Fabio Goes Shopping at Lafayette Square

The abandoned Lafayette Square Mall Fabio de la Cruz is redeveloping
Once the site of an L.S. Ayres department store, this corner of Lafayette Square Mall currently sits empty.

The security alarm sounds at 9:55 a.m. on a sunny Monday in May. The source of the high-pitched squeal is hard to pinpoint as it bounces off the barbed wire–topped walls that protect the lots of several nearby businesses. Most of the dignitaries, reporters, and even police officers gathered on the fresh blacktop in front of the new IMPD Northwest District headquarters between Lafayette Road and West 38th Street seem not to care or even notice. They just raise their voices over the incessant electronic scream.

The collective shrug underscores the reason for this gathering of 40 or so people—including Mayor Joe Hogsett, City-County Council President Vop Osili, and other local officials—for the ribbon-cutting ceremony of a state-of-the-art police station. It’s no secret that this area has seen a rise in crime over the past several decades as big-name retail, offices, and outside investment have fled. IMPD Northwest Commander Lorenzo Lewis mentions that this new space is conveniently located within minutes of about five major hotspots that he monitors daily.

But neither Lewis nor IMPD Chief Randal Taylor chose this location. Neither did the mayor or the City-County Council. The spot was selected by the man who owns the property and says he fronted millions of dollars to build the 14,000-square-foot facility complete with a holding cell, two interview rooms, evidence technician room, bicycle room, gym, kitchen, wellness room, and a 35-seat community space—the first purpose-built IMPD headquarters in almost 30 years. The benefactor is the only person not elected to office or in uniform seated beside the podium as the proceedings begin, and yet his name is on the lips of every person who steps to the microphone.

“A stakeholder came to us and said he wanted to do this for us,” says Lewis to the crowd. “We talk about community police, but forget how important our business owners and landlords are. Let me introduce Mr. Fabio de la Cruz.”

De la Cruz walks to the podium, put together in a crisp black suit, white shirt, and arrow-straight yellow-and-blue-striped tie. His salt-and-pepper hair is a bit too naturally curly to cooperate with an attempt at slicking it back. His pristine white teeth, perfectly aligned, are slightly large for his mouth, creating the effect of a smile even when the rest of his face seems strained. In a thick Argentinian accent, he tells the crowd that part of his commitment to the safety of the neighborhood is related to wanting that for his young son—even though both the boy and de la Cruz now live 1,000 miles away in Tampa. And while he speaks publicly about what this police station will do for the community, he doesn’t hesitate afterward to point out that “it is essential for me to have 200 agents in the heart of my neighborhood” to protect his investment.

All of this may seem like an elaborate production, and it is. In fact, his real name isn’t even Fabio de la Cruz. But the self-made real estate developer appears to have the resources to transform an entire neighborhood. The crowd applauds as de la Cruz helps wield a pair of oversized scissors to cut the ribbon, but the completion of this construction project is only the beginning of his plan to use $200 million, much of it his own cash, to redevelop more than 300 acres of property—including the largely abandoned Lafayette Square Mall—in the beleaguered westside neighborhood. He says he is doing so not as a high-minded philanthropic gesture, but rather because he wants to bolster investments he’s already made in the area. If it rejuvenates a once-vibrant commercial center, then all the better.

No one knows quite what to make of Mr. de la Cruz. The city is currently in the process of vetting him and his plans as part of the due process in considering his application for tax incentives. IMPD eagerly signed a 10-year lease on the spiffy new police headquarters. The neighborhood’s leaders seem to believe in him and his vision for their future. But local commercial real estate experts have a very different perspective. While they have no reason to doubt his motives, many of them openly wonder if de la Cruz can actually pull it off.

Fabio de la Cruz profile photograph
Fabio de la Cruz

THE MAN IS 51 years old, but the persona of Fabio de la Cruz was created in May 2021. That was when he also changed the name of his company from Perez Realty Group to Sojos Capital LLC. For a couple years, he had been gradually buying up properties in the neighborhood, including Lafayette Plaza and Pike Plaza. But now he was about to put the pieces together and publicly announce a multimillion-dollar plan that was going to draw attention, and even though he had been doing business locally for two decades, he wanted to add an additional layer of protection against kidnappers and thieves that might target him and his family, especially when they visited his native Argentina. (He confirmed his real name with Indianapolis Monthly, but we elected not to publish out of respect for his concerns about safety.)

