You’ll see something unusual if you stroll through the Muncie Mall this fall; you will notice  Hamilton desks in a storefront. No, we’re not selling the furniture. The college has leased space and moved two Urban Planning studio classes into the former Dress Barn location.

Like other malls around the country, the Muncie space is struggling. The anchor stores are gone, and smaller stores are hanging on.

Closing doors present new opportunities, and UP Chair Scott Truex was quick to seize on this one.  A certain amount of irony exists in setting up this storefront at the Muncie Mall.  Forty years ago, the fall of 1980, architecture Professor Tony Costello developed partnerships with the City of Muncie, Muncie Chamber of Commerce, and CAP to open a storefront location on Walnut Plaza.

Walnut Street had recently been closed to traffic following a Victor Gruen plan that created one-way streets and the four-block pedestrian mall.  Downtown struggled with vacant storefronts as many businesses had moved north to the new Muncie Mall and sprawling retail along the McGaillard corridor.

Truex was the graduate assistant for the Muncie Urban Design Studio (MUDS) that Costello had managed to find funding to launch. The location today is Vera Mae’s Bistro, a popular downtown business that has led the revitalization efforts of the downtown.  The downtown revitalization is not complete, but indeed it is progressing forward.

This last summer, the Delaware-Muncie Metropolitan Plan Commission began discussing the Delaware – Muncie Comprehensive Plan and the Muncie Action Plan (MAP) update. This conversation allowed the Department of Urban Planning to partner on the venture and created a public venue to host all the plan engagement activities. Building on past partnerships in Indianapolis and various planning projects, Truex suggested that a new storefront office at the mall would be ideal.

It gives the community a place to showcase ideas and conduct surveys. And it has plenty of space to allow for social distancing during events. When a professional consultant is selected to craft the community plan this fall, the storefront will provide a comfortable place for students, community leaders, and the public to work together.

Besides the fourth-year studio, Urban Planning’s third-year neighborhood studio was also partnering with the Urban Light Community Development Corporation this fall.  Led by Teresa Jeter, PhD, the students are working with a coalition of southside Muncie neighborhoods and organizations and using the mall storefront for studio classes and community meetings.

The move also freed up valuable real estate in ECAP as the new physical distancing protocols severely reduced class occupancies and space available for larger classes and gathering.

Students were wary at first, but now say they like the large space and the change in routine.

“Being at the mall allows us to interact with the community in a way that was not as easy to do before,” said junior Hannah Jones. “I like the idea of filling mall space with different uses, and the planning department has done that well!”

Teaching “out of the building,” giving students exposure and engagement opportunities in a community, has always been a learning objective for Truex.  Those early years of managing the MUDS facility, setting up community charrettes in pop-up studios around the state, and founding the CAP Indy Center made a move to the mall an easy transition. 

 “The idea that we could also help educate a community, help them understand issues, possibly put them in a framework that allows people to be more informed … the better decision making we can make, and we can get people a little closer on the same playing field in understanding those things,” he said in an interview with Inside Indiana Business with Gerry Dick earlier this month.

The initiative has received enthusiastic support from Mayor Dan Ridenour as well as other civic and public officials.  Funding support includes the Delaware-Muncie Metropolitan Plan Commission, BSU’s Office of Community Engagement, the Ball Brothers Foundation, and of course, the R. Wayne Estopinal College of Architecture and Planning.