Stephen Goldsmith: Mall project is opportunity for downtown’s new start

Keywords Opinion / Viewpoint
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The recent announcement by the city of Indianapolis and the equity owners of Circle Centre Mall that Hendricks Commercial Properties LLC, the developer of the successful Bottleworks District and Ironworks projects, will acquire and invest in the downtown mall is unequivocally good news.

We should consider this encouraging announcement as phase one of an important shot in the arm for downtown. Phase two includes how the city and state negotiations with Hendricks support uses that produce an even better Mile Square as the symbolic and economic center of the region.

I’d suggest the goals we set out in the 1990s to determine investments should continue to guide government financial support for downtown. Our goals included: 1) Creating livable spaces that attract residents and visitors who produce spending and tax dollars for the city and state; 2) stabilizing the urban core and thus the region by showing suburbanites they could enjoy downtown; and 3) creating jobs and opportunities, especially for those in hard-pressed surrounding neighborhoods.

Each capital expenditure had a strategic purpose, not just a transactional one. The plan in the ’90s anticipated a set of districts connected by well-lit and landscaped connectors so that these districts—which we labeled IUPUI, Eli Lilly, Mass Ave, Methodist, White River State Park and Circle Centre—would be parts of a better whole.

The mall was part of a larger placemaking initiative. A major Indiana Convention Center expansion was designed to bring more people and spending to restaurants and hotels and result in a broader source of city and state taxes. A new fieldhouse for the Indiana Pacers served to keep the team in our city but also was designed to bring 2 million more people to the core for a host of events. We intended robust White River State Park capital investment to create green space for quality of life as well as providing a site for museums and eventually the NCAA headquarters.

Victory Field was placed at its current site to help connect the university and the city, to further spur hotel development led by the first major downtown Marriott and as an attraction for affordable family entertainment. The canal development was designed to connect Methodist Hospital to downtown and catalyze residential development. And the acquisition and renovation of the Murat Theatre was undertaken as an effort to kick off development of the Mass Ave corridor for a district that included the IPS bus terminal as a site that became the Bottleworks District.

I mention these matters in the context of the announcement because the mall effort was never really just about retail but rather was a strategy to make the area a more attractive place to live and visit. We wanted to kick-start downtown, which at the time had few residents, not many visitors and essentially two retailers: St. Elmo Steak House and a wig shop. We anticipated that downtown Indy would always need catalytic events and assistance to level a development playing field that was out of balance due to the environmental, tax, parking and land acquisition costs associated with investing in the oldest, most developed part of the region.

So how should these goals and history inform the future? I would submit it starts with the state and city considering in their negotiations with Hendricks how the supported uses further the original goals—creating jobs and enhancing the area as an inviting place to visit, live and work.

Nationally, downtowns have faced many recent obstacles—homelessness, cleanliness, COVID-induced office vacancies and more. Indianapolis can outperform its competition if it uses the mall development and hugely important 2024 events like the NBA All-Star Game as a time for a new start. We will continue to be great if each of the major new developments—Indiana University Health hospitals, the mall, Pacers-related investments, Indy Eleven, Elanco, housing and more—produce a sum greater than their parts, earmarked by cleanliness, lighting, green spaces and attractive connections that distinguish Indy as an extraordinary place to live and visit.•

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Goldsmith, a former mayor of Indianapolis, is professor of public policy at the Kennedy School at Harvard University.

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