Carmel plans Redevelopment of Merchant’s Square

Merchant Square - 2013
Merchant Square – 2013

In a manner consistent with it’s recent revitalization efforts in the downtown Art’s District and the new City Center & Palladium, Carmel has laid the groundwork for future revitalization of the 70’s era Merchant Square; which lies near the intersection of 116th Street and Keystone Parkway in Hamilton County. At the core of the plan is a phased reconstruction of the current configuration with an aim at pedestrianizing the now automobile oriented commercial development.

Before anyone gets ahead of us, this is simply a plan; not yet set in stone. Nationally renowned city planner Jeff Speck was tapped to assemble a plan for revitalizing the aging automobile oriented commercial center into a pedestrian oriented site that would prove to be more environmentally and economically sustainable over the long term with hopes of stemming the out-flux of high profile tenants to newer and far flung developments such as Clay Terrace & Hamilton Towne Center.

Envisoned 116th St Merchant Square Gateway
Envisoned 116th St Merchant Square Gateway

But why and how is that accomplished? As Speck has pointed out repeatedly in written books such as Walkable City, the built form of our fringe suburbs is automobile oriented, providing a barrier to potential activation by pedestrians. Indeed, from the report,

“The transformation of Merchants’ Square holds the potential to be a demonstration project of lasting significance. The challenge presented by America’s suburban commercial centers, in some ways epitomized by Merchants’ Square, is to redevelop a somewhat viable but auto-centric environment into a pedestrian-friendly place of civic life, while limiting negative impacts on existing businesses and residents. We believe that such a transformation is possible at Merchants’ Square, and that this site’s evolution can serve as a model for literally hundreds of similar sites across the country.”

As pointed out, putting the pedestrian at the center of the plan provides the foundation from which the design springs forth; and how success will be judged. With more than 350k square feet of retail space and large expanses of surface parking, much is required to rectify prior planning.

The proposal begins with an analysis of the existing conditions and then plots a course to sustainability on the basis of a Primary Network of Walkability. The existing roadway network is evolved over time to something that would encourage more pedestrian friendly land uses. A supporting secondary network is established as well, and a trans-formative gateway along 116th street is envisioned.

Merchant Square Walkability Network
Merchant Square Walkability Network

Existing land uses are addressed as well. The proposed plan recognizes the success of current retail, but also defines an expected shelf life on the current buildings and how future redevelopment could take shape to support the goals of this plan.

In an interview with Carmel mayor Jim Brainard, I asked why Merchant Square and why now? His reply was that all redevelopment vision needs to start with an idea or framework. While this plan may not (and most certainly will not) be carried out 100% as it stands, planning for the future now will ensure that when the time comes, the city is ready to embrace these changes. He also commented on the sustainability of redeveloping our existing spaces versus developing in greenfield environments.

Indy Connect - Carmel
Indy Connect – Carmel

I asked why there is not a transit component to this plan. Indeed, Speck asked the same question when assembling this plan. His response was that the Indy Connect plan already dedicates service to this area and that redefining the work already done would be redundant. However, he did note that future transit plans could influence the final version of this plan. Indy Connect’s vision of this area in the future includes local bus service along 116th street as well as Bus Rapid Transit along Keystone Parkway. How a future stop at 116th street would be designed and oriented could influence how the Merchant Square plan evolves.

The next step towards implementing the plan starts with the Carmel Planning Commission. Until then, nothing will take shape from this plan.

Is this a grand vision? It may not be as big as transforming Carmel’s old downtown (now the Arts District). It does carry with it a trans-formative focus that speaks of the tremendous amount of work that would need to be completed for this vision to come to fruition. As we have seen in the local media, it can be difficult to carry out these large scale plans without some push back. The City Center as well as the Art’s District while fantastic in their built form, have not come without significant push back from fellow Carmel conservatives. Seeing how the leadership in Carmel push this plan forward will be interesting.

A draft version of the plan can viewed as a .PDF by clicking here.

Comments 24

  • Carmel is the only place in IN currently practicing town planning, and it will continue to surpass all other towns because of it.

  • And one of the only places that’s willing to bring in national (and even international) experts to help.

  • Trouble is that this plan does not address market demand and the owner has no interest in what the Mayor wants to do. It is a non-starter. Besides “Carmel” is not bringing in Mr. Speck, the Mayor is. There should be more than a single, narrow, politically driven solution to planning than is this.

