exception in the narrow passage below, which is little more than a gap between two of the premier restaurants.

Nonetheless, this section of the mall features pedestrian streetscape features that make it far more inviting—as well as safer—for the walk from the parking lot to the entrance:

Compare this to the older, altered sections of the mall, which offer the typical blank boxes and no real consideration for pedestrians:

A crosswalk but no handicapped ramp:

The lifestyle center wing of the Greenwood Park Mall seems to have lofty ambitions, attracting upper-mid tenants like White House | Black Market, Coldwater Creek, and Joseph A. Bank Clothiers, with the requisite upscale backlighting.

Like the 2003 interior renovation, this demolition/reconstruction of a significant wing of the mall won’t necessarily guarantee the mall a robust life for twenty years into the future. No change can promise such a thing. But the timing was right for it, and Simon Property Group implemented the same “daylighting” to the old L. S. Ayres wing to the Castleton Square Mall on the north side of Indianapolis, instilling it with a lifestyle center component as well. With Greenwood Park Mall, the practice hardly translates to a last-ditch rescue of a dying retail center, but mall management wisely assumed it would be far easier to chop the space into many smaller in-line tenants than to secure a new department store as an anchor. Even in these sour times, the strategy seems to be working.

4) It has a better floor plan than many other dumbbell-shaped malls. I cannot conclude any analysis of this retail powerhouse without exploring the overall layout of the stores within it. It’s deceptively quirky, and I attribute it as a major factor to the mall’s success. I could easily link to the Simon webpage to provide a floorplan, but we seem to like photographs on this blog, so instead I offer a snapshot of the plan posted at kiosks in the mall itself—click to zoom in further.
Most one-story malls are far more linear in their orientation, often adapting some variant of the “dumbbell”, in which the in-line stores flank a straight-line corridor that connects two bulky department stores at either end of the hall. Sometimes other department stores branch off either side of the central corridor, and sometimes a smaller corridor intersects at a right angle, forming a T-shape. This configuration provides the basis for the layout of Lafayette Square, Castleton Square (seen below), and countless other malls across the country.

Conversely, Greenwood Park Mall’s hallways are more networked and approximate a grid, with multiple intersections at right angles, enhancing the visual interest because the visitor often faces multiple pathway options. The mall is less of a line and more of a quadrilateral, with department stores flanking the corners. Situating the primary anchors at corners gives some of the stores the advantage of having two interior entrances instead of one. Von Maur, the Midwest equivalent to Nordstrom, provides a good example. (Also remarkable is the fact that Greenwood can support a department store of its caliber, which would have been a stretch twenty years ago.) Aside from the obvious exterior entrances from the parking lot, the visitor gets an interior entrance from the west side of the store:

He or she can then travel through the elegant interior (past the lady playing the piano), then make a hard left within the center of the store.

Within a few more paces, the visitor will reach the northern entrance of the store, emerging to a different corridor filled with new inline stores.

Thus, many patrons can use the department store to “cut through” to a different wing of the mall; the execs of Von Maur undoubtedly hope to hold at least a few of them captive. The branch of Sears at Greenwood Park Mall has much the same option, with two interior entrances. Aside from the obvious notion that two is better than one, why is this useful? It helps prevent a particular stretch of the mall from going dead as easily, because it is more integrated with the rest of the malls traffic—much the same way a grid street pattern gets more traffic on average than a cul-de-sac. A particularly lackluster department store (which, as most of us know, is typically the case with Sears), can render an entire wing moribund in a dumbbell-shapped mall: none of the in-line tenants want to lease along that dreary passageway to the anchor store that no one visits. Obviously it’s even worse if the department store goes out of business; a property manager for a dumbbell-shaped tenant may have to hustle to find a replacement anchor or all the in-line tenants along that wing of the dumbbell will jump ship (or move to a better location in the mall) at the earliest opportunity. Due to the design of the Greenwood Park Mall, this is far less likely to happen. When Montgomery Wards folded in 2001, the mall was confronted with a glaring vacancy. Mall traffic barely dipped, no doubt in part because few people were patronizing Wards in the first place, but also because the adjacent inline stores were able to remain strong—they didn’t stretch so far down a long, dull corridor. Before long, management at the mall found a new tenant: the significantly higher end Von Maur.

The other critical element of the Greenwood Park Mall’s smart layout is the fulcrum on which its grid network rests: the intersections. Many one-story malls lack any four-way intersection; Greenwood Park Mall has three. One of them, however, comprises the undisputed center of the mall—the hub of activity. No matter which direction a person stands, he or she stares down an expansive hall of stores.

