Sunday, February 7, 2010

Storefront diagnosis? Down but not out.

Retail fatigue is generally easy to spot in both urban and suburban settings: it typically involves a high vacancy rate, occupancies that comprise undesirable tenants, or a combination of the two. But what are these “undesirables” exactly? They usually fall into two categories. The first one is predictable: strip clubs, adult video/novelty stores, windowless package liquor stores, tobacco shops—pretty much any potentially corrupting influence featured in a list that culminates in the classic phrase, “Think of the children!” Today, virtually every large city has a certain district where these unpleasant uses tend to cluster. Needless to say, it’s usually off the forlorn highway in the heavy industrial corridor, where the “least restricted” zoning status allows an anything-goes approach to land use—thus, you see strip clubs and adult movie houses. The second category of “undesirable” tenants involves those that ostensibly target or attract what is perceived to be a low-income or criminal clientele (far too often we psychologically conflate those two constituencies). Such stores include payday loan centers, pawn shops, plasma donation centers, check cashing, and (to a lesser degree) rent-to-own appliance stores.

But what about tenants who fit neither category, yet remain unattractive for one reason or another? A quiet, nondescript strip mall on the south side of Indianapolis provides a good example.

Remarkably, the stores at this neighborhood center are about 60% occupied—perhaps even more if you consider the leased space out of the total GLA (approx. 60,000 square feet). However, driving past it at any point in the day, it typically seems drab and almost completely unpatronized.

Mentally erase the wintry slush in my photo series and imagine the strip mall during more favorable weather: the place is clearly well maintained, but it the general absence of cars in the vast parking lot evokes such desolation that it seems like another blighted retail relic of the 1970s—a sight all too common in parts of Indianapolis. Other strip malls are clearly suffering higher vacancy levels (sometimes even in the suburbs), yet this one appears to struggle far more than in actuality. Yet in the world of storefront retail, appearance is everything: as is often the case, it’s the tenant mix that nearly kills it by making it look like a blighted strip mall.

The photos above appear quite desolate, and it’s true that many of the innermost storefronts on this strip (those farthest from the corner) are vacant. But some of them host tenants that are simply impossible to see from a distance.

Yes, Carson Plaza hosts the quintessential storefront church—one of the few I’ve seen on this side of town. These churches that lack their own distinct brick-and-mortar structure are commonplace in the inner city; the congregation is small and budgets are no doubt scraping together whatever they can find. Occasionally, when they grow in scale, they are able to take up bigger spaces, as is widely discernible in the struggling Lafayette Square Mall on Indianapolis’ west side; one storefront church occupies an old multi-screen movie theater. I’ve mused about these storefront churches in the past, so I don’t want to dwell on it here, but even if they make all the rent payments, churches are regrettably never coveted tenants. They almost always indicate a property manager’s desperation. Chances are a church such as this rarely attracts any visitors aside from Sunday mornings (and perhaps Wednesday evenings—after all, this is a Baptist church), and the church leadership sought this site precisely because of the cheap rent. A quick glance inside the window suggests a fledgling congregation with few real assets:

The unadorned interior and movable chairs also hints that this congregation has little long-term loyalty to their storefront.

Elsewhere along this strip may suggest a more robust tenancy, but don’t let the looks deceive:

The Atrium is a catering and banquet center, and during a major event, it’s packed—the only time this parking lot is more than one-third full. Reception halls hardly rob children of their innocence, nor do they attract miscreants, so why would a banquet center be an unpopular tenant? Again, it has more to do with the foot traffic and the impression it creates to passers-by. Such facilities require few staff during the day and are hardly likely to host many events at that time, particularly on weekdays. The most favorable times for heavy patronage are on weekend nights—the antithesis of prime shopping time, and people attending such events are unlikely to browse the adjacent stores while patronizing the Atrium. People usually come to a reception hall for that one purpose—not to shop around between meal courses. Banquet hall traffic is so idiosyncratic that, when they’re in the most prosperous neighborhoods, they often must build their own separate structure—property managers with the freedom to be choosy will always favor tenants that are going to generate a more steady stream of traffic. When banquet halls need to lease a space, it nearly always ends up in a faded commercial area. If the manager of Carson Square found a supermarket to occupy this space (which most likely the original tenant when this strip mall was built), no doubt he/she would find any means possible to squeeze The Atrium out of the leasing agreement.

