Seven old men sit at a table in the middle of the food court at the Lafayette Square Mall. They don’t have any shopping bags, and they haven’t ordered any food from one of the few options available. Instead, they gather around the table for a game of dominoes. As they banter about current events and life at home, no one man listens to the other. They all have a tired look on their face. They look like they’re waiting on a bus that’ll never come. They seem to be stuck in a kind of purgatory. Almost as if they were placed in this food court by someone else, and told they couldn’t leave until; well, never.
The Lafayette Square Mall is a 1.2 million square foot enclosed shopping center that sits on the Northwest side of Indianapolis. And much like the four older men sitting in the food court, this mall too seems to be stuck in limbo. It has yet to close like many other malls in America, but it’s not bursting at the seams with customers. It just sort of, is. It exists in a weird alternate universe where it’s current tenants occupy storefronts that were designed for much larger national brands. But instead of GameStop, the Gap, and American Eagle, here sits Customz, Show-N-Off, and Ed’s Retail Store. Like a juvenile hermit crab that’s found a shell much too large, you walk into the Lafayette Square Mall knowing that it was built for something much grander than what it is today.
To understand how the Lafayette Square Mall ended up in this living but dead state, we have to look at how it started.
In January 1965, the County Council approved zoning for the ‘Northwest Park Shopping Center.” The two owners of the land that would become the Lafayette Square Mall, Frederick Cline and Allen Clowes, sold the area to Youngtown, Ohio shopping mall developer Edward DeBartolo for $1.93 million. As a note, Allen Clowes is part of the Clowes family, who’s Clowes Fund has supported many nonprofit organizations across Central Indiana, including Clowes Memorial Hall on the campus of Butler University, and Edward DeBartolo is the father of infamous former San Francisco 49ers owner Edward DeBartolo Jr., who was pardoned by President Donald Trump in 2020 for multiple felony convictions.
Original estimates had building costs for the Lafayette Square Mall at $17 million. Retailers and shoppers were eager for the first of its kind mall in Indianapolis. The mall opened at the intersection of 38th st and Lafayette Road, right next to the newly created off-ramp from busy Interstate 65. Newspapers helped build hype for the mall, promoting it as the first mall in Indianapolis to be enclosed, its 60-acre parking lot, and a shopping experience that wasn’t available anywhere else in Indiana.
The Lafayette Square Mall opened to great fanfare on August 1, 1968, with over 1,800 people in attendance. Indiana Lieutenant. Governor Robert Rock cut a 90-foot ribbon that was made of orchids. As the Gordon Pipers marched throughout the mall on opening day, guests marveled at the thirty-foot indoor waterfall and palm trees that were imported from Ft. Lauderdale, Florida. Businessmen handed out orchids to women as they entered. The opening of the Lafayette Square Mall was a big deal. Mere months after the assassinations of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and Robert Kennedy, the mall was a welcome distraction for Indianapolis residents in the middle of a turbulent year.
Shoppers that day could visit any of Lafayette Square Mall’s original anchor tenants, which included, JCPenney, Sears, G.C. Murphy, and Kroger. Less than a year later, William H. Block would open as another anchor tenant. Things were off to a very positive start. In only two years, the mall reached its five-year revenue projections and customer goals. The Lafayette Square Mall was so successful, Edward DeBartolo started planning similar projects in the Castleton (completed in 1972) and East Washington Street (completed in 1974) areas.
In 1974 the mall saw a massive expansion that brought in stores like Lazarus, a new Kroger, and an LS Ayres. During the expansion, the total square footage of the mall increased by 25%. For the most part, shopping patterns and customer counts continued throughout the 70s and most of the 80s. A Montgomery Ward was added in 1987, and the Lazarus moved into a new space within the mall the same year.
Trouble for the Lafayette Square Mall began to turn up in the mid-90s. As many Indianapolis residents began to move to the surrounding rural counties, the mall saw a dip in traffic. In 1993 G.C. Murphy, one of the original anchors closed its doors. Alarm bells were not ringing yet, but trouble was on the horizon.
In 1996, a year after the opening of Circle Center Mall in downtown Indianapolis, the Debartolo Realty Group merged with Melvin Simon & Associates, creating the Simon Debartolo Group, later to be named the Simon Property Group. The honeymoon period for Simon and the Lafayette Square Mall was somewhat short. Simon paid for a remodel in 1998, but over the next ten years, three majors anchors would close inside the mall; Montgomery Ward in 2001, Lazarus in 2002, and JC Penny in 2005.
Despite reports of over 87% occupancy in 2004, and the announcement of a new Wal-Mart opening less than a mile away in 2007, Simon Property Group decided to sell the mall in December of 2007. By then, the mall had lost most of its anchors, and the New Life Worship Center moved into the old Lazarus a few years before. This was not what Simon wanted in the same portfolio that sported malls like the Fashion Mall at Keystone and Forum Shops at Caesars Palace Las Vegas.