The cluster of kiosks and often thick pedestrian traffic approximates a bazaar more than you’ll ever likely see in Midwestern suburbia. When I was little, I found the mall confusing, but directional signage has improved since the 2003 remodeling, and this hub of the major corridors is now the chief customer service center, as well as the highest concentration of smaller vendors who take advantage of the steady stream of passers-by. If there’s any weakness, it’s that this intersection lacks a centerpiece—a place where one person can say to another, “Meet me at the fountain/gazebo/tall tree.” However, one of the other intersections more than compensates: the four-way near the J.C. Penney and Von Maur features a playground and a fountain:

And there’s always the most universal meeting space, the food court. Some malls sequester their eateries in unappealing pod, visually obstructed from both department and inline stores, making it a task to hunt it down. In the Greenwood Park Mall, the food court is smartly situated along a broad three-way intersection with no partitions and across from one of the entrances to Sears, most likely benefiting the department store more than vise versa:

That more or less covers all the critical elements of the Greenwood Park Mall’s design. Lest I seem like a clandestine spokesperson for Simon, I will concede that the mall has its weaknesses. It has a few vacancies here and there, as well as a few mom-and-pop shops that suggest the management couldn’t find a nationally recognized tenant willing to sign the lease. But these are hopefully the worst of times, and the mall is still well over 98% occupied, just as it always has been. And it has Coach!

Of the four factors which I have so lengthily (TOO lengthily) analyzed, perhaps only any one of them was really ever necessary to prevent the mall from dying. But the combination of them has ensured the mall a success that outstrips many of its peers in the region. The Greenwood Park Mall isn’t just hanging on in an era of dying malls; its more prominent and a greater destination that it has ever been before. And in spite of its many locational advantages, it has a few disadvantages with which it must contend. Before closing this essay, let’s briefly return the map of malls in the region, this time enhanced with a few additional symbols:

As indicated before, Greenwood Park Mall is the green dollar site farthest to the south. But unlike several of the other malls—Lafayette Square, Castleton Square, Hamilton Town Center—it is adjacent to a major interstate. In the Crossroads of America as in anywhere else, proximity to interstates—ideally the intersection of one with a major highway—is a prime location for a major regional shopping center. Not only does Greenwood Park Mall suffer from this lack of visibility, but it was conceived at a time when there was no real interstate access to speak of. Notice the dark red circle about a mile to the east; this is an interchange from I-65 to County Line Road, providing easy access to the mall. But this interchange did not exist until the late 1990s, meaning that motorists coming from the south had no efficient access to the mall; no signs would point them there because the mall lacked any real exit. Nonetheless the mall thrived, and the Department of Transportation finally decided, nearly two decades after the mall’s birth, that Interstate 65 warranted an exit ramp.

The other disadvantage that Greenwood Park Mall had to overcome for many moons is embedded in its name: the mall is located in (gulp) Greenwood. In the previous blog post I mentioned the whiff of stigma the south side of Indianapolis has long had to residents from elsewhere in the region; Greenwood has always been emblematic of the south side. Until recently, all of metro Indianapolis’ malls were in the city limits—with the exception of the one in Greenwood. The black line on the map above reinforces the division between Indianapolis/Marion County and Greenwood/Johnson County; the mall is immediately south of County Line Road. As the south side has risen above its generally undeserved “backwoods” image to offer outstanding school systems, impossibly low crime, a venerable institution in Franklin College farther to the south, and a hugely successful mall, the Greenwood brand is hardly a pejorative these days. In fact, large swaths of the city of Indianapolis struggle to today compete with the surrounding suburbs; the city limits now harbor one dead mall, two on life support, and scores of half-vacant strip centers. It may now be that the Greenwood Park Mall’s presence south of County Line Road is a quiet advantage.

Regardless of the mall’s humble beginnings, its present and future appear more confident than ever, especially considering that its cachet has grown while so many other malls are discovering that their inherent mall-ness is an albatross. I’m not holding my breath for this mall to transcend its suburban trappings and become a tourist destination, like the now-vintage Country Club Plaza in Kansas City. But the only development likely to dethrone Greenwood Park Mall is a new super-regional center on the south side, and even then it will have to surpass the mall with the water tower through both a superior location and design—not easy for a developer to do when competing with the legacy of the late Mel Simon, the nation’s top mall manager working on his own home turf.

Saturday, January 30, 2010


As my seventh month of blogging winds down, I recognize (and to a certain degree apologize) that my posts have been a bit more infrequent this past month. This is in no way an indication that I am retreating from the blogosphere, but it does reveal a few things:

- I'm quite a bit busier through work. At the beginning of the month, as I was transitioning from contracting to PFT work, I was juggling three jobs simultaneously. That has fortunately come to an end.

