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 Square 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 café; the Clothes Rack speaks for itself. Both are mom-and-pop operations that sought respite in the low rents of Carson Square.
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.