    • I think this plan does address market demand. Look at Hamilton Town Center and Clay Terrace. Both offer an environment which is far more walkable compared to Merchants’ Square, and as a result, both are enjoying high levels of patronage. I can see why the Mayor would want to capture that and reign it back into the Carmel area. That helps retain stores that otherwise, are fleeing the scene.

      Those seem like pretty strong market indicators to me.

  • Clay Terrace is the last shopping area with that concept that will be developed by Simon. They’ve dropped it so I’d say the market isn’t real keen on it. I’d venture to say that, after parking my car, I could walk Merchants square in less time that either Clay Terrace or Hamilton Town Center.

    Point is that it is time for there to be something other than just what Mayor Brainard wants when it comes to developing Carmel. He’s already helped make the CRC and the 4CDC insolvent and the citizens of Carmel had to bail him out. It’s time for new and better ideas.

    • How do you know it’s the last mall concept that will be developed like that? It seems fairly successful when compared to traditional indoor malls, so I wouldn’t rule it out.

      In any case, I like this idea over what is currently there. Like I said, and wrote, the higher end retailers are moving out. Something has to be done. Maybe this plan isn’t that. I would welcome other ideas if someone has one. Diversity never hurts when it comes time to evaluating choices.

    • (1) What are the new and better ideas? If you are going to criticize, then you should either offer alternatives or refer to others who have offered viable alternatives. Just saying “we need new and better ideas” is about as meaningless as saying “we need a new color for the sky.”

      (2) The CRC may have borrowed a lot in respect to its financing capacity, but the city’s credit rating is still sterling even after the so-called “bailout,” and the new development is getting filled up. You can certainly debate whether it is good policy for the city, either directly or through the CRC, to be involved in assisting private development, but there has been little to no supportable criticism that the resulting development of Carmel’s redevelopment efforts is bad or otherwise undesirable.

      (3) The job of any elected official is to lead, and this means they stick their neck out and make decisions that may or may not prove popular. Wussies need not apply to run for office. If the voters are dissatisified with the actions taken by any elected official, then they get a chance to show their displeasure at each election. It is very telling that Brainard has been reelected FIVE times. Either the voters of Carmel are stupid, which is their own damn problem, or they approve of what Brainard is doing as Mayor. In either case, if I were Brainard, I would take the election results as a mandate to keep doing what I was doing–which is exactly what Brainard is doing.

  • I read an article awhile back where Simon Properties made that comment. I was surprised in some ways and not in others. The weather/climate in IN for that concept is dicey at best.


    Here’s an interesting article from 2011 that may have had something to do with the change in direction. The consumer is still king and apparently they like “the mall.”

    Maybe, the more things change the more they stay the same.

  • City Planners beware. The Merchant Square occupancy rate is down because Simon has black mailed every major anchor tenant into moving into their developments.

    No doubt Simon will kill this retail redevelopment too, unless they get control.

    Competition is good. Monopoly is bad.

  • So Mayor Brainard spent taxpayer money on a development plan for property that is not owned by the city or for sale. Does this make any sense?

  • Never been to Merchants Square, but you point out that Hamilton Town Center and Clay Terrace were largely responsible for its distressed condition these days. I appreciate redevelopment initiatives, but I would think a new Merchants Square would have to have a very VERY heavy residential density–probably far more than low-density suburbanites would ever tolerate–in order to support a new huge retail node. America is just so over-retailed, and it would be bitterly ironic if some glossy new “town center” development opened in Merchants Square…only to suck the retail life back out of Clay Terrace/Hamilton Town Center.

    My thinking is that this might be a good space for a Planned Unit Development, a zoning classification which could allow a carefully thought out, master-planned approach that slowly acclimates Carmelites to higher-than-average density. (You rightfully point out the “pushback”.) Anything else with a large retail node and there just isn’t likely to be enough population to support it. Great way of framing the article, Curt–it will be interesting to see how this evolves over the years.

  • Just what we need, more money being spent that the city does not have. The city has taken over the free wheeling, unaccountable to the tax payor, spending of the CRC to the tune of $195 million dollars. Now we are redeveloping the old grain elevator area. The mayor wants a new boutique hotel. I can’t wait until the bill comes due for all of this spending and the taxes that will be associated with it. This is how Stockton CA went bankrupt, and many other communities in CA.