- I've become a bit pickier about photography. My mission is that all substantive blog posts will have at least one graphic, and I have no plans to deviate from that at this point, even though it often makes it much more difficult to develop a new topic. (It also makes my subject matter far more provincial than I had originally anticipated, since my work has not yet required me to travel at the level that I had expected that it would.) Sometimes I have to return to a site because I realize in hindsight that the photo just doesn't quite get the point across. Obviously this is time consuming.

- I'm getting a bit closer to suffering writer's block. This may explain more than anything why my posts have slowed down; I don't ever want to be completely tapped out. One way of preventing this is of course for me to travel more, which I have every intent of doing. Another of course is for the followers of my blog to continue the comments, or for those who never commented, to begin doing so. I welcome praise and criticism, as well as corrections if my observation is factually inaccurate. Thanks for all the support in the past, and help keep the dialogue continuing well into the future. Thanks again!

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Preservation by Neglect?

It’s understandable that, in an attempt to save a cherished object from deterioration, a caretaker would restrict human contact with it, while keeping it proudly on display. But what about when the powers-that-be simply bypass it? This rural scene in east-central Indiana may be rare, but the motivating spirit behind it takes place everywhere:

Through the thick grass rests a faded Burr Truss covered bridge, in a region where they are plentiful. Parke County, Indiana, where this one is located (slightly east of the touristy town of Mansfield) claims the highest number of any county in the nation, at 31. Presumably Parke County Inc (PCI), the region’s tourist and visitors’ bureau, includes this bridge among them—after all, the county is only one bridge ahead of its runner-up, Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. But how much longer will it remain a viable cultural artifact if continues to sit in relaxed desuetude? County authorities must have decided a while back to reroute the road so that it circumvents the bridge. The absence of any visible pavement on either side suggests that it happened many years ago, or that it may have even been an unimproved road—the decision to pave could have coincided with the demotion of the bridge. Whether it was decommissioned three years ago or thirty, the bridge itself remains in remarkably good shape: despite a few chipped planks here and there, the paint is relatively intact, the lettering is legible, vegetation around it is thin enough almost to look cultivated. No graffiti that I saw, which might seem unlikely anyway in a sparsely populated area, but we’ve all seen “I LOVE U DEBBY” graffiti along highway overpasses in the countryside.

One can speculate dozens of reasons why the right-of-way might have been diverted; nearly all of them owe their origins to public dollars. Safety issues might have been too formidable to justify continued maintenance. The topography may be slightly more suitable for a bridge just a few feet to the south. (Clearly the highways department wasn’t exactly lavish for the new bridge; it didn’t even invest enough to make it a full two lanes.) Regardless, this benign disregard for a covered bridge seems incongruous with the image Parke County is trying to create: each year the community holds a Covered Bridge Festival, and the PCI provides maps to guide visitors through multiple routes to see the various structures. Why let this one go?

Quick research reveals a bit more about the structure. The Big Rocky Fork Bridge was bypassed nearly twenty-five years ago, and its minimal maintenance passed from the county’s Highway Department to its Parks Department—understandable, since it is no longer part of a right-of-way. Within a few years of witnessing the low degree of stewardship afforded to the structure by the public sector, a local Adopt-a-Bridge program assumed the bulk of responsibility. The resulting patina demonstrates a sort of elegant compromise, transformed from a functional tool to a museum piece. Its mild inaccessibility may actually protect it more than if it were still part of the infrastructure, or if it were clearly roped off from public access. As it currently stands, it just does not imbed itself in the minds of passers-by as much, so outright vandalism would achieve very little impact as an act of defiance. At the same time, it is no longer subject to deterioration from repeated use. At a time when states and municipalities are forced to trim their budgets left and right—resulting in the closure of little-visited sites such as Ernie Pyle’s boyhood home--the Parke County approach seems to be among the least malicious ways of coping with the reality of sour fiscal times, especially since there’s clearly an interest group that ensures its rudimentary upkeep. Collective stewardship frequently requires little more than achieving that careful balance between ignored dilapidation and conservation that sterilizes—and in this country, those that find the sweet spot nearly always win that coveted word: "historic".

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Why the Greenwood Park Mall gets it right, Part I: the smokin’ location.

With all the gloom and doom written these days about dying malls, or long-lived national chains like Circuit City going out of business, it’s time to shift the attention to the occasional success story.

