Mass Ave Retail: Vibrant behind those venetian blinds?

The cranes that punctuate downtown Indy’s skyline should bear some real fruit within the next two years.  Finally.  Urban bloggers have recently observed—with no small amount of criticism—the relatively meager increase in downtown Indianapolis’ housing construction that took place during the previous decade (from 2000 to 2010) when compared to other peer cities in the Midwest.  No doubt this is true: when I think of major housing projects that took place during that time frame, I draw a blank.   It’s possible that, because downtown Indy enjoyed a comparatively brisk pace of housing construction during the 1990s—when many other Midwestern downtowns were still fairly stagnant—that the relative paucity of housing construction in the 00s correlated directly to the demand for housing calibrating with the supply.


Yet within the past six months, we have witnessed the groundbreaking on multiple large developments, totaling over 1,600 units when complete.    A significant portion of this new housing construction will take place on a block of Massachusetts Avenue over which the Barton Tower currently presides.



The remainder of this block hosts the grassy park surrounding the tower on one side of Mass Ave, and the Indianapolis Fire Department headquarters and credit union sprawl across the other side of the street.  Construction on the Barton Tower has already begun, in the space to the east of the tower, fronting East Street.  Before long, the vast lawn to the west of the Tower will turn into additional multi-family housing.  And, in due time, after city leaders have found a new location for the Fire Department facilities, another large residential structure will commence construction on that side of the Avenue.


Eventually the buildings in the above photo will come down.


Almost the entirety of the Mass Ave street-level frontage for these developments will host retail.  No doubt many readers of Urban Indy have labeled that segment of Mass Ave (seen in the photos above) as the “dead zone” or the “missing link” needed to catalyze diagonal corridor into a truly vibrant upscale urban retail/entertainment district, on par with (for example) the southernmost six or seven blocks of the Short North district in Columbus, Ohio.  The ambitions for Mass Ave over the next few years help precipitate the worthwhile question: “Where are we now?”  Massachusetts Avenue is a desirable entertainment district, no doubt, and the Chatham Arch and Lockerbie Square neighborhoods command some of the highest per-square-foot housing costs in the entire city.


But virtually no one who has visited Columbus’ Short North would claim that Mass Ave boasts a comparable level of activity and desirability.  Why not?


Taking a look at some of the current retail offerings may help to shed some light.



At its best, the corridor successfully offers an entertainment experience (mostly restaurant and specialty retail) catering to the affluent demographic that lives in the surrounding Chatham Arch, St. Joseph, and Lockerbie Square neighborhoods.  On an unseasonably warm day in early March, the street feels like a vibrant neighborhood, where I suspect a huge proportion of the people strolling, riding bicycles, or walking their dogs are their more as “free riders”—not so much to buy the goods and services but to consume the urban leisure experience, which has become such a salient aspect of city revitalization that it operates as a variant of economist Paul Samuelson’s “public good” in and of itself.  These passive shoppers along Mass Ave are doing absolutely nothing illegal or even unethical, but it may help to explain why the corridor as a whole still seems to fall short of its potential.




Despite the lucre of the corridor, many storefronts linger in a vacant state.  The second photo above, the site of the Bu Da Lounge before it relocated to Market Street, has remained empty now for about a year.  One could argue that it is having trouble finding a tenant because it is too small to attract most restaurants, but it would seem just the right size for a boutique.  No luck.  And clearly size isn’t a real factor: a much larger space, the former site of Bazbeaux Pizza, languished until the new restaurant Bakersfield took over just a few weeks ago.


But after Bazbeaux moved across the street, the old location sat vacant for nearly two years.  And then there’s the other end of Mass Avenue, sometimes called the “East End”, which has lacked the same prominence as the blocks closer to the city center.  And it shows.



Trail Side on Mass, a mixed-income multifamily development, opened last year with approximately 70 units and over 10,000 square feet of retail.  To the best of my knowledge, it had no problem leasing out the apartments.  But, almost year after opening, the retail component remains completely vacant.


