My intention these past few weeks since taking pictures of the interior space was to formulate a potential solution for the long-ailing Market. The City obviously beat me to it, as last Thursday’s article can attest. Nonetheless, with none of the access to pedestrian counts, revenue sheets, or expense reports that the city leadership surely has, I bravely present my own recommendations, based solely on my observations of what isn’t working here, what I have seen work elsewhere, and the helpful interviews with tenants (or would-be tenants). Any overhaul is likely to precipitate both a change in management and a tremendous infusion of public dollars. And after approving a new facility for Wishard Hospital, coupled with ballot initiatives for new expenditures in township school districts (two of three were rejected), the city’s electorate is likely a bit weary of unanticipated large-scale capital improvements, especially since the market’s last renovation occurred less than three years ago. An even more recent press release from the Indianapolis Business Journal indicates that the President of the City Market’s board quit after Mayor Greg Ballard rejected his plan to shut the market down for three years in anticipation of a radical reinvention of the structure’s purpose and use of interior/exterior space. Ballard hopes the Market’s turnaround will involve something less dramatic, and hired a firm to engage in an intensive study which was privately circulated in August.
Despite profound setbacks which only seem to have intensified in recent weeks/days, I am convinced, as is almost everyone to whom I have talked (as well as the consulting firm hired for Ballard’s study), that Indianapolis can support a vibrant City Market even in the midst of competition like the Circle Centre food court and Marketplace at Lockerbie. I will try to boil it down to a few fundamentals that then will get further elaboration:
1) Remove at least 70% of the tables and seating. The excessive space devoted to seating may have the most profoundly negative impact on the character of the City Market, and it offers the single simplest solution. Nothing can explain the need for more chairs than the market sees in customers over the course of an entire day. Selling the furniture is not likely to generate a great deal of money, but every 40 tables could be replaced with 5 high-top tables that lack chairs, allowing people to stand and eat and taking less place in the process. No city market intends to be a place for a leisurely meal—with so much leasable floor area currently devoted to a non-revenue generating use, it’s difficult to judge if the City Market would break even if it had 100% occupancy.
2) Replace most of the seating with utilities and infrastructure to allow for more vendors. This may seem to be one of the priciest improvements, but it is far more likely ensure the market of long-term solvency. The first level has relatively little vacant space that isn’t intended to be occupied by a tenant, but the only spaces that should be treated as “common” are the narrow passages (think of them as “aisles”) between the various stands. If individual vendors want chairs directly abutting their booth, let it be in the form of stools along their countertop. On the first level, chair/table configurations should occupy any nook where it won’t violate fire code. The mezzanine can host the majority of relaxed seating, but even this space can be put to significantly better use. While the east and the west sides of this balcony already host ample seating and can continue to do so, why should the northern and southern sides look like this?
Negotiating the piping, wiring, and (perhaps) natural gas will undoubtedly be trickier in floor space that doesn’t come in direct contact with walls, but stacking plumbing is always more efficient, when structural fundamentals allow it. If it doesn’t allow, this may be a better location for dry-good kiosks, mobile food carts with internalized heating/cooling/water, services such as shoe shining or info booths, or vendors who can most easily handle the logistics of getting supplies up to the second floor through a service elevator. What about the farmers’ market stands during inclement weather? I’ll elaborate upon that at a later point. Upper floors often suffer from retail periphery syndrome and are less desirable, but they could still appeal to vendors who want ample seating close at hand.
3) Move the vendors from the wings into the central portion. Perhaps the architects had a clear vision for the two formidable wings back in the 1970s, but it sure doesn’t ring clear in the 21st century. They expand gross leasable floor space and repel the vendors away from the center—not too much a benefit to that. The city’s newest vision for the market already recommends clustering the vendors together in the historic original market; such a decision may not enhance the vibrancy of the room a great deal, but it certainly won’t hurt it. These wings offer abundant space that Market management can repurpose into market-adjacent uses, or something completely unrelated. And the 1970s-era architecture, while serviceable, hardly represents a use of space that can’t get demolished for a higher and better use, while retaining the superior space of the original City Market structure.
