Abdul-Hakim Shabazz: Monument Circle needs more funding, focus

Abdul-Hakim ShabazzWhen Starbucks in Circle Tower locked its doors last month for the last time, it marked the end of a 20-plus-year history on Monument Circle. The coffee corporation cited crime and liabilities as the primary reason for its closing. There’s more to the story, and it dates back a decade.

From the time it opened in the early 2000s through the excitement leading to the Super Bowl in 2012, Starbucks on Monument Circle was THE meeting and mingling spot downtown. With a line out the door and a full wraparound outdoor cafe, the tiny corner shop was both a destination and a meet-up spot for office, government and hospitality workers. Events like the Tree Lighting or Fourth of July Fireworks would see the crew bring out literally hundreds of gallons of drink containers to sell from tables on its outdoor cafe. Starbucks even moved its Indiana corporate office into the building above its flagship store.

After the Super Bowl, city leadership and Downtown Indy Inc. began to refocus money and resources away from Monument Circle to the newly built Georgia Street corridor. Concerts, food-truck events and convention activities were being corralled into the Wholesale District south of Washington Steet, with Monument Circle being relegated to a photo-op spot for visiting tourists. From 2016 to 2018, local and national events led to a perfect storm of trouble on the downtown streets, with the Circle Starbucks at its epicenter.

◗ In 2016, the City-County Council passed the “Homeless Bill of Rights,” which limited the policing of panhandlers and the homeless.

◗ In 2017, CSX began a multiyear bridge project, clearing out homeless camps under their bridges and sending 100-plus displaced campers into downtown.

◗ In early 2018, Anthem moved its workforce from the northwest quadrant building down to its Virginia Avenue campus a half mile away.

◗ In May 2018, in response to an incident in Philadelphia, Starbucks corporate launched the “Everyone Welcome” policy, prohibiting staff from restricting the lobby and restroom to paying customers.

◗ Finally, the summer of 2018 saw the spice dealers/pushers invade and throttle the downtown street population with a poison that caused district-wide addiction and multiple daily overdoses.

By the fall of 2018, the lobby of the one-time jewel of the Circle was filled with street people napping on backpacks and sleeping bags while charging their electronics. The restroom (when open) was being vandalized daily. The cafe seating outdoors was taken over by petty dealers and spice-addled ruffians. Shopping carts and trash forts sprang up around the Starbucks cafe and extended down to the Hilbert Theater awning. This new group of aggressive street people pushed the regular panhandlers off the Circle.

COVID and the May 2020 riots, of course, put a dead stop to 2019’s progress and left Monument Circle in shambles. More than two years removed, the boards are gone, and much of downtown has recovered its former beauty. Unfortunately, Monument Circle’s social vibrancy and Starbucks’ bottom line depend on the thousands of daily office workers who are no longer there. With several other locations servicing the exploding downtown residential markets of the future, corporate is cutting bait on the store model that embodied the downtown Indy scene of the past.

While citing safety and liability issues is a convenient cover for Starbucks to close an underperforming store, it should also be an alarm to city officials and Downtown Indy to refocus attention and resources onto Monument Circle. The Circle will always drive outsiders’ perception of the condition and safety of downtown. It should be better maintained.•

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Shabazz is an attorney, radio talk show host and political commentator, college professor and stand-up comedian. Send comments to ibjedit@ibj.com.


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