The fate of large regional shopping malls has never been more doubtful, since their first inception over 50 years ago. Centers that were thriving as recently as the mid-1990s are now saddled with high vacancies and folding anchor stores, while many buildings that broke ground in the late 1980s are already closed (often while the surrounding neighborhoods remain economically viable). I already wrote long ago about two of the most challenged malls on the east and west sides of Indianapolis. The long-delayed opening of Xanadu in East Rutherford, New Jersey outside New York City has attracted more media attention for the tremendous risk of the investment than for the magnitude of its attractions, which include a wave pool, indoor ski lift, and skydiving simulator. (Clearly it sounds like the sort of thing you’d see in a mall in Dubai, and we all know what sort of condition that great urban apotheosis of consumerism is in right now.) With regards to Xanadu, why open any mall, let alone one with a goal of becoming a major tourist destination in the suburbs, when consumer spending is so desperately slow and prominent malls are closing left and right? Xanadu has yet to open its doors and may need to go into state receivership. There are no malls slated to open in 2010, or any time in the future.

Websites like began as a collection of chronicles on the rise and fall of particular consumerist palaces across the country, but these “case studies” are not so much journalistic accounts of faded retail as they are deeply personal anecdotes, replete with nostalgia for a time when the centers were flourishing. Americans who grew up in the 1970s and 80s can’t help but become wistful as they watch a major part of their childhoods (and, no doubt, their adolescence) go tumbling with the wrecking ball. But not all malls are suffering this fate. In spite of the fact that the general consensus among retail developers is that the enclosed shopping mall is a dying retail typology, some malls continue to prosper against all odds.

It would be impossible for me to contribute a nostalgic account of my childhood mall going down the drain for, because the Greenwood Park Mall is not a dead mall in the least. It began as a mid-size shopping center in 1966, and only in 1977 did Indy’s own geniuses of mall management, the Simon Property Group (then called Melvin Simon and Associates), purchase the property and engage in an extensive renovation and expansion. What is known today as the Greenwood Park Mall opened in 1980. Despite the fact that it will soon be celebrating its 30th birthday—well beyond the life span of many malls—this mall in the most prominent southside suburb of Indianapolis is still going strong. It may even be stronger than ever, the current economy notwithstanding. Without delving into many further details on the financial management of the property, I offer the primary reasons I believe the mall has been a persistent success, starting today with its macro-level, regional location.

1) Sitting quite a distance from the other malls in the region, its trade area is much larger, and it has no clear competition. The map below provides as full of an account as I know of anything that could be considered a “mall” in metro Indianapolis, past and present.

Here’s a code to the colors:
Green – successful or at least generally operative mall
Red – mall with over 50% vacancy, a “dying” or struggling mall
Purple – former mall that has been redeveloped or “repurposed” to big box stores
Brown – vacant “dead” mall, no longer retail

As is clear from the map, Greenwood Park Mall—the big green dollar sign farthest to the south—is nearly all alone.* While the northern suburbs have always been more heavily populated, the area directly south of downtown Indianapolis still has a strong base. Johnson County, home to the suburb of Greenwood from which the mall is named, has well over 125,000 inhabitants. Compare this to the other parts of town. For example, a resident of the town of Lawrence (labeled on the map) could choose from either the upscale Fashion Mall, the more mainstream Castleton Square Mall on the northeast side of town, the Circle Centre Mall directly downtown, or go south to the struggling Washington Square Mall if all he or she needed was some basics (the mall still has a Target, a Dick’s and a Burlington Coat Factory). The reconstituted Glendale “Mall” in purple to the northeast of downtown also offers similar amenities in a big-box setting. All are more or less equidistant. Meanwhile, a resident of Fishers could choose from the Fashion Mall, Castleton Square, Glendale, or go further north to the newer malls of Hamilton Town Center in Noblesville or Clay Terrace in Carmel. The northsiders in general have multiple malls from which to choose, all relatively close by.

I’ve already said more than necessary. People in the southern suburbs have a fraction of the choices. Some residents may be relatively close to Metropolis in Plainfield or the Circle Center Mall, but the Greenwood Park Mall is pre-eminent. However, the mall also serves a much broader region than just the southern Indy suburbs; it’s the largest mall for a broad swath of southern Indiana. People from small towns across the region are likely to make the big trip to Greenwood Park Mall; the weekends in particular are crowded with vehicles featuring license plates from sparsely populated counties in the south. The two largest cities near the southside of Indy, Columbus and Bloomington, have mini-malls that pale in comparison to the offerings of the 1.1 million square-foot Greenwood Park. The trade area for the Greenwood Park Mall thus extends so far southward that the next major community with anything resembling its offerings is in metro Louisville. Its size and drawing power make it a super-regional center.