This end of the Mass Ave commercial corridor has always suffered from reduced visibility.  When a pedestrian stands at the intersection of Massachusetts and College Avenues and looks eastward, it is difficult to discern that there is any further activity along that block.  Many of the small businesses at the “East End” have survived thanks to word of mouth.  But that hasn’t been enough to attract new tenants, despite the added population density induced by Trail Side on Mass.  Perhaps the property managers are seeking excessively high leasing rates; I don’t feel it is my place either to investigate or pass judgment on that.  (No doubt Mass Ave in general commands some of the priciest per-square-foot leases in all of metro Indianapolis.)  But the fact remains that, despite the development’s many merits, it does help advance the assertion that Mass Ave’s retail corridor is flourishing.


Vacancy levels, though, are not the only viable means of gauging retail vibrancy along the avenue.  It’s time to look at what’s going on in those occupied storefronts as well.  Obviously, more than a few spots host restaurants, boutiques, and bars.



The retail ostensibly attempts to capitalize on the demographic that lives in the Chatham arch: affluent professionals with few children.  Maybe they’re empty nesters, maybe they’re single, maybe they’re gay, maybe they only have one child not yet of school age.  Whatever the situation, the ensuing neighborhood retail indicates that they have a lot of money to spend on themselves (evidenced by the high concentration of “personal care” outlets: spas, hair/nail salons).  As materialistic as this may seem to those who have no interest in city living, these storefronts comprise the essence of an idealized urban recreational corridor—a metropolitan lifestyle niche that shows no real evidence of flagging in popularity.


But, interspersed between these successful and (mostly) locally run establishments are tenants who don’t divert the gaze of the passer-by.



Behind those large storefront windows sit a variety of white-collar services.


Insurance brokers, realtors, doctors, cosmetic dentists, PR firms, law offices, engineering—you name it.  All of these agencies are essential to an urban environment; less critical is that they occupy highly-visible first floor retail space.  I’m certain it doesn’t hurt their bottom line, but the fact remains that plenty of realtors, doctors, and so forth can function perfectly well in a virtually windowless building set quite some distance from the main road, or tucked away in the upper floor of some office building in a corporate park.  Compare that with a clothing boutique, or art gallery, or a restaurant—more often than not, they need to be seen to attract passers-by, either by foot or by wheels.  Rare is a pet supply store or chocolate bar that can flourish solely through ad space and an address/phone listing in the yellow pages.  But plenty of insurance agencies derive their business from people researching before they visit—not spontaneity.


By no means am I trying to begrudge these realtors/chiropractors/doctors their broadly visible first-floor retail space, nor would I ever dream of advocating that landlords and property managers deny them first-floor tenancy.  But the fact that Mass Avenue has so many of them only serves as proof that landlords don’t have the leeway to be that choosy.  They take what they can get, and, more often than not, these service providers are far more stable and recession-proof than a specialty haberdasher or perfumery.  For example, Mass Ave Chiropractic has occupied storefront space here for as long as I can remember, well before the street was a very coveted address.  Yet it sits at this site with 80% of its window space covered in an opaque sheath.


Weird.  Or maybe not.  The way a tenant “dresses” the windows underlies the difference between the FIRE (Finance, Insurance, Real Estate) industry and conventional goods-and-services retail.  You can often tell which type of use a storefront is hosting, even when standing from a huge distance.  Why?  It’s all about those venetian blinds.



Chances are, the employees behind this storefront are sitting close to the window, at desks, in front of computers—quite a contrast from a purveyor of doggie biscuits.  An insurance agency understandably needs the blinds pulled because the sun emits an uncomfortable and sometimes unworkable glare.  At the same time, this treatment of the broad storefront window space only corroborates the notion that lawyers and doctors don’t really need the storefront space.  In fact, they rarely even use it to their advantage.  They can take it because the landlord isn’t demanding high enough rates to repel them, and the reason the landlord isn’t offering high enough rates is because he or she can’t; the corridor simply hasn’t attracted enough base line of coveted high-end retailers.


Within downtown Indianapolis, Mass Ave is hardly unique to this phenomenon.  Several other new developments have struggled to find retail, and when they do, they have to settle for FIRE or design/engineering firms.  Take the Cosmopolitan on the Canal, for example:


It took well over a year to find any tenants along its Senate Avenue and Michigan Street frontage.  When it finally leased space, it went to an ad agency.


