Cracks in the bubble

December 14, 1992

Small merchants have often voiced the view that the media covers store closings and crime on Main Streets from coast to coast, but rarely focuses on such ills when they bedevil the large indoor shopping malls. As downtowns in big cities and small burgs alike have tried to beat back an image problem, exacerbated by a cycle of crime and store closings, the malls operated like the boy in the bubble, as immune to bad news as to bad weather. In California, the Orange County Register earned mention in media journals a few years back because it may have been the only newspaper in the nation to staff a full-time beat on shopping malls.

The Teflon, however, may be wearing thin.

It is no doubt disheartening to mall operators and shop owners alike that the ills of society seem to have found their oasis. Reports of carjackings in mall parking lots crop up a few times a month in the Baltimore area. Burglars hid in the Owings Mills and White Marsh malls at closing time in recent weeks, eluded security guards, lifted security gates, ransacked stores and stole merchandise. And the mall community at Owings Mills is still shaken by the murder last fall of a cleaning woman on a path, since closed, that linked the complex to a Metro station.

In response, some malls have schooled their merchants on improved security measures, distributed safety pointers to shoppers and have beefed up security. The Columbia-based Rouse Co., the granddaddy of suburban malls, is considering introducing bike patrols to the Mall at Columbia. Rouse already employs officers on horseback in the parking lots of some suburban New York shopping centers and has formed partnerships to set up police precincts in other malls, including Mondawmin in Baltimore.

Mall operators aren't, and shouldn't, take lightly the fears of their merchants and shoppers; an aura of safety and a sea of secure, lighted, outdoor parking have been two of the selling points that have made regional malls successful to the point where they've become the new Main Streets of America.

The case shouldn't be overstated, either. In the way that freak airplane crashes generate much more attention than the daily carnage on the highways, recent crime at the malls has made headlines because the malls have an image of being crime-free. Considering the tens of thousands of people who visit area malls daily, the number of crime victims is a minuscule fraction.

But the increasing fear of crime is real and not without basis in fact. The malls have flourished as privately run town centers, immune from the scrutiny of image-makers. They're going to have to confront this problem on their own, as well. The stakes are great, not just for themselves and their retailers, but for shoppers, and in some measure, the recovering economy.

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