Boosting the Lafayette Square area through creative reuse

CEOs for Cities, a national network of urban leaders, brought its Livability Workshop to Indianapolis last October. There, national leaders worked with a local team to hone in on keys project areas for improving the quality of life in Indianapolis. Two main focal points that emerged were “renewing our center” with Monument Circle and “reclaiming the strip” in the Lafayette Square/West 38th Street area. In the six months since the workshop, local CEOs for Cities team members launched the Monument Circle Ideas Competition. Others  — including myself through Big Car and David Forsell through Keep Indianapolis Beautiful — have focused ongoing attention on the Lafayette Square area.

In November, these efforts included a design charrette as part of KIB’s A Monumental Affair program that brought urban planners together to envision a new Lafayette Square area and a Big Car project at Saraga Market that celebrated the diversity of the neighborhood through food. While working on the Saraga project with the ideas of the charrette still fresh in our minds, a few of us from Big Car spotted the then-abandoned former Firestone tire center on Lafayette Road just northwest of Don’s Guns in front of the mall.

The building seemed like the perfect place to do what the CEOs for Cities workshop called for as a goal for the Lafayette Square area: Make it “a place to cultivate community development and celebrate who we are.”

On a night after working at Saraga, we stopped by the old Firestone building and looked in the windows. A mall security officer drove up and asked us what we were doing. After we explained, he gave us the number at the Lafayette Square Mall office. We called the next day and began talking about using the 11,500 square-foot building. The mall soon offered the space to us to use at no charge (we have to pay for utilities). We signed the lease and took possession on March 16. We’ll begin programming Service Center for Contemporary Culture and Community in May.

In the meantime, we’re planting a community garden and setting up a creativity lab where people of all backgrounds can create and learn together. This community space will include a small lending and reference library and a video room for sharing neighborhood stories. We’ll continue working through the building in phases, developing more exhibition and performance space as we find time and funding. We’re also excited about connecting to the new bike lanes and pedestrian access improvements coming to Lafayette Road and working with IndyGo to improve bus shelters near the building.

Big Car is very interested in connecting with volunteers, partners and sponsors who’d like to help. And we welcome ideas for programs and approaches at Service Center. You can find more details in a presentation about Service Center, an information and sponsorship packet and a video about the space. You can also keep up with news about Service Center on its Facebook page.


Comments 15

  • Very impressive project, I hope you get plenty of interest from the community. What a creative way to invest positive energy into the area!

  • I love that Lafayette Square Mall lets you use the building for free. That the kind of flexibility will help them attract other creative uses.

  • I’m glad to see so much effort going into this area. The diverse cultures represented have gained the attention of an audience much broader than just us. It doesn’t take a whole lot to begin change and this project seems like a big step forward. I wish you guys the best and look forward to visiting in the future.

  • Those large windows could make for an intersting exhibit/workshop place…considering that this was a car repair shop, I am sure there will be a lot of clean up to do. I hope KIB will add this to their volunteer calendar.

  • JP: Great ideas… We’ll be part of the spring KIB-supported Great Indy Cleanup day in the area on April 23 and more later in the year.

  • If you need volunteers to help with cleanup/restoration, I can contact my fraternity. We’ve done things from habitat for humanity, to home restorations in underdeveloped neighborhoods, so I’m sure we’d be more than happy to help out for this project as well. Feel free to contact me at if you’re interested.


  • Good luck. That’s cool that they are letting you use the building rent-free. Unfortunately, that whole area is a gigantic death-trap for peds and bicyclists, with little on the horizon to change that. I’d suggest focusing some energy and getting new blood into the positions that design the street projects, such as the current project that will build sidewalks right next to a posted 40 or 45MPH lane of traffic, in many locations replacing sidewalks that are currently buffered from the street. Until the City gets the infrastructure right, I don’t see the area truly blossoming.

  • Sounds like an innovative way to give Lafayette Ssquare area a true identity. I’m very curious about any future infrastructure plans for this area…where could I find these? This area needs to be addressed and brought back for the community as a whole. Great idea for ‘grass roots’ investment.