That announcement came in November when de la Cruz held a press conference at the Global Village Welcome Center, a museum of art and cultural artifacts from nations with immigrant populations in this area located across from Lafayette Square Mall. The museum is operated by the International Marketplace Coalition, a nonprofit seeking to harness this massive influx of émigrés and the more than 900 small ethnic shops and restaurants they’ve built to revitalize the neighborhood. De la Cruz’s choice of setting was deliberate. He called his project “Window to the World.”

The first phase of the endeavor centered on nearby Lafayette Square Mall, which had been abandoned by large retail after Macy’s left in 2009. Since that time, the vacant smaller spaces had been replaced by a handful of locally owned stores and restaurants. De la Cruz’s vision was built on that foundation of the mom-and-pop shops providing authentic flavors of their native countries in a melting pot that would draw interest from the rest of the region. The mall would be its anchor. “The mall as we know it is no longer viable,” he said at the conference. “I see this less as a mall than as a small neighborhood.”

While this redevelopment would be the antithesis of so many high-end gentrification projects going on around the city, de la Cruz’s goals are no less audacious. He says he’s going to fill the huge mall anchor spaces once occupied by J.C. Penney, Sears, and Macy’s with offices, an event space, and a boutique hotel. He has unveiled plans for new construction of about 200 multifamily rental units outside of the mall and transforming other existing buildings into a bike shop, coffee shop, and veterinary office. He proposes a trail running alongside Little Eagle Creek that would encompass the entire campus. And he mentions other nearby projects already in the works, including two sports complexes, a trampoline park, a movie theater, and the new police headquarters.

Perhaps more noteworthy than the scale of de la Cruz’s ambition is how he plans to make it a reality. He intends to spend $200 million, almost all of it in cash that he claims he already has in hand. He says that he has a silent investor, but refuses to name them or clarify the level of their investment. While all the money may not belong to de la Cruz, he claims much of it does. And more importantly, when it comes to the ultimate decisions of what to do with that capital, de la Cruz says that the buck stops with him.

Of course, westside residents have welcomed his arrival with open arms. “This announcement has brought people back to the area to appreciate what we already have here,” says Mary Clark, executive director of the International Marketplace Coalition, who has been working in the area for decades. “The community loves that there’s a developer who has decided to reinvest.”

Commercial real estate experts, on the other hand, have their doubts. And before they can wrap their minds around exactly “how” de la Cruz is going to accomplish this, they need to answer the question of  “who.” Who exactly does this guy think he is? And who is he, really?

“If his name was Herb Simon, that would be a different story. He has decades of successful projects under his belt,” says Gordon Hendry, managing director with HRE Advisors, who also served as director of economic development under Mayor Bart Peterson. “As enthusiastic as I am about the redevelopment of Lafayette Square, I have a healthy bit of skepticism. Commercial real estate is a highly complex, specialized business—not for the faint of heart. You can’t just come in and be taken seriously. He has chosen to shield his identity, and I feel like there should be more transparency in terms of his investors.”

DE LA CRUZ was in his early 30s and running a communication tech company called Quark IT in Argentina when that country’s great depression wiped him out. The four-year economic crisis shrank the Argentine economy by 28 percent and left half of the country’s population in poverty. De la Cruz scraped together what he could of the debt owed by his former clients and moved to Miami in 2001. He wanted to go further into computers, but realized that to do so in the U.S., he needed to learn English—which he found difficult as a dishwasher in the Spanish-speaking south Florida city.

But his first wife had a sister who lived in Indianapolis, and every time they came to visit, de la Cruz was struck by the apparent building and improvements going on. “I liked the drive of the city,” says de la Cruz, his voice echoing in the freshly drywalled conference room of Sojos Capital’s new headquarters inside Lafayette Square Mall. “Every time I came, I saw some new project.”

In 2002, he moved to Indy, where he took a job as a busboy at a northside Don Pablo’s. But he was an avid reader and listener of audiobooks, honing his English and diving into different subjects like economics, investing, and business. He joined investors clubs and attended seminars. “Most people I know who are successful are successful because they are committed to everyday learning,” he says.

Eventually, he was hired by America Saving Mortgage as a loan officer working with a range of clients, including many within Indy’s growing Hispanic community. He wasn’t good at selling loans, and he says the pay was far below his aspirations. But in that position, he got a glimpse of real estate investing, and he was fascinated. Most of what he learned at that time was from audiobooks, and he even studied to be a home inspector just for the background. When he got his real estate license in 2004, he went to work selling residential property for Century 21 at the Crossing.