No doubt some of the other malls in Indianapolis metro have had similar aspirations—some of them are almost as big—but they are situated too close to one another to have the same magnetism. Certainly some southsiders will occasionally travel to the Fashion Mall for the designer names, or to the Castleton mall for the biggest Macy’s department store in the state. But Greenwood Park Mall covers a broad enough retail terrain to remain the favored choice. The significant, sprawling population on the north side may in itself justify multiple malls, but it isn’t enough to endow any single one with the same level of prominence that Greenwood Park Mall has for the south side. The retail mix between Castleton and Hamilton Town Center is far too similar for one to be discernibly different from the other. The only intrusion likely to unseat Greenwood Park from its gold-medal pedestal would be the construction of a new mall further to the south, but the suburban development patterns in Greenwood and the southside are not yet so widespread that any developer is likely to challenge this mall’s perpetual dominance.

[*This leads to my one big caveat, indicated by the asterisk above. Greenwood Park Mall is not quite alone among southside retail centers. The purple dollar sign just above the Greenwood Park Mall is the former County Line Mall, opened in 1976 and anchored by Target for many years, until it left and was redeveloped into a big box with accompanying inline retail strips. Its vacancy levels right now are pushing 50%--quite a contrast from the consistently fully occupied Greenwood Park Mall. Even at its most successful, it was always so small that it could only be seen as a supplement to the Greenwood Park Mall and not a competitor.]

2) The southern suburbs of Indianapolis have reasserted themselves as an attractive place for out-of-towners to resettle. This evolution has more to do with a shift in perception than any widespread changes in development or patterns. Anyone who has lived in the city of Indianapolis for more than a few years can identify the implicit cultural biases favoring certain sides of town over others. This is nothing unique; nearly every large city in the country has a fashionable and unfashionable side. But for decades, up to and including the time that the Greenwood Shopping Center underwent its first expansion to become the Greenwood Park Mall, the southern suburbs were the overwhelmingly the least favored side of town in which to live. Wind direction and a higher elevation, among other things, favored the north side of town as the residential destination for those with the financial means to choose. Most institutions, libraries, museums, followed this growth pattern and it remains clear to this day that the north side of town favored the wealthy. On the north side, the White Rivers’ banks predominantly host parks, golf courses, and leafy college campuses; on the south side the river hosts factories and power plants. Beyond wind and topography, much of this perceived preference for the north side of town comes derives from its own perpetual reinforcement; as this handy map of density by census tract demonstrates, settlement has overwhelmingly favored the land north of Washington Street, the city’s central east-west artery. The city’s top-heavy growth slightly resembles a mushroom, with the “cap” beginning at Washington Street, extending overwhelmingly to the north but also heavily to the east and west (and significantly to the northeast and northwest). In the other direction, the development has formed a straight trajectory southward from downtown towards Greenwood—the “stalk” of the mushroom—but even to this day the southeast and southwest of downtown are sparsely populated.

If anything, Washington Street—known elsewhere as US 40, the great National Road—is the true Mason-Dixon Line. By some standards, calling it Mason-and-Dixon is almost literal: Washington Street runs uncannily close to the same latitude as the Pennsylvania/Maryland border that comprised the original 1820 charter. But this invisible partition has cultural implications as well: like most of the Midwest, Indianapolis claims powerful German roots on the south side as well as the north, but the south side of the city also absorbed the vast majority of southern and Appalachian migration, drawn to the lower cost of living and proximity to the working class jobs that billow smoke nearby, far from the wealthy northsiders. It is far more common to hear a southern twang among people in the southern suburbs—north of downtown it is rare. Enough local historians have asserted that “the South begins south of Washington Street” that it has become part of common parlance. The east and west sides of Indianapolis are split between northern/Midwestern and southern influence; most of the more affluent older neighborhoods on these sides of town are also north of Washington Street. Meanwhile, the south side of Indy absorbs all of the “southern” reputation, as well as the implicit cultural condescension.