I have absolutely nothing against Three Sixty Group, and I commend them for not shrouding their office activity behind curtains.  But I’d still imagine that 60% of the Cosmopolitan’s GLA remains unrented.  The same situation presents itself at another fairly new development, the Maxwell in Lockerbie Square, visible on the right-hand side of the photo below:

Maxwell 05

As far as massing and general urban design principles go, it’s a pretty solid building.  But it has struggled to lease its first-floor retail.  On my own blog, I hinted at why I thought its view of an electric substation seriously dampens its attractiveness, but that’s not necessarily a game changer.  Eventually the Maxwell has leased out most of its space—but with engineering firms.

Maxwell 04

Maxwell 02

More of those blankety-blank blinds, but considering what they have to look at across the street—

December Return to Indy 010

–can you entirely blame them?  And don’t even get me started on the Canal Walk, where expansive storefront space has always belonged to offices, the vast majority of which keep their curtains drawn.


Obviously we don’t want to make the perfect the enemy of the good, and it’s wonderful that these spaces are finding tenants in a persistently weak economy.  But for the PR teams responsible for boasting about Indy’s active downtown—not to mention the people seeking to move there—this trend does not bode well.  Truly great downtowns can enjoy 24/7 activity, with the FIRE, design, law offices contributing the lion’s share of energy during the 9-to-5 working hours.  But they all close in the evenings, leaving Mass Avenue with some serious longueurs during a typical stroll between the boutiques and bars.  Shuttered storefronts can still provide interest if there’s a display, as there inevitably is at a toy store even after its doors are closed.  But an engineering firm closes after 6pm and draws the blinds closed too.  There’s nothing for people to see.


Is there a solution?  I’m sure there are more nuanced ways of evaluating this, but I think more density is key.  Mass Ave is well on its way.  Filling in the “dead zone” in front of the Barton Tower is a huge step in the right direction.  Eventually, one can hope for infill in many of the other parking lots that today we take for granted.  Sure, the Marrott Center is a finely restored building, but its first floor doesn’t offer much to the neighborhood that couldn’t be nudged into the upper levels.


And what about the parcel adjacent to the Marrott Center?  A big parking lot, where a similarly fine building inevitably once stood.


And, along Mass Ave, of course, there are plenty more parking lots where that came from.






With no major effort, I could have easily identified at least a half-dozen more.  Obviously these smaller, unusually shaped parcels will face barriers to entry: the current owners will ask steep prices to give up their lucrative off-street parking, the local NIMBYs will fight the exact density that made them seek to live there in the first place, and some will argue that a mural or window along the party wall is part of the vital cultural essence of the city and should never be concealed.  But the Short North in Columbus experienced a gradual, incremental “healing” across its long-damaged High Street retail corridor to get where it is today; nothing suggests that the right densification here won’t achieve a similar result.  More people equates to higher income density, which in turn will most likely drive those rental rates, pushing the insurance offices (who do not depend on the storefront space) into the upper levels.  And eventually, market pressures could very possibly transform the Avenue into the lucrative (and, yes, just a little bit vapid) consumerist paradise that its cheerleaders have always hoped it might be.


Comments 20

  • Nice piece Mr. McAfee. It was interesting to see someone take a critical view of Mass Ave as it exists in its entirety. Perhaps we too blindly presume that everything is just fine on Mass Ave because by comparison it is doing much better than most urban commercial corridors in Indy. I think you raise some really valid concerns about how quickly the planned commercial space wrapping around the Barton Tower will be leased. And, perhaps more importantly, what will occupy it.

    I think you’re certainly right on the need for more residential density, but I’m not surprised that the new Trailside building’s commercial space remains vacant. Adding three floors of apartments (income restricted at that) does not bring nearly enough buying power to support an entire floor of retail. And considering the vacancies, new projects under construction (Barton) and underutilization of more prime first-floor space (for professional offices) farther west on the corridor, this could sit vacant for quite some time.

  • Thanks for the comments, Idyllic. I tried to avoid an overly cynical tone, because I don’t really think retail on Mass Ave is in bad shape at all. But it has tremendous room still to improve, and complacency would be horrible–as would any attempts to preclude dense infill development (and we know the locals have already fought fiercely to lower density on developments in the past).