4) Sequester the wings from the original market, and let them evolve on their own. I’ve heard others advocate a complete demolition of these superfluous wings, particularly the moribund eastern one. Though it would be unwise to completely rule out this solution, it’s a bit rash. Masonry demolition is expensive and should only be a last resort when the planners have exhausted all adaptive re-use ideas. Besides, in a city with more than its share of windswept parking lots downtown, removing any additional massing will leave the old building exposed in the middle of the block until something can take its place, which may never happen (hence the “higher and better use”). The wings add a certain building density that makes the plazas (particularly the more successful west one) attractive and almost intimate on the rare times they are well-used, as witnessed below — the attractiveness, not the well-used part.
Much wiser is to endow the space with a different purpose, perhaps completely thematically divorced from the market—maybe sealed off as well. The city proposes reassigning the two wings under different themes: the west wing would be devoted to arts activities that intend to draw a weekend/evening crowd, and the east would be devoted to fitness by providing lockers, showers, and bicycle storage to get more people to bike to work. The exact proposal, “The Indianapolis City Market Recommendation for Change,” is not available to the public and could elaborate more, but assigning the wings precise themes seems a bad idea when the entire facility is bereft of inspiration. I’m particularly unenthusiastic about the idea of reserving an entire wing for bike parking and showers, as though their absence is deterring an otherwise flourishing bike-to-work movement sweeping the city. This gesture seems to operate under the same mentality that putting seating in a tired public space will encourage people to sit there. Both wings have their disadvantages: the east wing suffers from low visibility from vehicles passing by; the west wing has to contend with that large stairwell providing underground access that may need to be sealed. The best option for a successful reinvention is to concentrate creative energy on the historic core; it may behoove the city to lease or even sell the wings and let private investors decide the best options. (If developers like the parcel but not the structure, at least the City can let them pay to demolish the wing.) Other spokespersons for the City have hinted at allowing national chain vendors to enter the Market, which has elicited justifiable criticism. Such an initiative first seems unwise from a branding standpoint, considering that the city is trying to distance itself from a reputation as a test market and chain restaurant capital. In addition, bringing a McDonald’s or Sbarro Pizza to the Market will only reaffirm its commonalities with the Circle Centre food court, which already consists of chains. The wings may host upscale restaurants, a health club, an arts pavilion, a brewpub, or a bingo parlor, but the pedestrian activity that will make them viable should trickle outward from the core—the original City Market—which demands the most investment and inspiration.
5) Harness existing green building standards to the necessary upgrades that will lower utility bills. Obviously the City Market’s water bill doubling over the course of just two months isn’t just a sign of exorbitant costs; it indicates a profligacy with a taxpayer subsidized natural resource. Maximization of energy efficiency is a no-brainer, and is ostensibly already part of the proposal since a number of public buildings face an energy audit by the end of the year. The question is how far the leadership behind the City Market is willing to push it. When such a large amount of public subsidy covers utilities, how difficult would it be to advocate for a one-time utility upgrade that could pay itself off in reduced utility costs in a few years? The LEED rating system is bandied about so much in the design community that it has become a cliché, and there are certainly other viable systems for assessing green buildings and energy efficiency. But the standard disseminated by the US Green Building Council is the most high profile and the one with the biggest largesse, allowing it to adapt continuously to its own shortcomings or greater technological innovations. If the City Market needs to replace its water piping system, it should pursue LEED Certification and then begin by determining how many credits it can earn under Water Efficiency, through efficient toilets, urinals, faucets, kitchen spray valves, harvesting rainwater for non-potable use (such toilets or landscape watering), or even equipment that isn’t measured by LEED but offers water reduction options, such as commercial dishwashers, ice makers, and steam cookers. As many in the green industry know, not all LEED certification mandates new construction; a facility like the City Market may very well earn Certification or even the high honor of Gold and Platinum through LEED for Commercial Interiors (which governs the design of tenant space) and LEED for Existing Buildings (which regulates operations and maintenance of the entire facility). If the Market hopes to rebrand itself as a hub for healthy and sustainable living, achieving a nationally recognized green building status is an excellent start—and it only helps to reduce (if not eliminate) the public subsidy covering those exorbitant utility bills.