At the time of the late-1970s construction of Greenwood Park Mall, the south side was a parochially German/southern district and Greenwood a sleepy suburb of barely 10,000 people. Few realtors would ever recommend out-of-towners seeking to relocate to the Indianapolis area to consider the south side; it was too backwards, working class, uneducated, etc—the same appellations applied to the unfavored side of town in any metro area. The north side was booming, partly from economic growth and a great deal from white flight away from such storied neighborhoods as Mapleton, Butler Tarkington, and Meridian Kessler. The east and west sides also enjoyed steady growth, while the southside was a relative laggard. Fortunes have changed since then, to an extent. The north side remains overwhelmingly fashionable; Hamilton County north of Indianapolis is one of the wealthiest and fastest growing counties in the country. But Hendricks County, west of the city, is giving the affluent north a run for its money in population growth, if with a much more middle-class vibe: it has grown over 35% since 2000 and is among the top 100 fastest growing counties. Conversely, the east side of town has hit a snag. Though a very desirable place to live in the 1970s, it suffered some crushing industry closures in the 1980s, starting with Western Electric in 1984 and continuing with Navistar just this past year. Though some of the older, affluent neighborhoods remain attractive, the factory closures have decimated the lower-middle class base in the area, saddling the region with the reputation of increased crime and blight—manifested by the fact that its two malls are either dying or completely shuttered (see the above mall map). The future of the east side holds promise in continued reinvestment in its struggling inner-city neighborhoods, but suburban Hancock County to the east of Indianapolis remains lightly populated (about 65,000) and a more modest growth rate of less than 20% since 2000.

With the east side’s popularity on the wane, the south side of Indianapolis has emerged. Johnson County, south of the city center, has grown at almost the same pace as west-side Hendricks County and is neck-and-neck with it in population, at nearly 140,000 by 2008 census estimates. Among its biggest attractions are the significantly lower housing costs coupled with strong schools—the same drivers that give Hendricks County a competitive advantage over Hamilton County, whose excellent schools come with a heftier price tag. Sneering northsiders previously saw the south side of Indianapolis and its adjacent suburbs as “overwhelmingly white and trying hard to stay that way”, an unsubtle code that its southern, working-class roots automatically qualify it as racist. While it no doubt remains more homogenous than the north side, the south side no longer struggles with the profound negative perceptions (even if northsiders would tell you otherwise). Much of its population growth derives from out-of-state migrants entering the region, and an increasing number are foreign born: within the past decade Johnson County has experienced an explosive growth in Punjabi Indian population, much of it of the Sikh faith. Perry Township on the south side of Indianapolis has become a magnet for Latino immigrants in the region as well as Burmese refugees. All of this has become reflected in the significantly more multicultural (and multilingual) common space of Greenwood Park Mall. Southern accents remain commonplace, but they could just as easily derive from a newcomer Tennessee as an old-time local, and accents from other regions outside the Midwest are far more prevalent than twenty years ago. The increasingly cosmopolitan culture of the Greenwood Park Mall is a reflection of the surrounding area’s economic vitality and population growth, and it has only helped to reinforce the mall’s role as the hub of commerce for Indianapolis’ south side—a term that encompasses as broad of a geography as the mall’s numerous patrons can make it.

I will continue in part II of Greenwood Park Mall to explore other facets of its success, focusing primarily on the design. And I promise there will be more pictures.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

The Battle of the Marts, Part II: When Wal-Mart is too high-falutin, there’s always…

In Part I of this post, I explored locational decision-making between two of the nation’s biggest discount retailers, Target and Wal-Mart. While both corporations nearly always prosper in middle class suburbs, only Wal-Mart has achieved such national ubiquity that it can be found along the six-lane highway leading into just about any community of 10,000 people or more. Conversely, Target is far more likely to stake a claim in the dense, prosperous urban centers of the largest cities; Wal-Mart has attempted this multiple times but has nearly often confronted such deep-seated opposition that it surrenders. Labor unions objecting to the corporation’s treatment of workers may have something to do with Wal-Mart’s surprising impotence in places like Manhattan or San Francisco, but much of it derives from the general revulsion the affluent urbanites in such cities feel toward the company. The ability to organize and stymie Wal-Mart has consistently succeeded in big cities, often through the opponents’ claims of induced traffic, lowered property values, and environmental degradation. Yet all too frequently this same constituency welcomes Target with open arms, even though a new Target could induce the same negative externalities in their community. And Target has been no more pro-union than Wal-Mart.

Why such divergent attitudes toward the two companies? I don’t really think I need to explain further—others have mined the subject in the past, and I hardly have added anything new to the discourse. But the relationship between these two competing retailers strangely resembles a yin and yang superimposed on the larger fields of cultural consumption: not quite as simple as Target/liberals and Wal-Mart/conservatives, but not a great deal more complicated either. The two companies have their own consumer niches. In some suburban areas they butt up against one another, but much of the metropolitan landscape belongs to one or the other.

