What’s a consumer mall without consumers?
Indiana’s first major shopping center debuted with a bang and died so slowly and painfully that its end was little more than a whimper. Opened in 1958, Eastgate Center was the first large-scale shopping center in Indiana. It located on the growing east side of Indianapolis, in what was then unincorporated Marion County, at the corner of Shadeland Avenue and Washington Street, which was then the heavily traveled cross-country National Road, US 40. After many years, and many changes, Eastgate finally bit the dust in 2004 and closed the doors, leaving its husk ripe for redevelopment.
When Eastgate originally opened, the mall was situated very similarly to how it was in later years, on a north-south axis, with an anchor at each end. A two-level Indy-based H.P. Wasson’s was the north anchor, and a smaller JCPenney dry goods-only store as well as a Standard supermarket anchored the south end. Eastgate had a weird tilt to it, too – the south end of the mall was flush with the parking lot, but at the north end the mall was significantly higher than the parking lot grade, and many people accessed it there by either ascending a long stairway or going through Wasson’s and using the escalator. Inside the mall were G.C. Murphy and Woolworth five-and-dime stores, as well as venerable 1950s mall stalwarts Thom McAn, Kinney Shoes, Lerner Shop, a National Shirt Shop, Harry Levinson’s, and Dr. Tavel Optical – who would become the last original tenant at the mall, closing in 2006.
In 1958, another open air mall arrived in Indianapolis when Glendale Center was built on the north side. However, Glendale provided little competition to Eastgate, as Indianapolis was large enough to support two (or more) centers and Glendale was a good distance away. Both centers thrived for the good part of two decades, in spite of forcing kids to wait in line for Santa Claus out in the cold. Brrr!
Competition did come a-knockin’ in 1974 with the opening of an enclosed, super-regional center just a few minutes away from the small Eastgate Center. DeBartolo, an Ohio-based mall developer, opened Washington Square Mall just two miles east on US 40. Sensing a trend, and not wanting to be left out in the cold (rather literally…), Eastgate’s owner quickly enclosed the 370,000 square-foot mall - but it was too little too late. Penneys moved out, and when the struggling Wasson’s closed in 1980 it became clear that Eastgate was in rapid decline.
In 1981, Eastgate was sold to Melvin Simon, an Indianapolis-based retail/real estate magnate, who promised to ease the mall’s woes and put it back on the path to success. And it did just that, for a while anyway. Burlington Coat Factory was brought in to replace the Wasson’s, and a mix of local and outlet stores were brought in to replace tenants who fled to Washington Square a few years earlier. Eastgate Center was renamed Eastgate Consumer Mall, and continued on through the 1980s and into the 1990s as a discount-themed mall, which was also appropriate for the changed demographics of its immediate area. This part of Indianapolis was in decline, as more people moved out to greener pastures in the suburbs, which only further benefited centers like Washington Square and decimated places like Eastgate.
As Eastgate Consumer Mall soldiered on, even the outlet mall concept became a flop. By the early 2000s, the mall was in decline again, as the caliber of stores went from okay to laughably nasty. In April 2001, when I visited, there was a store actually called What Would D$llar Do? I wanted to answer, “Not shop in this mall?” but it seemed to be a rather moot point since no one was there anyway. However, I did get yelled at for taking pictures by a rather fiery security guard lady, who seemed to be chatting with her friends in the nearly empty food court at the time of my egregious photo-snapping crime and felt it necessary to shout at me from across the cavernous emptiness and waddle over to give me hell. Par for the course at this mall, I guess.
Simon finally gave up the ghost and unloaded the mall in 2002 to a series of commercial slumlords, one of whom was Heywood Whichard, a slimy North Carolina ‘businessman’ who is infamous for craftily buying dead or dying retail properties and sitting on them, collecting rent with no reinvestment strategy whatsoever, until the properties are in such disrepair that almost nobody wants them. At this point the local government usually has to step in and spend taxpayer money to redevelop these blighted eyesores and Whichard runs away laughing, having made a tidy profit. This strategy has made Whichard the enemy of several cities around the country, including Akron, St. Louis, Niagara Falls, and Ft. Wayne.
Whichard certainly made the death spiral worse at Eastgate, and the mall began to shake off tenants faster than ever before. Mini anchor Dunham’s Sports and The Finish Line left first. Then, Burlington Coat Factory, who had been at Eastgate since 1981, decided to call it quits in March 2004 by moving to Washington Square, seizing the opportunity of a recently-closed JCPenney there. Burlington’s departure was the death knell for Eastgate, because in early 2004, Whichard gave a harsh and sudden notice, via a letter served by his attorneys, telling the 15 or so tenants operating there that they would need to skedaddle before the end of June or he would lock them out and take their stuff.
The interior of the mall closed in June 2004, and later that year Whichard did what he does best and sold the mall at a tax sale. The empty dead mall went through several other owners, including a woman from Michigan City who wanted to turn the mall into a senior-based shopping and entertainment center, and a Texas firm who did nothing. Not surprisingly, she abandoned her plans too, and the mall sat and sat. And sat. Meanwhile, Dr. Tavel, the mall’s lone remaining tenant, who was one of the mall’s original tenants and had an exterior entrance, continued to operate until his lease expired in 2006. Said Tavel in a 2003 interview in the Indianapolis Star, “One of the keys to our constant viability in that center is the fact that we always maintained an outdoor entrance,” he said. “That back door became our front door when the mall went to hell.” Well put.
In recent years, ruminations of redevelopment have finally reared their heads, which will give Eastgate new life. In July 2008, Lifeline Data Centers, an Indianapolis-based data storage outsourcing compan, decided to put a $50 million data center in the former mall. That same year, a group of U.S. Marines also used the mall to play war games, simulating urban combat for soldier training. In addition to the Lifeline project redevelopment, portions of the now-excessively-large parking lot will be removed and turned back to nature, with a landscaped park featuring walking trails and ponds. Although Eastgate Consumer Mall failed as a retail mall, it’s interesting that in the end it won’t be totally demolished and will have a use – as office space.
I visited Eastgate Consumer Mall in April 2001, just before Haywood Whichard got a hold of it and totally ran it into the ground, and took the pictures featured here. There was even a bright yellow mustang parked inside to offset any problems the mall might’ve had. For a more complete set of pictures, be sure to check out this Flickr page of photos of the mall from user penske14 . Taken in 2006, you can see that the mall quickly and alarmingly fell into disrepair, as evidenced by its condition less than two years after closure. Also, you can check out a Facebook discussion relating to the mall, or better yet, leave some of your experiences and thoughts on or own comments page here.