As larger tenants continued to move out of the mall, blame was spread across a few different factors. Some blamed the popularity of the new Metropolis outdoor mall in nearby Plainfield, Indiana. Others pointed to a rise in superstores like Walmart and Target. No matter the reason, and despite a planned renovation by new ownership, the Lafayette Square Mall saw even more anchor tenants leave in the following years. The Sears closed in October of 2008, and in January of 2009, Macy’s jumped ship. Just when things seemed their worst, another major problem popped up for the mall; crime.
Starting in 2011, several shootings were reported to have taken place in the mall parking lot. For the most part, no one was harmed in the shootings, and the events were treated as nothing more than easy pickings for local tv news. However, that all changed in April of that year. During an incident across the street from the Lafayette Square Mall, a 16-year-old boy was shot in the lower back after leaving a nearby movie theatre. He would go on to survive, but the damage to the nearby mall would be long-lasting.
The news of the shooting was not well received by potential shoppers or tenants. By this time, Simon Property Group had sold the mall to Ashkenazy Acquisition Corp.
The new owner tried their best to refurbish the mall by rebuilding the entrance, adding new stores like Shoppers World and Xscape, but major tenants like Bath & Body Works, Victoria’s Secret, and Sears would all leave by late 2010. Things only got worse in January of 2012 when another shooting took place in the parking lot. A year later, another teenager was arrested for opening fire inside the mall around young children and families. With each new violent incident came a day or two of local news coverage. Word quickly got out that the Lafayette Square Mall was not a safe place to bring your family.
The bottom seemed to drop out on March 13, 2013, when Robert Mitcham was shot and killed while sitting in an SUV outside the mall. As local news outlets covered the story, word began to spread across west side communities that maybe it was time for the mall to go away for good. Could the mall be sold to a developer for housing or an industrial park? In 2005, rumors began to circulate that the site was on the shortlist for the new Indianapolis Colts stadium. That did not happen, but the possibility for a big single-site project was evident, and news of the Robert Mitcham murder led to increased pleas from community members for something new. Along with the Indianapolis Colts stadium rumors, in 2008, the site was also thought to be a possible location for an IKEA (the eventual location ended up going to Fishers, Indiana in 2018).
For a short time, one bright spot was the new Xscape entertainment complex that opened inside the mall in January of 2009. Featuring bumper cars, laser tag, and go-karts, the 75,000 square foot space was a big draw for families. Its opening coincided with a $12 million investment from mall ownership that saw landscaping upgrades and a larger food court. But like with most things at the Lafayette Square Mall, trouble was right around the corner, and even its new crown jewel Xscape wasn’t immune from controversy.
Five-year-old Denzel Jennings was riding the mini teacup ride at Xscape on March 26, 2010. While riding, the young boy suffered a severe skull fracture and was placed in a medically induced coma. A subsequent inspection by authorities revealed significant violations. Xscape had not renewed their permit, which meant inspectors had not been out in over a year to inspect the rides inside the complex. Days after the incident, several rides were shut down, and after the boy’s family filed a lawsuit, Xscape closed its doors for good that summer.
Surrounding communities and the City of Indianapolis tried to help the Lafayette Square Mall recover from these incidents. In June 2010, $20 million in road improvements were made in hopes of revitalizing the area. In June of 2012, the nonprofit Big Car Collaborative moved to the area, but only three years later, they moved their operations across town. In December of 2016, local media reported that the site was in consideration for the new government criminal justice center. But just like the new Colts stadium and proposed IKEA before, the plans did not materialize. So if these projects don’t work, what will?
In 2018 the NAIOP, a national real estate development association, held its annual University Challenge. The Lafayette Square Mall was selected to be the subject of the redevelopment and design contest in which students proposed new ideas and uses for the area. The winners of the competition were a group of students from the University of Indianapolis. They suggested that the mall be torn down, and the area be turned into a large urban industrial space. This idea seemed to carry some merit, as shortly after the 16Tech urban innovation business district opened less than three miles away from the Lafayette Square Mall. Another missed opportunity.
The latest rumor for the long-suffering undead mall has the Indy Eleven Professional Soccer club building their new Eleven Park soccer stadium and retail area on site. For now, the Indy Eleven have been very quiet about a possible location for Eleven Park. Still, many believe that the Lafayette Square Mall is a strong contender due to its easy access off of Interstate 65, room for parking, and proximity to large portions of Indy’s Latinx population. Recently, local news outlets reported that owner Ashkenazy Acquisition Corp was actively looking for a buyer for the mall.
Like most malls in America after the 2008 Great Recession, there is no one cause for the downfall of the Lafayette Square Mall. Many blame the “retail apocalypse,” others point to the turbulent years of violent crime in and around the mall, while some just chalk it up to bad timing and bad luck. But unlike other the malls that met their end and became titles under the “Abandoned Mall” section of Youtube videos, the Lafayette Square Mall still stands. Not abandoned, but not wholly alive. Yes, you can visit the mall and browse the aisles at Shoppers World or Burlington. You could also just sit in the food court with three of your buddies, play dominoes, and wait for… nothing.