  • I am all for making retail centers more pedestrian friendly. And I am all for Carmel’s bold moves to create a dense, walkable core where none had existed before. But I don’t understand this at all. They are asking the question, ‘what would revive this shopping center’ instead of, ‘does a shopping center still belong here?’ The retailers have already answered that question, and a taxpayer-funded makeover will not change their minds. The bold move in this case would be to let the shopping center fail, then redevelop it as whatever type of development the market will support.

    Where are all of the pedestrians expected to come from? The area is penned-in on three sides by golf courses and a divided highway. They will be walking from their cars, parked in the parking lot, if at all.

    As for Mr. Speck, he may be a well-known planner with a book tour, but his star status is not deserved. Carmel would be better served by bringing in an expert who is grounded in reality, rather than one who thinks that the Borders is closed (p. 6 of the draft report) because its site ‘fail[ed] to provide any sense of continuity among its scattered buildings.’

  • I’d say the turnover,emptiness and the City’s subsidization of the Carmel Arts and Design District shows that area’s concept has largely failed but the CRC and the Mayor continues onward and upward. They cannot be stopped whether their ideas work or not. That’s the problem. The only businesses that are well patronized in the Arts and Design District are the restaurants.

  • I spoke with Mayor Brainard during the last election and he mentioned that he felt there was a missed opportunity when they built Claye Terrace. In retrospect he would have preferred building an additional 2 stories of apartment or condos above the stores at Claye Terrace to make more of a residential/commercial environment. The positive aspect of what Carmel is doing is as they plan these developments (which very few if any towns in the U.S. are attempting the same thing) they are learning from the result. The challenge is then allowing the market to dictate what can thrive. For example the “Arts and Design” district is turning into a restaurant/bar entertainment area. I go there on occasion to enjoy a Friday or Saturday evening or to watch a game. It is now full of restaurants, about 5 bars you can walk to, ice cream shops, coffee shops, a tattoo parlor, a pastry shop, and a new 24 hour gym. That doesn’t look like it falls under the category of “Arts and Design”. These stores are carrying the area and blend in well with the galleries and outdoor art. It is a fairly successful attempt at commercial development in a pedestrian friendly area that has a respect and focus on art as well. If the mayor does pull of the Merchants Square redevelopment I expect to see an even more cohesive, well thought out development.

  • I think Carmel is on the right track. Considering all of their suburban limitations (low density, car centric), they are doing more than anyone else to change that. And those of you who are so concerned about their debt (which I think is still very manageable), there is also such thing as debt being too low. Low debt might mean that you are not investing in things that will bring about the long-term prosperity. There is no better time to increase debt than now in this super low interest rate environment. If there are capital investments with high potential return, this is the right time to do them.

  • I was considering opening a small custom tattoo studio and Art Gallery in Carmel. I know that there is already a tattoo shop in town, but this concept would only house two tattoo artists tops. Hardly flooding the market or causing much disruption. Personal views on tattooing as an art form aside, can anyone tell me if a business like this would fit in either the current vibe in Carmel? Thanks in advance.

    • I think there are certainly residents of Carmel and the surrounding area interested in body art, though I believe a tattoo studio probably would be thought to fit better with the “vibe” of an Indianapolis city neighborhood like Fountain Square or Broad Ripple or the “So-Bro” area of Meridian Kessler. That said, the Carmel area is changing and your store could be part of the vanguard.

      I would scout out potential locations in Carmel and speak to people nearby to get a feel for what would work in those locations.

    • I was a little surprised to see a tattoo parlor in Carmel. Not because I am against tattoo’s but because Carmel just doesn’t seem like the best place to run a successful tattoo parlor. The only reason why the 1 parlor that opened may succeed is because it is the only one and it is right in the heart of the arts and design district. If you were to have a shop you better make sure it is in an equally visible location otherwise you will have to depend on an existing book of clients and hope they are loyal enough to go to Carmel to visit you. If you don’t have that loyal book yet then no Carmel would not be the best place. I would suggest Broad Ripple, Fountain Square, or Mass Ave.

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  • Interesting to read this article and these comments nearly 10 years on. Merchants Square is not, of course, redeveloped and continues to be a bland, lifeless suburban shopping center. Carmel has continued to innovate in other areas and to attract residents and businesses. The city has invested money to do so while maintaining a high credit rating (although it did drop from AA+ to AA back in 2017), and is one of the few exciting cities in Indiana from an urban development standpoint.

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