Circle Centre Mall’s silver anniversary: can we scrape away the tarnish?

I was recently quoted in an Indianapolis Monthly article celebrating the 25th anniversary of downtown’s Circle Centre Mall.  As anyone who has visited recently can attest, there’s not a great deal to celebrate at this point.  I’ll concede that my last visit was in early 2017, shortly before the closure of Carson’s (at that point the only department store), and my last extensive photographic visit was in 2013, nearly three years after the closure of Nordstrom, even then showing the telltale signs of a mall in decline.

Circle Centre Mall at 25 years old

But both of those visits preceded the closure of Carson’s, a departure that transpired largely in tandem with the failure of the parent company, The Bon-Ton Stores, Inc., a major department store chain across the Northeast and Midwest, whose brands included Carson’s (Carson Pirie Scott), Elder-Beerman, Herberger’s, Younkers, among others.  And after that closure (leaving Circle Centre with zero department stores), Indianapolis Monthly asked me to write an article contemplating the repurposing of the downtown’s largest concentration of retail space.  We knew back then that the mall was in trouble.  But those visits and that article preceded the devastating impact of COVID-19 in 2020–a pandemic that prompted lockdowns, which resulted in a near complete absence of routine commercial activity in Indianapolis and most other American urban centers–followed by the property damage caused by the early summer riots (also a phenomenon replicated across most large-scale American downtowns).

The widespread recovery of the Mile Square in Indianapolis from this ruthless one-two punch remains to be seen.  The downtown is still stumbling and lurching, with high-profile restaurant closures announced alongside new openings.  But it’s hard to be sanguine in the least regarding Circle Centre Mall.  This most recent Monthly article from September 2020 suggests that the sluggish negotiations and economic vicissitudes of the late 80s slowed the development of Circle Centre to the point that its 1995 grand opening achieved less fanfare than it otherwise wood, since, by that time “the indoor mall boom was over.”  There may be some truth to this–a downtown mall was certainly not a novelty in 1995–but malls remained the overwhelmingly preferred shopping typology for most Americans (e-commerce was in its infancy), and Circle Centre Mall enjoyed 15 years of success: not a large time frame, but better than some malls, and the fact that it’s not completely shuttered is a huge contrast from the urban malls in most of Indy’s similarly sized Midwestern peers.  Furthermore, the first floor, street-level space (which suffered lagging occupancy in the early years) has consistently hosted restaurants and nightclubs that, at least prior to COVID, commanded high enough rents to lure lucrative, nationally known brands.

But the street-level retail has become increasingly detached from the Circle Centre Mall itself, owing its success more to visibility along major corridors such as Pennsylvania Street and Meridian Street, rather than the magnetism of the mall.  And the malls tenants are growing increasingly “unconventional”: less oriented toward clothing, fashion, or other retail, and more on entertainment (bumper cars, glow golf) and services (a high school).  And this is what my comment to the Monthly article explores: at least for the time being, the mall’s management (for which parent Simon Property Group, whose headquarters are just a few blocks away, has at least some supervisory role) most focus on creative short-term leases, pop-ups, and other non-traditional approaches, most likely those that can easily foster social distancing in the continued aftermath of COVID.  I remain optimistic that, with the expertise and leadership at the helm of a well-run company like Simon that is fully aware of the paradigmatic shifts, we will see positive advancement, even if (for a time) things get worse before they get better.  I look forward to other perspectives on the topic.

 

 

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13 thoughts on “Circle Centre Mall’s silver anniversary: can we scrape away the tarnish?

  1. AvatarKyle Niederpruem

    Yes. Yes it is. I blame the Simons mostly who seem to let their malls crumble into crummy all around the country – selectively.

    Reply
    1. AmericanDirtAmericanDirt

      I can definitely understand the frustration with Simon Property Group if there’s the perception that they are responsible for the state of such malls as Lafayette Square and Washington Square. But they’re also responsible for Fashion Mall, Castleton, Greenwood Park–basically all malls in Indy (no surprise). And they’ve invested millions into improvements and upgrades and promotions to help keep malls afloat, even when the mall typology is clearly a fading star. Some malls were not going to prosper no matter how good the improvements: Lafayette Square got renovated in the mid 1990s but the neighborhood no longer supports the sort of density of retail under one roof that it once did. I can’t imagine what Simon or any other manager could have done to save it.

      If you look across the country, malls with the Simon brand actually tend to be in far better shape than the status quo. This is in part due to the fact that Simon sheds its failing malls, selling them off to private venture capital groups who typically drain what profit they can out of what’s left before the malls fold. But the remaining Simon portfolio is strong, considering the state of malls in general. It’ll be interesting to see how Simon fares in the paradigm shifts taking place, and if they cannot adapt to changing times, the company will probably die. But at least the company seems aware of this shift and that radical measures are necessary to either reinvent malls or align with how people shop in the era of e-commerce.

