A Wobbly Leg on the Three-Legged Stool

Years ago, when many of us were working hard to revive a moribund downtown, I learned the lesson of the “three-legged stool”–housing, retail and business. All three are needed for a vibrant city center, and at the time, Indianapolis’ downtown had only one leg: business. Downtown meant banks and law firms and brokerages; very few people lived in the central city, and retail was virtually non-existent.

When my husband and I moved to then-still-iffy Lockerbie Square, there wasn’t even a grocery nearby. Downtown had few restaurants.

Change came slow and hard. First, an O’Malia’s (now a Marsh) was lured into the old Sears building. A couple of adventurous doctors joined the lonely downtown dentist to serve the small but growing residential population. The breakthrough, of course, was Circle Center–the culmination of a decade of planning, land acquisition and hope.

Circle Center was just one element of the municipal effort to bring people downtown: the canal, sports venues, City programs that supported residential development, the arts and districts like Massachusetts Avenue and Fountain Square. Our downtown’s renaissance was the result of decades of hard work and intentional policies.

Despite its thriving night life and restaurants, despite the number of residential projects underway, downtown still has a long way to go. We don’t have the amenities provided by suburban “big box” stores like Target and Bed, Bath and Beyond. ¬†We still don’t have a competitive array of clothing stores, convenience stores and the kinds of retail choices that a growing residential population needs.

It was sad when Borders was replaced by a bank. I think allowing the Indianapolis Star to replace Nordstrom is a mistake we will all regret. But until yesterday, I didn’t realize what had happened to the rest of Circle Center.

I was early for a downtown meeting, so I decided to walk through Circle Center. I’ve been really busy at work, so it had been several months since I’d been there. It was sad. There were several new stores, but they were clearly aimed at teenaged buyers–cheap costume jewelry, trendy and inexpensive clothes for young girls, shops that seemed ill-at-ease with the relatively few remaining higher-end stores from headier, earlier days. Together with the dark space that used to be Nordstrom, the overall effect was depressing.

There weren’t many shoppers there, either.

The fate of Circle Center is important, because it remains the single largest retail destination for downtown residents and workers. There are plenty of storefronts available for the kinds of shops that have been moved into Circle Center, but there aren’t plenty of places that can offer downtown residents the same mix of goods available at the regional shopping malls.

Downtown has never achieved a critical mass of retail, but we were working toward it. The current sad state of Circle Center is a huge step back–and with large numbers of residential units coming online, the timing couldn’t be worse.

I’d like to believe the City and Simon are working on reversing this, but given the curiously passive approach of the administration to so many significant issues, I’m not holding my breath.


  1. We have added so many amenities to down town and yet retail continues to decline. Reversing this trend should be a priority for any administration for our great city center to thrive. Where is Bill to rekindle the vision?

  2. Malls across the country have been failing. They’ve fallen out of favor. I don’t agree that it is the job of government to pick winners and losers in the marketplace. These public-private partnerships always end up with the public assuming the risk while the private gets the profit.

  3. Yet Circle Centre has high sales-per-square-foot, due to catering to the over one million conventioneers. We do need higher-end retail for those of us who live Downtown, I agree.

    Scott Keller, Downtown resident since 1978

  4. Sheila; I am sure you remember the original planning for Circle Centre Mall under the Hudnut administration and what they became under Goldsmith. I was secretary to one Deputy Director in DMD and also worked with Jackie Schmidt (CFO for Circle Centre Mall); phones rang daily with calls from around the country and a few from other counties wanting to be part of it. The day after Goldsmith’s election the calls dropped off significantly and some businesses that had been interested, losing interest. Losing Jackie as CFO was a major loss for the Mall and for downtown development of this city.

    I have a family connection to Lockerbie Square and the City Market. My cousin Carolyn Grabhorn Orr’s mother was Wilma Lockerbie before marrying Edgar Grabhorn. In tracing her family history, Carolyn discovered that her ancestors had deeded the land for what became the City Market to the city; with the stipulation that portions of the Market would always be used for farmer’s markets. The connection to Lockerbie Square is obvious; she and her sister, Judith Meyer, had hoped to buy one of the homes in that area to keep in the family; at that time it was too rundown and costly to renovate. It later became too expensive for their pocketbooks but they were proud of what it has become. Carolyn and Judith lived in Greenfield but closely watched the rise and fall of development in downtown Indianapolis. Some areas we can view with pride; others with a jaundiced eye.

  5. The City needs a downtown and near downtown Ambassador of business development. Where are the incentives to bring in the types of retailers downtown workers, renters, and homeowners want to see? A Target? An Ikea (near downtown on the southside on Madison – miles of empty real estate with ample parking and access to the interstate), Scooters/Bicycle rental, independent coffee shops, mobile/satellite space for business people to work when downtown or in-between appointments; quality cothing stores; etc. I had a choice last week to go see a movie and it was only playing downtown and Circle Center or in Castleton. I live in Garfield Park and decided on Castleton, because I find the mall depressing, and at times unsafe. This is a huge problem and it needs to be addressed with fresh thinking.

  6. I don’t feel safe at Circle Centre in the evenings and the shops I most liked to visit are now gone.

    If this is the example of how the private sector with its competition solves so many woes, God help us. Circle Centre seems to be going the way of American auto manufacturers. They’re not paying attention to customers wishes. If all they want is teenaged customers, they’re going about it the right way, but if they want to appeal to all ages, then they must make it more friendly and appealing to all ages and above all, make it safe.

    European cities have small groceries, pharmacies, banks and bistros every 2-3 blocks to serve residents throughout the city conveniently. Their public transportation has multiple forms (subways, above ground rail, busses, trolleys, bike trails, and more). Residents live throughout the cities and keep sidewalks alive with people who know each other and provide a sense of security for outsiders as well. Trees and flowers are everywhere. Street performers entertain. I wish Indianapolis were MUCH more like THAT, and that Circle Center had
    a similarly inviting feel.

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