    • The City is rebuilding West 38th Street currently. Same tired old three lanes in each direction, with super-sized turn lanes and wide turning radii at all the intersections that will continue to make the entire corridor inhospitable to anything other than automobiles.

      You could call the City DPW and ask for the plans, but I wouldn’t hold my breath waiting for that request to be fulfilled. I think I still have a digital copy of the plans that I could e-mail to you or to this blog if I knew where to send them.

  • We’re working with the City to try some new things along Lafayette Road — especially in the right of way in front of our space. It is really bad around there — nearly impossible to safely cross any streets on foot or bike. We also hope to help with a project that uses some of the vast expanse around the mall for a walk/bike path between Service Center and Georgetown Market — one of the best assets in the area. But that kind of project needs to come after current visioning and planning efforts for the area are complete.

  • Jim, so wonderful that you are tackling this before the whole area slides into full-blown urban decay. If enough of us offer to help in some way, this could turn into the kind of effort launched by BRAG (Binford Redevelopment and Growth) over on Indy’s northeast side along Binford Blvd. You may want to connect with them if you haven’t already. They truly saved that area up there and have lots of good ideas. Please keep us on your mailing list as you move forward and let us know what you need in terms of grass-roots effort.

  • Thanks Maria. We worked with BRAG last year as part of our Made for Each Other community art series with Test Fest at Skiles Test Nature Park I couldn’t agree more. They are a really great group and are certainly a model for the kind of success we all want to see at Lafayette Square. If you are on Facebook, be sure to follow us there and we’ll keep you up to date!

  • Not to sound too disparaging, but this area has been a sinkhole for taxpayer $$$ since the development of Lafayette Square mall in the 70s required huge investment in infrastructure improvements. Despite the fact that vast amounts of money are spent about once a decade to “fix” the intersection of 38th & Lafayette Road it remains one of the city’s most dangerous. As other commenters have pointed out, it is horrible for bikes/peds. While I honor the initiative and creativity of the redevelopment team, the area remains a demonstration case for the Sprawlville mentality that still predominates in Indy. Planting a few trees and opening a gallery isn’t going to change that. Thinking big, I’d say tear down Lafayette Square mall and turn it into a park. Same with the mall on the south side of 38th north of Saraga. Huge areas of asphalt and prefab construction creates visual, economic and ecological blight. Could become either passive recreation area or put in mt. bike & hiking paths, but re-establish the original wetlands and forestland and keep cars out of the core by confining them to the periphery.

  • What KIB and BIG CAR are doing is important, however, the city needs a progressive infrastructure program for areas like this. Low rent, high rise apartments overlooking the newly developed Lafayette Square Park (after the mall is torn down) with an improved streetscape (38th to Lafayette) should be the first priority to create this International Marketplace. It all starts with progressive infrastructure and residential design, which unfortunately involves tearing down the mall. LSM will never survive and/or attract enough interest in the future. Tear it down and develop ‘natural’ parkland with an affordable high rise tower, which gives this area a destination point. Density increases and directly supports the ‘Marketplace’ and better infrastructure projects for the future, including more accessible transit. It’s important for the tower(s) be high enough to be identified from 65, acting as a visual ‘gateway’ to Indy’s Int Marketplace. Of course the issue of scale is one of the most important design issues when dealing with a sprawling sea of concrete containing one story buildings.

  • Ultimately, the Lafayette Square area needs to accept the fact that, in its current physical state of being, there isn’t much to hold onto. The entire area needs a complete ‘do-over,’ new road connections need to be made, a form based code needs to be created, an international business agglomeration needs to occur, significant pedestrian improvements need to occur, etc. etc. etc. Simply putting a mural on the side of a building, planting hundreds of trees, or implementing ornamental gateways to the area is merely throwing money at a problem that can’t be fixed. If we ever want Lafayette Square to be a true International Marketplace, we need to seriously think and talk about fundamental, big changes.

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