“He was a brand-new real estate agent, recently licensed, and his English was not fantastic; he could speak but not write,” says Tim O’Connor, then owner of Century 21 at the Crossing. “But he was very driven, and he would talk about coming to the U.S. without anything and struggling to make things work. He had no problem being a salesman. In a short time, he became one of the top producers in an office of 100 agents.”

De la Cruz credits his rapid ascent to a unique understanding of his clients. When would-be buyers came to him with bad credit, no credit, or limited means, he would always accommodate them anyway, meeting with them and even walking them through the properties they clearly couldn’t afford. His fellow agents made fun of him for wasting his time. But de la Cruz just couldn’t turn them away. He says many of these clients were immigrants who, he knew all too well, were used to dealing in cash because of the unreliability of financial institutions back in their home countries. And even if they couldn’t make a realistic offer or a deposit for rent at the time, de la Cruz believed that these were future customers who just needed time to get their feet beneath them and that they would remember his generosity when they were ready to buy. That bet paid off. He says that not only did those people come back to him, but they also sent their friends and family to him as well. “All these people were dying to rent from me,” he says. “And they were not trying to rip me off. In the end, I have thousands of people who want to create riches for me. I found that when I did the right thing, I was always overcompensated for it.”

[pullquote align=”left” caption=”Mary Clark”]”I get people being nonbelievers. Because who does this? But he has businesses here, he knows the community, and he believes in us.”[/pullquote]

Never a big spender on material things, de la Cruz says he instead invested most of his profits back into single-family real estate. A lot of his properties were located on the west side, including the Lafayette Square neighborhoods along 38th Street. “When [de la Cruz] worked an area,” says O’Connor, “he really worked an area.” As he continued buying and renting homes there, he saw the immigrant population rise and the retail continue to disappear. Quickly realizing the importance of stable commercial properties to support his residential portfolio, de la Cruz branched out and started buying up empty storefronts, strip malls, and shopping centers. In 2007, he broke off to form his own company, Perez Realty Group.

Not long after this, de la Cruz met Clark, who had witnessed the slow decline of the neighborhood and led a successful campaign to bring a Walmart to Lafayette Road, just down the street from the mall. But after that failed to revitalize the area, Clark and her fellow organizers pivoted to accentuating the grassroots ethnic-business community that was growing organically. “I knew that [de la Cruz] was into real estate development,” says Clark. “He’d reach out to me and ask about buying certain properties in the area. I’d tell him, ‘You need to buy the mall.’ He’d say, ‘Mary, that’s too big of an apple to chew.’”

Instead, he focused on the bite-sized fruits of his operations. He would buy a strip mall, paint the exterior, repair the broken parking lot, and replace dim and broken lighting with bulbs that could be seen five blocks away. He says he’d sometimes lower rent and vet his tenants not based on credit reports or even whether they paid on time, but rather on his perception of their character. “When I rent to someone based on character, even if they fail, they’re going to be nice enough to give me the keys back,” he says.

Then in 2016, de la Cruz abruptly retired—sort of. He says his current wife was tired of the cold Indiana winters, so he moved the family to Tampa. He ran Perez Realty from afar, but began building a team, growing the company by a double-digit percentage annually, while he slowly stepped away to spend more time at the beach and playing tennis. His frequent opponent was an investor who took an interest in de la Cruz’s business and asked about putting some money into Perez Realty. De la Cruz demurred, telling the man that he did not work with partners. He believed in maintaining autonomy over all major decisions, which is why he preferred to work in cash.

But after three years of Gulf Coast leisure, de la Cruz says he started to get the itch. His company was growing back in Indianapolis and, unable to turn off the business side of his brain, he began to obsess on a more holistic approach to investing in the neighborhood back home. Just as he had come to realize years ago that his residential properties needed to be bolstered by businesses, he now saw that his commercial properties could use an infusion of activity, entertainment, and other attractions. He saw the steady rise of ethnic restaurants and stores as something unique in that part of the city. The proximity of the location to downtown, the interstate, and the Speedway could make it a destination, he thought.

In 2019, at the beginning of the housing boom, de la Cruz says he liquidated almost all his residential holdings. He returned to his tennis partner with the idea of combining assets to set up a fund separate from Perez Realty that would invest in larger commercial properties. He planned to get off the beach and back in his suit.

