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 Deadmalls.com 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 Deadmalls.com, 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
[*2021 Update: The dollar sign in the middle of this map, near the “A” marker, should shift from green to red. Circle Centre is now unequivocally a dying mall.]
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.