At the far opposite corner is a local watering hole. It may have the potential to function as a neighborhood institution, but these tenants never take the top-caliber space. In Indiana, children are forbidden in bars, allow which generally repels families, and families tend to be the one contingent that every shopping center hopes to attract because of their higher spending capacity. Like the banquet hall, customer traffic for bars and pubs tends to be highest at night—this could work if Carson Square hoped to frame itself as a “nighttime” retail experience, but that still leaves the place looking fairly deserted during the day, when far more cars are likely to pass by the area.

What about the remaining tenants?

A karate studio may offer some daytime traffic, but it shares the banquet center’s disadvantage of being a destination in itself. Any place that expects a certain attire or uniform of the customer will also limit the customer’s interest or ability to browse neighboring stores. At the far end?

Two legitimate businesses that could actually attract passers-by. Ruby’s Sweet Treasures appears to run a successful online operation in addition to its cheesecake cafĂ©; the Clothes Rack speaks for itself. Both are mom-and-pop operations that sought respite in the low rents of Carson Square.

Two final tenants are scarcely visible. One barely shows up in the far left of the photo below:

It is a women’s fitness consultation center run by St. Francis, a local hospital.

The other, seen behind curtains in the above photo, is a marketing and public relations arm of St. Francis. These ancillary offices serve as a sort of neighborhood outreach, but the hospital could just as easily have taken slots in an office park. These tenants don’t need the visibility of a strip mall, as evidenced by the fact that neither has a sign. They also don’t depend on the fenestration—generous windows are so useless that the marketing office shrouds itself in thick curtains. No doubt the main reasons St. Francis sought Carson Square were the convenient location and the spectacularly cheap rent.

Perhaps thirty years ago, when this part of town still hosted a number of young middle class families, Carson Square was a vibrant neighborhood shopping center. The area’s demographics today, though hardly poor, have aged along with the housing and are less likely to spend freely on high-ticket items. Young families with higher disposable income are seeking out the housing in the suburbs with their impeccable school systems. The road network may hinder Carson Square’s prosperity further:

The area is relatively densely populated by Indianapolis’ standards, in that there are no vast farms or greenfields in the immediate vicinity. However, none of the three roads that converge here—McFarland, Carson, and Thompson—would qualify as arterials, and only Thompson is a
Even at peak hours, the roads that frame Carson Square simply don’t get the sort of heavy traffic volume that national brands would expect. The big boxes and high-profile national brands cluster along the busiest highways and arterials—on the south side of Indianapolis, this translates to Madison Avenue, US 31, and County Line Road in Greenwood, around the Greenwood Park Mall. The aging Carson Square serves a much smaller trade area—one that is by no means poor but not exactly spendthrift. Considering these circumstances and the relative isolation of this shopping center, the management at Carson Square is fortunate even to be more than half occupied, when so many similar strip malls languish.

This is hardly the first time I’ve devoted an inordinate amount of time to something so seemingly banal. It should be clear by now that I love these mundane pockets of urbanity, but even still, this level of scrutiny may verge on splitting hairs. Yet, a tenant-by-tenant analysis of a low-profile strip mall can reveal astonishing correlations between consumer spending patterns and the overall commercial health of a region. And Carson Square is still part of an economically viable community—just not the community that commercial developers or top-name tenants are seeking. I’d gamble that if any tired strip mall on the south side of Indianapolis warranted a demolition and complete redevelopment into something higher density, more walkable, more urban, and (you guessed it) less like a strip mall (which has become a pejorative among an increasingly broader segment of the population), Carson Square would be the one. The absence of stoplights or any congested intersection makes it easier to adapt to pedestrianism. Even though the homeowners probably skew toward the older side, the proximity of two major Catholic schools (Roncalli and St. Jude) adds a far younger contingent to the population of routine passers-by. And places such as Carson Square—not flourishing but certainly hanging on—demand reinvention to ensure that the 1960s settlement patterns that dominate much of Marion County do not fall out of favor completely.


cdc guy said...

I often look at strip malls like this one and think that one of the major faults with our over-parked commercial spaces is the utter lack of visual respite.

No overstory trees, no low greens to soften the hardness of the landscape.

