The Marquette Mall in Michigan City could be successfully redeveloped, consultants suggest. Staff photo by Joseph S. Pete
The Marquette Mall in Michigan City could be successfully redeveloped, consultants suggest. Staff photo by Joseph S. Pete
MICHIGAN CITY — Once bustling with shoppers, mall walkers and traffic, the Marquette Mall and Office Tower in Michigan City died a slow death with Sears shuttering the last remaining department store in 2019.

But the half-century-old indoor mall at the otherwise commercially vibrant intersection of Franklin Street and U.S. 20 in Michigan City may soon get new life.

Michigan City and the Economic Development Corp. Michigan City commissioned Tennessee-based consulting firm Town Planning and Urban Design Collaborative to come up with a redevelopment plan that would radically reshape the mall to a more currently viable concept. EDCMC Executive Director Clarence Hulse said his agency was in talks with potential developers about reimagining the space, including by potentially adding housing, public spaces and more dining destinations.

"It had some great times in the 1970s, but it's been dead for some time," Hulse said. "We brought in redevelopment experts who know what's happening across the country to chart out strategies to prospective developers. It's a concert for the owners before they put their property on the market."

The Marquette Mall and Office Tower opened in 1967 with ads touting "acres of free parking." It was once home to more than 50 stores, including K-B Toys, Readers World, A&P Food Store, Smith Shoes and Milady Shop. But it got overshadowed by the Lighthouse Place Premium Outlets in downtown Michigan City, an outdoor shopping center that simultaneously offered more prestigious brands and lower discount prices.

Indoor malls across the country also have fallen into decline, including the razed Woodmar Mall in Hammond, the empty Century Mall in Merrillville and the largely vacant The Village Shopping Center in Gary.

The interior of the Marquette Mall closed in 2017 after the JCPenney shuttered. It lost the Carson's to a national bankruptcy in 2018 and then the Sears the same way a year later as traditional department stores struggled mightily in an era of e-commerce.

"The face of retail has changed and will continue to change. People are no longer as interested in going to the big-box mall and are instead drawn to more experience-oriented, mixed-use environments where they can shop, eat, play, and live," TPUDC said in its report. "In response to this change, 20th-century malls across the country are being transformed into vibrant 21st-century mixed-use neighborhoods. The Marquette Mall and Office Tower property is an underutilized mall with the great potential to become a vibrant retail-commercial-residential neighborhood."

Today, the mall functions as an overbuilt strip mall with the few remaining tenants like Planet Fitness, GNC, Sake Asian Fusion and the Michigan City Welcome Center facing the traffic on Franklin Street. Spirit Halloween usually pops up in vacant space there this time of year.

"The Marquette Mall was once a thriving mall in the center of the city but has been predominantly vacant for decades," TPUDC said in its report. "It is in a prime location in a TIF District at the busiest intersection in the City and two miles from the South Shore Commuter train that goes into downtown Chicago. There is market demand for a variety housing types in the area but a lack of options, making this site ideally situated for a mixed-use development. Both the city and community are eager to work with a developer to transform this 20th-century mall into a 21st-century live-work-play neighborhood."

The consultant laid out a vision for reimagining the space to be more modern, pedestrian-friendly and vibrant. It's looking to bring new life into the 593,155 square feet of space that is largely underutilized. Only five tenants, including a day dare center, remain in the mall.

The movie theater is empty.

The seven-story 68,000-square-foot office tower is only 20% occupied, mostly by the post office on the first floor.

Hulse said the city and economic development agency were working with the three main owners of the 62.58 acres that make up the Marquette Mall and Office Tower property.

The plan imagines neighborhood streets lined with trees. The asphalt parking lot would be replaced with townhomes, mixed-use buildings and cafes with bistro tables and al fresco dining.

Part of the mall would potentially be demolished to reconfigure the space to be more open and airy. Plazas would be surrounded by shops, restaurants, housing, offices and parks, including a trailhead leading to Ruby Woods across the street. It could even have a food hall.

"This concept plan for the Marquette Mall and Office Tower property addresses the changing face of retail. It transforms the property from a primarily vacant mall and office tower within a sea of parking into a live-work-play environment," TPUDC said in its report. "It offers consumers the smaller format, experiential retail in a mixed-use environment that they are looking for and provides a mix of housing types that Michigan City needs. In the plan, the core of the mall structure is preserved, but transformed into a lively, welcoming environment. The indoor mall corridor that connects the repurposed anchors is now open air in places, creating an indoor/outdoor active, welcoming paseo with shops and cafes fronting onto it."

The office tower would remain and be flanked by shorter commercial buildings along the street. A pedestrian pathway would connect the office tower and the central plaza.

New east-west and north-south streets would subdivide the massive property into more pedestrian-oriented blocks. Kabelin Ace Hardware would be moved to a new mixed-use building. Rows of townhomes and multifamily apartments would provide housing, including to local healthcare workers and commuters taking the South Shore Line to Chicago.

The economic development agency has pitched the redevelopment plans to prospective developers in Chicago, Detroit, Atlanta and Las Vegas, Hulse said. The city is willing to partner with any developers by using tax-increment financing funding to do demolition, build infrastructure or otherwise ready the site for new investment.

Developers have been expressing interest and reaching out to property owners.

"The open village concept is the national trend," Hulse said. "We want to bring to the table what could happen when it goes to the market because it's in the middle of a high-traffic retail area. You could bring in more modern shops and restaurants that would complement a lot of the chains. It would be an opportunity to bring more of the independent mom-and-pop shops to the southern part of the city."

Redevelopment plans would likely incorporate all of the existing businesses that remain at the mall to preserve and build on what's already there.

"This will be a significant game changer for the south side of the city," Hulse said. "The Marquette Mall has been dying on the vine. We could see a multi-layered entertainment and shopping mix with more mom-and-pops and independents. This would bring in new shopping, new resident and anchor the southern side of the city."

There would be a psychological benefit from preventing the Marquette Mall from becoming an eyesore and restoring some of its past glory, Hulse said.

"It's exciting," he said. "It's a game changer that will benefit the whole city."
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