Sunday, January 31, 2010
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.