And then some regions, though quite populous, belong to neither. Felbram Plaza in Indianapolis provided the backdrop for the core of this analysis: Target, which is just as guilty as Wal-Mart of contributing to suburban sprawl (the bane of the urban progressive), no longer saw the inner-ring suburban area here on the near south side of the city as a viable place for its smallish outlet. It shuttered this store at Felbram Plaza about a year ago, and soon an up-and-coming new tenant, Shoppers World, will occupy it.

This part of town no longer suited the Target Corporation, and its forthcoming replacement is an intensively discounted mart, appealing to a more blue-collar demographic than the well-educated yuppies most associated with the red bull’s eye. But Wal-Mart hasn’t located in this part of town either. In fact, as much as we often perceive Wal-Mart as having saturated the entire national retail landscape, the world’s biggest retailer eschews two major components of metropolitan America: the trendy, fashionably wealthy downtowns and the economically distressed inner city. The neighborhood around Felbram Plaza is hardly the ghetto, but its economic situation does not augur a likely boom in the future, and Wal-Mart avoids the area, despite the fact that it would probably find an abundant clientele of working class, elderly whites, or young Latino families who could benefit greatly from its low prices. In general, Wal-Mart does not do the inner city, or the declining inner ring suburban areas. But one other mega-discounter does seem attracted to this part of town, and its name is older than Target, Wal-Mart, or Shoppers World.

Just a mile north—a mile closer to the inner city—sits a hulking Super K, the biggest variant of hypermarket within the Kmart Corporation. The faded giant of a company, founded by five-and-dime philanthropist S. S. Kresge in 1962 at the age of ninety-five, quickly achieved repute for driving many of its competitors out of business through its low prices and its quirky Blue Light Specials. But by the late 1980s, as the company focused attention on ancillary companies it had either acquired or created, its brand had sunk. Meanwhile, Target and Wal-Mart emerged the victors among several battling discount retailers; no doubt at least a few still remember such casualties as Venture, Ames, Hills, and Zayre. Kmart survived, but not without shedding over a hundred stores in the early 1990s and renovating many of the others. However, it never was able to re-assert its foothold, despite an improved second half of the decade. It became the largest retailer in history to file for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in early 2002, partly due to the CEO’s scandalous misappropriation of funds. A year later, it emerged from bankruptcy under new leadership as Kmart Holdings Corporation, closed 300 more stores, and commenced a radical alteration of its image. By 2004, it engaged in its most high-profile acquisition through the merger with another long-ailing former powerhouse, Sears, Roebuck and Company. Both brands have continued operation under the name of Sears Holdings Corporation, while escalating the remodeling initiatives that had already been long underway.

But has it been enough? Business forecasters had long been predicting the demise of both companies. Just a few weeks ago I observed that the Sears wing is often the least successful portion of a mall, and Kmart continues to close underperforming stores now and then. Who still shops at either of these stores anyway? However, in spite of these grim predictions, the Sears Holding Company posted a narrower loss than expected at the end of 2009, particularly impressive given the sour economy, and it was mostly due to an increase in same-store sales at the Kmarts, for the first time in four years. Perhaps a flicker of life remains in this retail pair that seemed to have fallen from grace.

The best example of where Kmart has found its niche might be in this long-standing, high-profile location on Indianapolis’ south side, just 2.5 miles from downtown, across the street from an architectural oddity I also blogged about in the past. Thousands of commuters pass this branch of the chain every day, and it is close to some of the south side’s most intact working and lower-middle class neighborhoods, such as Garfield Park and South Village. With the departure of Target at Felbram Plaza last year, this Kmart also remains the only big box department store—with a full grocery—in a huge swath of land on the near south side. Until Shoppers World arrives, this Super Kmart Center has virtually no competitors. It’s not the only one in the region to survive, and even to thrive, where Target or Wal-Mart fear to tread. In the Part I of this essay, I also pointed yet another long-vacant Target, this time on the near west-side of town.

Thousands more people pass this branch than the one on the south side; it’s visible from I-465, the beltway interstate, yet the building hasn’t been occupied in a decade. But lo and behold, just a mile west on Washington Street, in a gritty area too close to the din of Indianapolis International Airport ever to be desirable real estate, is another long-running Super Kmart Center.

Demographic studies generally support the postulate that KMarts are more prevalent in lower income areas. Check out this map of 2000 poverty levels by Census tracts, provided by the local community information center SAVI:

A map showing all the Kmart outlets in metro Indianapolis reveals that the chain, amidst its relatively few remaining locations, is more likely to tackle inner-city or economically stagnant parts of town.