No significant vertical variation or break in the long horizontl parapet. (I understand that this preserves the owner's ability to cut and recut the interior spaces in different configurations without regard to external cues.)

stevepolston said...

Carson Square lost a long-time tenant in the past year, the Crafty Owl, which was a well-kept but personality-driven mom-and-pop craft supply store. The owner claimed to be going out of business for many years and finally did. The location was excellent being in the midst of so many schools and churches whose students and staff always are keeping their hands busy in crafts.

In addition, Carson Square is in a neighborhood that was struck by a tornado a few years ago and, remarkably, the strip mall suffered little damage.

The gas station across the way was a 7-11 and was an empty lot after the tornado and for a few years between redevelopment; the apartment complex across the street was severly damaged, but got a fantastic repair and remodel (with very good landscaping); the Dollar Store across the street is new, as well as the social services non-profit agency adjacent to it; a mortuary/crematory opened down street post-tornado, too. Many parishioners of the churches in the neighborhood (long-time home-owners) had extreme damage during the tornado and it seemed so ironic that Carson Square would have received so little storm damage but became a ghost town.

The bank across the street is a rebuild/remodel since the storm and even now represents a new banking company; the other bank left the area and its building in front of Carson Square is being used as a security company monitoring office; the mechanic on the corner actually is doing better after the storm.

OK ... I think you have enough details from a long-time watcher of Carson Square (but not a neighbor).

Your observations are very, very good, by the way.

AmericanDirt said...

Thanks as always for your comments!
CDC guy:
I agree about the appearance. Not sure a face lift would attract top tenants to this area, but it certainly isn't helping the place in its current condition. It's not run-down, just tired. Interesting how strip mall developers in recent years have had to invest far more on physical appearance in order to compete. While most large cities (including Indy) require some application of landscaping or tree canopy for parking lots over a certain size, developers are often forced to include them regardless of ordinances because the clientele expects that sort of look these days. Carson Square just doesn't have it.

Thanks for the background on Carson Square! I wasn't aware a tornado hit here (only familiar with the one that got Homecroft--perhaps the same tornado?). But that would explain some of the vacant lots, many of which I expect will stay vacant unless the entire strip gets an overhaul. But you're right: in so many ways it's an excellent location, which is why a reinvention might actually work here better than at other fatigued strip malls.

Anonymous said...

That was the same tornado that went through Homecroft, it went from outside Bloomington all the way to Anderson. I remember that tornado, it knocked out 2 Village Pantrys in one day, to this day there aren't any Village Pantrys nearby.

Brian Wells said...

I just discovered this article from an Internet search. I was born and raised in the neighborhood connected to Carson Square Shopping Center. My grandfather built his house in the neighborhood in 1961 (literally, he was the builder of the house) and my folks purchased the house from my windowed grandmother in the early 1980's. My grandfather fought the development of Carson Square and did not want it. He lost. As a child, I remember there being a grocery store tenant, a drug store (People's Pharmacy). There was, at one point, a self service carwash (taken out by the 2002 tornado). One memory, from sometime in the mid 90's, was an establishment that filed paperwork and claimed in meetings with the neighborhood association to be an "Italian restaurant" but once open turned out to be "Uncle Dudley's Sports Bar" complete with a sand volleyball court in the parking lot behind the building and also a bungee cord jump! Needless to say, the neighbors felt hoodwinked and Uncle Dudley's didn't stay in business long! :). One silver lining in 2016: noticed a newer tenant there the other day. Some kind of home brewing supply store. That's an interesting niche. The best I can say about Carson Square now, and I don't live in the area anymore, but my parents do, is that, yes, I agree with you! It isn't terrible, but also not great. It just is. It should probably be torn down and turned into apartments. It needs density. Absolutely. Ed Kopecky used to be the owner. Not sure who is now.

AmericanDirt said...

Thanks for your comments, Brian. Based on your childhood recollections, it doesn't sound like Carson Square was ever all that dynamic or competitive. The traffic just isn't at that high of volumes on Thompson, Carson or McFarland--at least not compared to other intersections nearby. And, as you noted, the population density in the area isn't all that great.

By the way, this blog is generally inactive, in the sense that I no longer add new posts. If you want to follow the latest, check out the upgraded American Dirt at . I'll be transferring your comments to the updated blog as well.

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