About this time, Clark says, she got a phone call from Florida: “Mary, you’re not going to believe this,” said de la Cruz on the other end of the line, “but I think I’m ready to buy the mall.”

“MY INITIAL REACTION was, ‘I can’t believe it,’” says Mark Perlstein, first vice president of CBRE commercial real estate firm. “I think it’s much bigger than a one-investor project. You need a team of people who are knowledgeable about retail, restaurants, and residential. It takes a lot of creativity to make what they see happen.”

Perlstein is far from alone in his incredulity.

“I don’t think you necessarily need to have lots of investors—everyone has debt and equity,” says Abbe Hohmann, president and owner of Indy-based real estate consultancy Site Strategies Advisory. “But the question is: Is the financing sufficient? Whether or not it’s all his or there are investors, it’s all about having the financial resources and the development expertise. There are no guarantees even with those.”

De la Cruz understands the skepticism. First, he realizes that in the world of big-time developers where name recognition and track record are currency, he is a largely unknown and unproven commodity. In fact, he says that years before he bought the mall, he inquired with the owners of an adjacent property, and they wouldn’t even return his calls. When he finally got a hold of them, they told him that they didn’t know who he was, and they didn’t talk to “everyday Joes.” At that time, de la Cruz wouldn’t have considered buying the mall because even he felt his team wasn’t big or diversified enough to tackle such a project. Now, he says, Sojos has a group of experts in retail, residential, restaurants, hospitality, and permits that gives him the knowledge base from which to make informed decisions.

As for the money: So far, de la Cruz has put it where his mouth is. Not only does he own about 50 properties in Indianapolis, most of them outright, as of February, he also applied for tax incentives from the city, the details of which are still under wraps pending approval. What’s more, he has made clear investments in the community. In addition to the completed police headquarters, he put a new roof and HVAC system in the mall at a cost of $10 million. He has also set up free training programs for local business owners that cover things such as social media management, website creation, money management, and even restaurant menu design. He says more progress is just around the corner, with deals pending for both the new cinema and trampoline park.

“I get people being nonbelievers,” says Clark. “Because who does this? But he has businesses here, he knows the community, and he believes in us.”

Meanwhile, the city is still deciding if it believes in de la Cruz, or at least whether it needs to get involved. Representatives with the Indy Chamber and the Department of Metropolitan Development say that Sojos Capital has only applied for tax increment financing for the housing component of the project. Though they couldn’t go into details because the process is ongoing, they say the plans and applications are being reviewed by an attorney and a municipal adviser to gauge the projected tax implications and potential economic impact for the city.

“Typically, if a project is seeking financial aid, they provide a demonstration of their plans so we can understand the feasibility,” says DMD Director Scarlett Andrews, an appointee of Mayor Hogsett speaking on his behalf. “We want to take our time to see if the city is going to be participating.”

When asked whether de la Cruz’s solitary approach was unusual, both Andrews and Indy Chamber Vice President Portia Bailey-Bernard gave a collective shrug. They say they’re seeing a lot of district-based, multiphase proposals, mentioning Elevator Hill, Bottleworks, and the Stutz. And they say that some of those, like de la Cruz’s proposal, feature a single developer. “It’s not totally uncommon,” says Andrews. “Every developer in any expertise has their own capacity.”

De la Cruz believes the limits of his own capacity are generally misunderstood by the naysayers. He acknowledges that the mall is the most visible centerpiece of this ambitious endeavor, and he accepts that the building’s fate will likely determine the public perception of whether he is successful. But he points out that the mall is actually a small part of the roughly 300 acres he owns in the neighborhood. And much of that is the three anchors that he knows will be difficult to repurpose. The rest is already partially occupied with local businesses. Outside of the mall, his properties, such as Lafayette Plaza, Pike Plaza, Apple Creek Shoppes, and Lafayette Place Shopping Center are all well-maintained, visually appealing from the curb, and, most importantly, largely occupied with cars in the parking lot.

“In the end, everyone is going to talk about the mall, but it’s not my whole economic picture,” de la Cruz says. “As long as I can keep fixing up the neighborhood, more and more people will try to be here and have their businesses here, and they can keep paying me rent. I’m an investor. We look at the long term. If you do the right thing, in the long run, it will pay off.”