    Regarding Trail Side, I don’t think the income restricted character either helps or hurts. Considering that IHA buildings like Barton have never really scared retailers away from the Mass Ave area, my guess is most prospective tenants care less about income levels in the respective building and more about the physical characteristics, such as visual prominence. In that regard, Trail Side will be an underperformer until someone develops the IPS bus parking and the Coca-Cola building. In the meantime, if Trail Side is attempt to bolster its pro forma by assuming it can offer comparable leasing rates to the other segments of Mass Ave, then yes, it will remain vacant for a long, long time.

  • Take this from me Mr. tony j. of Indy, wanna make this area of downtown really pop off or hop with people and tenants right where the ips building is just imagin that being a target,meijer,or best buy, It would be best it is of brick and some stone type construction almost like the cosmo on the canale building, or the 9 story tower on mass ave just think of it. Mini marts a cvs/walgreens/more pizza and sub shops could also be given special incenatives to fill the spaces even barbers and beauty sallons in need of space, even the many outer towners that have moved here frome other states and countries could if not should be incourged to open their just imagen grabbing a real philly sanwich or real new york/chicago pizza or Kc ribs frome those that have moved here and was offered space to service the mass ave and downtown crowds YES a city this big and of our size 11 th largest , should not have to even think of looking towards new york or chicago or other big cities to learn or get it right, but it want hurt either, as iam sure they look towards us for ideals.

  • that would be a terrible location for the urban target. Not very practical.

  • As we were walking out of Bakersfield last night, I noticed (once again) all of the little parking lots on the corners of Mass Ave. There is so much open space in Indy. It will be interesting to see hoow Indy tackles the need for high denstiy residential to support more commercial businesses. It’s going to take a lot of time with the economy in no way ready to recover.

  • Having lived in Chatham Arch primarily for the last 15 or more years, it’s interesting to reflect on what Mass Ave was, what it is, and what it might become. One of the things I often talk about with neighbors and friends is what else we might like to see on the Avenue in terms of retail. Now it may reflect where we are at in our lives, but we usually don’t have a lot of answers of establishments that if offered, we would regularly spend money.

    We miss having a restaurant like The Abbey that was a nice place to just go and hang out. While a few gift, art boutique, Broad Ripple-style shops would be nice for when we have out-of-town guests who want to walk and browse, we generally think we probably wouldn’t buy much there very often.

    We’ve got one of most everything: books (Indy Reads), home furnishings (Chatham Arch and The Inventorialist), gifts (Global Gifts and Silver in the City), things for kids (Nurture and Mass Ave Toy Shop), et al.

    I wonder what commenters here feel is missing … establishments that they honestly would frequent enough to help keep them in business on the online commerce era in which we live.

  • I think Mass Ave is doing great. The small parking lots will eventually get filled. The street needs to better connect with the downtown (where Mass meets Delaware I see some potential for improvement, especially with the big parking lot there). And then there is a “superblock” (old Coke plant/IPS parking lot) that needs “CityWay” type of development. The best thing about all this is that in the long run, you know it will happen. It’s kind of self-feeding. Every new development makes this area more attractive, and the growth seems to be accelerating in recent years despite the recession. I see the point about some empty storefronts, and “wrong” mix of storefront businesses, but that’s just work-in-progress. Market will take care of that in the long run.

    • It would be really interesting to see the Coke “super block” turned into an area like the Distillery District in Toronto ( or Pearl Brewery in San Antonio ( Maybe a bit heavier on the residential than those though.

      • Yes, I agree…a bit heavier on residential. Super-block presents a great opportunity due its location and size, and if done properly it would bring needed attention to the east part of Mass Ave. It connects to Monon (which presents its own opportunities for development from 10th to Broad Ripple).

        I almost wonder if concentrating development in one area (like Mass) would be better for the city in the long-run than spreading that development around. My thinking is that once you create a large enough area that’s high density, it’s much easier to create organic growth around the existing demand. I know that this kind of happens anyway, but I was thinking if the city was to force the issue by concentrating its “TIF” dollars in one place (probably politically impossible), I wonder if it would get more bang for the buck.

  • I had mentioned this on the Green Line post from a couple of weeks ago, but I feel like an ambitious plan for Mass Ave would be to turn the actual Avenue from College to New York/Delaware into a pedestrian thoroughfare. Currently with parking and drive lanes, the sidewalks are just not very comfortable.