      Reply
  2. AvatarJonathan Schalliol

    Great insights, Eric!
    I know Circle Center is on hard times, but wow, did it help downtown. I’m still thinking a multi-level go cart track would be amazing in there ha!

    Reply
    1. AmericanDirtAmericanDirt

      Hey, didn’t they have one at Union Station, well after most of the rest of the “Festival Marketplace” retailers got pushed off the cliff through the opening of Circle Centre? The mall had a good life, but the fact that it’s nearly defunct now is mostly a reflection of how people use their leisure time–and they just don’t do it going shopping in the same way that they used to. Most malls in the US are probably operating on borrowed time.

      Reply
      1. AvatarJonathan Schalliol

        yeah. You’re totally right. I’m really kidding about the go karts, but I was thinking if they could use some kind of entertainment that was a huge and unique destination to the racing capital of the world, like an amusement park, that might do it when you have convention goers. At the end of the day, I think people just want to eat and drink…

        Reply
        1. AmericanDirtAmericanDirt

          I definitely agree that it would help to have something that better links downtown Indy with the IMS (especially with all the redevelopment taking place in the town of Speedway). From what I’ve heard, there have been a few small gatherings taking place at the Convention Center (small enough that social distancing isn’t a problem), but if COVID scares those away from returning at any large scale (a condition that affects all cities) it may be hard to get all the attending attractions back in gear as well. I think downtowns are going to face a rough patch that I hope will not be long…

          Reply
      2. AvatarJonathan Schalliol

        totally agree. Fewer conventions in the long term. Still needed at times, but people have figured out tech like High Alpha’s Spaces that make group online gatherings easier

        Reply
        1. AmericanDirtAmericanDirt

          This is probably the reality for the foreseeable future. Unfortunately, a growing demand and ease in conducting meetings digitally renders the agglomerative nature of a downtown increasingly obsolete. Transaction costs for distances become less of a factor, and being close to one another confers fewer benefits. If this becomes the “new normal”, it does not bode well for the Indianapolis Convention Center, or downtown as a whole, for that matter. Downtowns have become excellent at fostering a live-work-play culture, but if one of those three drops off, it’s going to be hard to sustain the momentum with the other two. I hope I’m wrong.

          Reply
  3. AvatarChris B

    One big issue is ownership. Simon owns a small (if any) share and so reinvestment requires approval of a bunch of other owners (which once included the parent company of the IndyStar, Eli Lilly, some arm of the City of Indianapolis, and others).

    The most persistent suggestion on local blogs has been…a casino. The Indianapolis Caesars OTB facility on N. Pennsylvania is not connected to the mall; perhaps it could be relocated there. The locals who make such comments suggest that as part of the convention/sports/mall complex, it would bring “outside money” as the mall itself used to.

    Reply
    1. AmericanDirtAmericanDirt

      I know that significant modifications to CCM have come slowly and with much deliberation, and I figured that had something to do with the ownership structure, as well as the apprehension to invest further in a clearly fading typology when the conditions of downtowns in general are so volatile right now.

      A casino is hardly an exciting proposition, and they face their own challenges (which I will explore in an upcoming blog article). I think much of the country is reaching its saturation point with casinos; there are simply too many of them for them to generate the same destination-level excitement that they did in the past. We’ve both pointed out Atlantic City, which still has quite a few but is hardly a prosperous place. Tunica south of Memphis seems to have faded back into obscurity, and I’m not sure about Gulfport-Biloxi. Some small states can capitalize on the fact that a few of our most populous states (CA and TX, specifically) have fairly stringent regulations that limit the type and location of gaming. If CA were to relax some of its laws, I can’t imagine the impact on Las Vegas, still the one consistent gaming destination in my book. Any idea about the performance of the casino in downtown Cleveland? The one in New Orleans seems to do fairly well and is smartly integrated.

      The old Block Building (Carson’s) is too beautiful to get turned into a restricted function, IMO. Besides, most big gaming corporations are fairly unfond of buildings with lots of windows.

      Reply
      1. AvatarChris B

        Casino would have been a better use than IndyStar for the “modern” windowless Nordstrom.
        “Newspapers” don’t need “newsrooms” since they just reprint tweetstorms and don’t edit anything.

        (BTW, Carson was in the old Ayres. The old Blocks is a condo with TJMaxx on the first floor.)

        It wouldn’t have been a destination casino, more an adjunct that would take advantage of bored convention-goers. Like casinos on cruise ships.

        Reply
  4. AvatarChris B

    One good thing about Circle Centre is that it integrated a bunch of old street facades that could be reactivated.

    But if downtowns are over (second time in my lifetime), then that’s unlikely to “save” the mall.

    Reply

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