New closings undercut east-side mall's revival: Tenants since '74 opening have seen huge changes

January 7, 2008

The handful of retailers who have persevered through hard times for Washington Square Mall felt encouraged in recent years as newcomers Steve & Barry's University Sportswear and Buffalo Wild Wings arrived. But the holiday season brought grim news: Macy's now plans to close, and Gap won't be far behind.

Besides Caramelcorn, MCL and change, few things have been constant at the east-side mall since it opened in 1974.

The 965,000-square-foot mall was 21 percent vacant last year, the worst occupancy of any of Simon Property Group Inc.'s five Indianapolis-area malls. That includes the long-ailing Lafayette Square-which Simon recently sold to Ashkenazy Acquisition Corp.-which had 19-percent vacancy. High-fliers Greenwood Park and Castleton Square were less than 3 percent vacant.

It used to be the same at Washington Square.

"Losing any of the stores makes a difference," said Patricia Lindsey, who served her first scoops of caramel corn, cheese corn and butter-rum corn here 21 years ago. "I can remember when the mall was so busy you couldn't keep up. There was never any down time. The line stretched out the door."

The Caramelcorn shop-which sits in a hallway first anchored by Block's, then Montgomery Ward and now Target-still draws loyal customers from as far away as Greenwood and Castleton, thanks to a secret ingredient: real butter. But whenever a mall store closes, particularly an anchor, fewer customers means more downtime for the poppers.

Business dropped substantially after J.C. Penney (now a Burlington Coat Factory) and Lazarus (now a Dick's Sporting Goods) closed, said Lindsey, 59.

Comfort-food king MCL also could see a drop-off after Macy's rings up its last Washington Square sale. The cafeteria sits between Burlington Coat Factory and the old L.S. Ayres (now Macy's).

Many of MCL's most reliable customers, including Rosie Joyner, work at Macy's.

Joyner has manned the store's cosmetics counter for the 34 years since it opened as L.S. Ayres. She works five days a week, and eats at MCL five days a week. She gets coffee and either a Mayfield's Value Plate or a vegetable plate.

Working for Ayres and then Macy's has been an adventure for Joyner, who lives near Rushville. She got to meet Elizabeth Taylor after selling White Diamonds fragrance by the gallon. And she won a 6-foot-tall grandfather clock from fashion designer Oscar de la Renta. "It's been fun," said Joyner, 62, who now plans to retire. "I'm going to miss the people most." She'll miss the food, too.

Hobie Lankford, who lives in New Palestine, has been shopping at the mall on East Washington Street at Mitthoeffer Road since it opened. The 67-year-old reminisced last week with a Macy's associate. They'd thought the once-bustling Washington Square finally was returning to life.

"I was stunned," Lankford said of the Macy's announcement. "It's going to be a big loss for the center. It'd take a big name to recover."

Finding one won't be easy.

Purdue University retail professor Richard Feinberg expects the entire mall property will be redeveloped within 10 years as a lifestyle center, possibly with a residential component. Many malls built 30 years ago are going through a similar "life-cycle" change, he said. Glendale, at East 62nd Street and North Keystone Avenue, is one example.

"The ability to find replacement tenants for brand-name large retailers is very difficult these days," Feinberg said. "It is unreasonable to expect any other large retailer is going to perform better than Macy's or a Gap."

He said an aging population around the mall probably has helped MCL stay in business as other retailers have faltered. Sears is another stalwart.

As for Caramelcorn?

"I guess you just don't lose the taste for that stuff," he said.
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