    Some things that would have to happen for this plan to work would be 1) a parking garage or two. Displacing a Mass Ave worth of front-in parking (300 spaces?) would require some place for them to go. 2) All east-west and north-south streets would stay connected.

    The benefits would be plenty walking space, area for kiosk-type pop-up stores, patio seating for all the restaurants, and even a dedicated bus lane running down the middle.

    Anyone have any other suggestions or comments? Also, I understand this is a long shot, so probably don’t need any this-will-never-happen comments.

    • I am familiar with 3 traffic-free shopping streets : Pearl St. in Boulder, CO where I grew up, State St. in Madison, WI where I went to college and Church St. in Burlington, VT where my son is now at school. They’re all thriving comercial areas in smaller cities than Indy. Except college students, they don’t have more population density than Indy either. Pearl St. isn’t even very close to CU; students mostly hang out at the Hill instead.

      We live up in Carmel and come to Mass Ave. for dinner or drinks, and we shop around when we are down there but the shops aren’t different enough (and there aren’t enough of them) to make the drive for just shopping. We have come for First Fridays and that’s nice. It’s dismaying to me that the most dense downtown area in Indy isn’t dense enough to fill a business district. I feel like that can’t be true. Everybody has been to Mass Ave. from all over central Indiana, but it’s just a little disappointing, which is your point.

      My point is I don’t think the answer is more population density. I think the answer is that the retail businesses need to be provided some financial support initially by the community. Neighborhood people, people in the city of Indy, in the suburbs, people visiting the city, all these people want a nice bustling shopping/restaurant district and will frequent it. If the city develops a program that promotes retail and restaurants, filling the empty space, moving the non-retail tenants to less visible space, and promoting the district as a destination, I think it could be what it promises to be within just a few years.

  • All the feedback is great to see. I think Mass Ave is doing fine–about on par what one might expect, given the density of the area (and lack thereof in certain cases), the demographics, the current state of the economy. I deliberately ended my post on a positive note because I don’t mean for the aggregate forecast to come across as cynical. And by all means I agree with JP that the market will take care of many of the weaknesses in the long run. I always temper my optimism with a caveat to avoid complacency: the long-vacant slots and the frequent office tenants used in retail storefronts are a clear sign of weakness, and I never encourage ANYONE to think of Indianapolis as the 12th or 11th or 5th largest city in America. A Unigov-induced distortion has given this number credence that it doesn’t deserve. It couldn’t be farther from the truth; by most metrics, the Indianapolis-Carmel-Anderson MSA ranks around 33rd.

    Ahow628, you raise an interesting and potential timely proposal. You’re probably well aware of the 1970s/80s attempts at converting many different commercial main streets into pedestrian zones, and how it had about a 99% failure rate. Maybe we simply weren’t yet attuned to the right approach at that time and we’re ready now. I’m not convinced a pedestrian zone of 5 long blocks would succeed, but modest incremental efforts (like one I recently saw in Cleveland) might work. And as loathe as I am to advocate for a building along Mass Ave exclusively devoted to parking, it will probably eventually be essential, or perhaps something that could blend into an existing shopping cluster, such as transforming the surface lot that feeds into O’Malia’s/Ace Hardware at Vermont/New Jersey into a garage with interconnected retail.

    I definitely appreciate the comments and suggestions. The current conditions along Mass Ave still seem pretty flexible to me, thanks to Micah’s observation of the abundance of open space, and this can really stimulate good brainstorming.

    • I think the Mass Ave strip is doing very well. It is an attractive and walkable area with a diverse range of retail options and restaurant and bar choices. As pointed out, it still has some open lots that would be good candidates for in-fill development. So, it will continue to increase in residential density over time, which will in turn increase the street-level activity. If ever an improved mass transit system is implemented, it may help to quicken rate of increase of residential density in the neighborhood; otherwise, it will just continue to happen gradually.

      Regarding the population of Indianapolis, I think most people know the size of the city’s metropolitan area. However, the city’s population is the city’s population. The “UniGov” distortion is about 43 years old. Yes, if one wants to point out that Indianapolis is a low-density city, it is certainly accurate, but the same thing is true of Kansas City or Phoenix or Houston or Columbus, Ohio (to which the author draws a comparison with that city’s Short North district).

