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.