Murky future

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Vacancies mount, but mixed-use plan for Merchants’ Square unlikely

panaorama

Beside the now-vacant building formely housing Old Navy sit several still-active business. (Photo by Zach Ross)

By Robert Annis

As last-minute Christmas shoppers frantically crowd Carmel shops looking for holiday gifts, Merchants’ Square remains relatively quiet.

A once-bustling shopping center, Merchants’ Square, at East 116th Street and Keystone Parkway, has undergone some major tenant losses in recent years – about 80,000 square feet of retail space remains vacant. While Marsh Supermarket remains the plaza’s most viable asset, neighbors such as Party Tree, Old Navy and Hobby Lobby, either are closing up shop or are long gone. The surrounding strip centers are faring much worse, with the former homes of Borders, Chipotle Mexican Grill and others remaining vacant for years despite sitting in one of Hamilton County’s most visible and desirable retail spaces.

Traffic hassles during the Keystone Parkway reconstruction several years ago caused many shoppers to bypass the shops in favor of Clay Terrace to the north, where Old Navy relocated, or Keystone at the Crossing to the south. They never returned. Now with even more retail space open in Carmel City Center and the Carmel Arts & Design District, some observers are left wondering about Merchants’ Square’s ultimate future.

Artisan Masterpiece briefly was located in Merchants’ Square several years ago, but co-owner Cherie Piebes said she moved the operation to the Carmel Arts & Design District because it was a better fit for their business rather than because of any issues with Merchants’ Square.

City officials spent $185,000 to create a massive revitalization plan for the struggling area, but Merchants’ Square’s owner, Michigan-based Ramco-Gershenson, is optimistic that a turnaround is already underway and a drastic change isn’t needed.

Washington, D.C.-based planner Jeff Speck, co-author of Suburban Nation and one of the champions of the new urbanism movement, envisions demolishing much of the current shopping center, decreasing the retail space by 50,000 square feet and adding apartments, parking garages, new city streets and a park area. The new multi-use footprint, which he unveiled to the Carmel Redevelopment Commission in September, would create a more walkable space and greater visibility along Keystone Parkway. A video of the presentation may be found at www.tinyurl.com/merchantssquare.

But while Ramco-Gershenson gave some input into the plan, the company’s vice president of shop leasing, William Gershenson, said market factors would determine any eventual redevelopment of the property. He added the company was negotiating with several businesses to fill the empty space at Merchants’ Square and currently had no plans to move forward with any of Speck’s proposals.

“We took at a look at the plans for a mixed-use development and did our own analysis,” Gershenson said. “(Moving forward) would be difficult, as we have several clients committed to long-term leases … We’ve seen some improvement (over the past year) and believe we’ll see a momentum shift soon.”

Calls to several Merchants’ Square business owners were not immediately returned.

Ramco-Gershenson is committed to Merchants’ Square long term as well, Gershenson said. It bought out the property’s co-owner in 2011, and now owns the property outright, with no plans to sell to another developer.

So why did Carmel spend nearly $200,000 to draft a redevelopment plan of a property the city doesn’t own and the actual property owners are reluctant to follow?

“Having a plan in place allows the city to talk with interested developers and current owners about the future potential of the area,” city spokeswoman Nancy Heck stated in an e-mail. “It also helps developers and saves them time and money because much of the preliminary work of utility locating and street grid layout has already been done for them.”

But Carmel City Council member Luci Snyder remains unconvinced. She said the money should have gone to more pressing concerns.

“Why are we doing this now?” Snyder asked. “We’re spending money we don’t have.”

Asked if the city could do a public-private partnership much like it has with Pedcor Cos. for the City Center project, Snyder was dismissive.

“I don’t think the council will be up for another public-private partnership for several years,” Snyder said.

Speck acknowledged during his presentation that his plan was the “best effort of what we’d like to see” of the area, but any future changes to the property could look different, rendering his work mostly moot.

Ironically, Merchants’ Square already went through a major revitalization less than 15 years ago – an effort the city is still paying off. Heck said Carmel still owed $1.47 million on the 1998 $2.65-million bond issue.

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