      The suggestions for improving street life have focused on increasing the residential density in the immediate area to grow the “built-in” customer base, not on drawing more people from the surrounding metro area, so the size of Indy’s metro area is irrelevant in so much that even at the 33rd largest in the nation it still has nearly 1.8 million people, or quite enough to support a thriving downtown and adjacent city center neighborhoods.

  • Ahow628: I totally agree w/ Eric M about the failed attempts of real streets into idyllic pedestrian zones. Vehicles are important for street activity and business…especially for the 5 block section of Mass Avenue. I would say there is not one street in Indianapolis that would thrive commercially without vehicular activity. Massachusettes Avenue, while a fairly vibrant nightlife corridor, is still a destination for a high percentage of daily users. Why? Bingo: downtown residential is low. And the most filled in, established neighborhoods consist of single family homes. There is a major issue with the perception that Indianapolis is larger than what it is…thanks to UNIGOV.
    I have never been to Columbus, OH but have heard so much about the Short North District. Can anyone else imagine a campus the size of OSU (or Purdue for that matter) situated at the end of Massachusettes Avenue. Would be quite a game changer for sure. IUPUI is at the very beginning phase of transitioning into a non commuter campus. I love imagining all of the potential with urban infill in and around Mass Ave for the future. It’s just not going to happen with a snap of a finger. I guess this would be my wish list for the next 5 years for a more livable downtown Indy:
    1. A prominent, mixed use URBAN infill development for the old Coke Plant
    (people may finally realize what a missed opportunity the 500 block dev. was after all—boutique hotel, please!!!)
    2. TARGET & residential tower development for the MSA site
    (this would be key in linking prominent neighborhoods of the NE quadrant to the business district)
    3. Continue increasing residential density for a more unique IUPUI campus
    (the SMITH GROUP doing some of the best architecture join the city right now—ESP institutional)
    4. College Avenue Streetcar development
    ( a huge investment to develop Midtown and help put Indy on the map—INDY-NO-PLACE?)
    5. Progressive Mass Ave Streetscape
    ( Give the corridor a unique identity to encourage proper infill development).
    6. New Bus/Transit Terminal
    (let this be an architectural showpiece for the whole community)
    7. Canal redo
    (hmmm…should we just start over?)

  • Times have changed. We are undergoing a restructuring of our economy and enduring a near-depression. The old templates don’t work anymore, haven’t for a long time. It’s really that simple.

  • I am finding this article a bit late…. but to shed some light onto the issue of retail spaces sitting vacant for so long, it is notable that Mass ave landlords expect a retail space to lease for $23/ sq ft and up. It’s just too expensive to have a business along the avenue. The rent is too d*mn high!

    • The rent is too high for the amount of traffic in the area. I think there is a catch 22 with Mass Ave, No one wants to pay 23$/ sqft to put a business in an area with such little support and foot traffic, and no one wants to drive to or hangout in an area with such little business.
      I see a lot of potential in these areas to really become something great, what I dont see is a thriving urban culture to support these areas or independent business. Lets face it, Indy is mostly made up of commuters to and from the suburbs and couldn’t care less whats going on downtown. They have their Walmart’s or meijer’s, McDonald’s, Starbucks and whatever other chain you can think of all just a short drive from their subdivision.

      For the hold outs such as myself, that WANT to live downtown and prefer an urban environment, the city itself makes it very inconvenient to do so. I still have to drive to the suburbs to get groceries, drive to the suburbs for a majority of my shopping and entertainment and it gets to the point where you are questioning why you are living downtown at all?

      Unfortunately, This city is happy with good enough chain restaurants, no public transportation, suburban vinyl villages and backward conservatism that has gotten us nowhere.
      Ive lived in Indy for 20 years with barely a dent in the downtown landscape and as much as I hope to see change, Ive become a bit more cynical and am no longer holding my breath.

      • Thanks for the comments. Taka, while the suburban groceries may have the inventory you prefer, you certainly are under no obligation to shop there. Say what you want about the O’Malia’s at Lockerbie, it is a full-fledged grocery store.

        Also, if you think that there’s been “barely a dent” in the downtown landscape over the last 20 years, then I don’t imagine you’re going to be assuaged by just about any other similarly-sized city you visit.

  • Incredibly, a lot of work is being done in the area, and I have that such development work continues and also enhances the living style of the people in the area. So I hope they enjoy it.

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