6) Energize the farmers’ market by focusing outreach and consolidation of existing regional markets and expanding exhibition. The vendors I’ve interviewed extol the crowds they get for the weekly farmers’ market—even as they work in the shadow of a failing City Market—proving that local produce and fresh goods sellers have no trouble finding buyers. Yet compared to Indianapolis’ peer cities, it remains undernourished: Kansas City Market offers a year-round farmers’ market on both Saturday and Sunday, running at least seven hours each day, as well as an additional farmers’ market on Wednesdays during the growing season. Kansas City’s farmers’ market is also the largest in the region; meanwhile its adjacent city market is flourishing. Could Indianapolis support an expansion of its farmers’ market to the weekends, or even year-round? Many would argue no, not while the blocks immediately to the east of the facility remain gravel parking lots. However, all of the other Midwest cities listed before have far less active downtowns than Indy’s yet continue to boast stronger city markets; Cincinnati’s Findlay Market is in a neighborhood largely deemed unsafe, yet the commerce continues to attract an upscale clientele inside. While finding developers for the old Market Square Arena parcels in Indianapolis would no doubt improve pedestrian traffic in the area, I am not convinced that’s what’s holding the Market back. Mollie Eley from Goose the Market has observed that metro Indianapolis has approximately 20 farmers’ markets, but there is no centralized network for which they can operate. Even downtown has other options just a few blocks away, and with better hours: the grassroots Indianapolis Winter Farmers’ Market intended to kick-off its inaugural year with a seven week run and ended up lasting five and a half months. This year it opens in the newly finished Chatham Center building, about 10 blocks north of the City Market. An engaged administrator with the same gumption as the organizers of the neighborhood farmers’ markets could recognize the geographic centrality of the City Market and could use its high profile to organize a hub for all the tenants in the region, stretching to the artisans in Brown County to Amish goods in Parke County. Closing off a block of Market Street on weekend mornings will cause less traffic disruption than it does on Wednesdays in the heart of the work week, and expanding the market’s exhibition time could open it to a greater number of farmers, many of whom cannot make it to the city on weekdays. But a sustainable, year-round farmers’ market depends on the symbiosis between the vendors and the brick-and-mortar commercial core, especially to manage logistical issues with sales in the dead of winter (another potential use for that sprawling, vacant mezzanine). The City Market should be the go-to place, the nucleus for linking farmers to interested urban buyers—the invisible, benevolent middleman.
7) If it doesn’t exist already, establish a leasing system that gives tenants greater freedom at crafting the size of their space within basic parameters. Interviewees have expressed frustration with the City Market’s management being simultaneously rigidly bureaucratic and inconsistent. A highly regulatory bureaucracy that lacks uniform enforcement of its own rules will repel both tenants seeking internal order as well as those that prefer flexibility. With over 50% vacancy, it is hardly a privilege for tenants to locate there; Michelle Medows of Farm Fresh Delivery recognizes that stronger outreach and risk management would help convince tenants that the management wants them there. The recent shake-ups with Constantino’s and other vendors suggest that these relations are hardly felicitous at the moment, which is why any overhaul to the Market will also necessitate a complete rethinking of the leasing agreements. I can’t help but think that a bit of the old-world agora could come in handy once again—for all the advantages that a regulatory environment benefits the developing world in terms of safety, public health, and protection against worker exploitation, the developing world has a lot to remind us about the vibrancy of free markets. Think of kiosk-owners fighting for their little piece of turf in an open marketplace, crammed beside their competitors, with little regard for disabled access, fire safety, or pages of tedious stipulations in a lease. It’s crude and exhilarating—and unthinkable in a developed nation. Can we achieve that sort of flurry of activity in a public market without sacrificing the proprieties of an advanced economy? I think we can; by most regards, Philly’s Reading Terminal Market is perfectly bustling and almost feels informal without evincing any overt violation of city codes. Perhaps Indy’s market can do even better; the executive director, Jim Reilly, wants the aisles “so crowded that you have to fight your way through.” But the configuration is staid and rigid right now, failing to capitalize on how valuable that square footage should be. It’s been undermined because of low density before it even has a chance. The best way to support the vendors is to provide simple, crisply defined parameters for the lease, such as a set cost per square foot (one rate for the first floor and one for the mezzanine), as well as a variable price for the season. The tenants can carve what they need based on the price they can afford, pending final approval by the Market management to make sure the tenant-defined space complies with basic code. In a vibrant market where demand for space is high, this would invariably pack the vendors more closely together. Though it could leave slivers of untenanted “dead space” in various corners, a high-demand city market will find resourceful tenants who can even make use of 15 square feet in a baffling L-shape. This suggestion may seem radical and of course it may not work, but it reflects a way of thinking that is amenable to tenants while at the same time reinforcing to Market management that they have a great venue to offer the farmers of Central Indiana.