Five of the seven locations are adjacent to the I-465 Beltway, generally a harbinger of depressed values associated with inner-ring suburbia. Three of those five are within the beltway, and only two of the seven locations are in outlying suburbs, with none in the predominantly affluent north side of town. (Kmart used to have a branch in the increasingly posh Noblesville suburb, but it was retrofitted to a Sears Essentials.) Of the five beltway outlets, three are particularly noteworthy: the ones immediately south and west of downtown (featured in earlier photos) are in areas with higher than average levels of poverty, and the one to the northeast of downtown is in a particularly high poverty census tract.

Compare the distribution of Kmarts to the Target locations in the metro:

Only five of the twelve are close to the I-465 beltway, and only one is close enough to downtown that it might be in a potentially economically distressed area. But that one Target, part of the reconfigured Glendale Mall, is in a generally stable middle and upper-middle class part of town. In fact, not a single Target location is in a high poverty area. As for the major domo of all discount retailers, Wal-Mart’s pattern is a bit more idiosyncratic:

The yellow smileys represent the 15 Wal-Mart Supercenter locations. Of the four branches within the I-465 beltway, only one—to the northwest of downtown—is in a relatively high poverty area. The company is almost as sedulous as Target at avoiding economic distress. One complicating factor, however, are the presence of Wal-Mart Neighborhood Markets, indicated by the two green smileys. This relatively new introduction is a low-cost grocery store measuring about a quarter the size of the average Supercenter. They merit a completely different consideration because they are not a true discount department store; they are a mere grocery store and not real competitors to your typical Target or Kmart. However, they are under full ownership by Wal-Mart Corporation, and in metro Indianapolis, both of the two locations—the southside one and the northeastside branch—rest within census tracts with considerably above average poverty rates.

If the greater Indianapolis region is a fair indicator of what is normal (and, let’s face it, this popular test market is nearly always indicative of national norms), then it would appear that Target locations eschew poverty most routinely, while Kmarts are more likely to gravitate toward it. Wal-Mart ranks somewhere between the two. The near southside of Indianapolis, home of a Super Kmart Center close to downtown, may offer the most fertile ground for the long-struggling company, simply by virtue of Kmart’s willingness to cater to low and moderate income neighborhoods. Wal-Mart wins among all retailers in the country (and the world) for its omnipresence, and its brand image as a champion of working and lower-middle class values becomes manifest by the location of its branches. It avoids affluent areas such as the huge northern suburb of Carmel, which has only one, no doubt in large part because it is not highly welcomed there, but it makes little outreach to the impoverished inner city where its relentless cost-cutting may be welcomed among households with particularly low incomes. In short, the poorest citizens of Indianapolis generally have a long way to go to get to a Wal-Mart. Target, meanwhile, shrewdly markets itself as a stylish yet unpretentious alternative, with prices that may be low—if only by the standards of its often well-heeled clientele. The corporation overwhelmingly avoids high poverty areas.

The often discussed dichotomy between Target and Wal-Mart becomes particularly compelling in the few situations where the two literally sit cheek-by-jowl. Generally a good mile or two separates the two competitors, but the Carmel branches sit across the street from one another, and, as one local resident observed, “It’s like two completely different worlds.” While many Target-goers spurn Wal-Mart by claiming that Target offers equally good prices but a much more appealing atmosphere, such assertions don’t hold water when one considers that a completely different demographic frequents the Wal-Mart. Clearly the Wal-Mart shoppers don’t agree that Target has what they need at the right price, and they return to the store that offers what they perceive is a better deal—ambiance be damned.

This trinity of megamarts operates on a sociocultural pecking order that spatializes itself across any metropolitan region. Only Kmart’s story may appear inauspicious, though. Once a stalwart of the discount retail industry, it has in some ways conceded that it can no longer compete for the same constituency as Wal-Mart or Target, and through a sort of national attrition it has staked a broader claim in economically declining regions. It may be a wise survival tactic on the part of Kmart, since the other two competitors are chary to enter these markets, but in due time, if more exburban Kmarts close, these blue collar locations may be the last ones standing. And when a formerly powerful company’s identity becomes linked with areas that have declined economically (and may be losing population), such a brand is unlikely to inspire new shareholder confidence. The Hoover’s Overview of Kmart indicates that the company still identifies its chief competitors as Wal-Mart, Target, and Kohl’s. But Kmart’s only chance at long-term viability may be to accept its self-demotion, so that its peer retailers could be the extreme discounters that operate almost exclusively in economically declining areas—such as A. J. Wright, the aforementioned Shoppers World, opening a mile south of southside Indy’s Kmart at the Felbram Plaza.