8) Transform the re-opening to culminate with a major event that celebrates the new brand, while offering new revenue-generating opportunities. After the (hopefully minimal) scaffolding is down, unveil the new market and expanded farmers’ market with a kick-off event (perhaps Labor Day Weekend) that celebrates its elite status. Yes, I said elite: it’s LEED certified, it’s green, it’s local, it’s organic, and it’s here in the middle of the city. Goose the Market caters to a much more moneyed clientele, and it flourishes during a profound recession. Eley says the City Market should be the best that Indianapolis has to offer, and raising the bar by promoting a vision that gives both sellers and consumers a palpable cause could provide the boost in identity it needs. Desirable real estate can only bolster the tenant mix, just as it does in the most popular shopping malls. Eley reflected on how, at a Portland, Oregon outdoor farmers’ market, eight different vendors sold exclusively lettuce, each boasting a slightly more distinctive variety. Such vigorous competition would ensure that no four storeowners could sell the exact same club sandwich, as is currently the case—not only will a dense array of vendors encourage originality, it would also force higher quality concurrent with competitive prices. The grand weekend opening of the New City Market (and don’t hesitate to call it “new”) will bring all the outdoor farmer’s market tenants, live music from high profile local bands (who should no doubt be cajoled into performing gratis), and a shopper’s guide identifying all the vendors by location, where the source farms are, and any other farmers’ markets in which they participate. The two wings, if not already tenanted, will offer renderings of how they will engage with the market and plazas when the anticipated gastropub/bistro/fitness center opens. Of course, this is all positively quixotic. But accompanying any grand opening of a new venture should be financial safeguards to ensure its financial solvency for that day, let alone for the months to come. As Lehman with Earth Drops has recommended in the past, the market should engage in hourly raffles with door prizes directly relevant to the market’s goods—something to get people congregating in clusters where the uninvolved passers-by wonder what all the clustering is about. And Kansas City found an alternative revenue outlet in the recently established 501(c)(3) Friends of the City Market, giving supporters the opportunity for greater alliances to their institution through membership, which rewards them with notifications of events, volunteer opportunities, and—my favorite—a 10% discount on City Market merchandise. Reminding the locals that the City Market is as important an institution as the Children’s Museum or the Symphony Orchestra will inevitably loosen some purse strings. Currently, the idea of the City Market having t-shirts, caps, or tote bags could only elicit guffaws.
That dismissive attitude may be the average reader’s response to these suggestions, and I know some of my ambitions for the City Market are more of a stretch than others. But the evidence suggests that the social wiring for a great Market was in place long ago. We have the successful urban markets, we have good year-round farmers’ markets, we have a downtown that by many regards is among the healthiest in the region. We even have a distinctive, nascent Cultural Trail flanking Alabama Street immediately across from the Market. Bold thinking that pushes the envelope helped transform the city into the amateur sports capital, luring the Pan Am games here two decades ago, followed more recently by the relocation (and anticipated expansion) of the NCAA. Unfettered ambition gave the city a remarkable new airport terminal that pioneers sustainable technology heretofore unseen in this building typology. Previous renovations of the City Market aimed to correct its structural obsolescence without ever assessing how management should adapt to shifting consumer preferences. These administrative changes—which comprise the bulk of my recommendations—may be less costly but far more difficult to implement. Any forthcoming image overhaul will also be a tremendous challenge: never once would I suggest that the City of Indianapolis should be embarrassed by the current state of the City Market. Instead, it should be proud of all it has achieved in the vicinity, and now it is time for this great building on the National Register of Historic Places to step up to the caliber of its surroundings.