As local activists push for stronger steps to curb disruptive gatherings by teenagers at local shopping malls, Simon Property Group is standing by a corporate policy against restricting access to its properties.
Unlike other mall owners, Indianapolis-based Simon generally opposes using curfews or escort policies requiring an adult to accompany teens on Friday and Saturday evenings.
Simon spokesman Les Morris said the company has such a policy at just one of its malls — Town Center at Aurora in Aurora, Colo., where a woman was shot and killed outside a Champs store in 2005. The mall’s youth-escort policy took effect the same year, according to research by the International Council of Shopping Centers, or ICSC. The policy applies to anyone under 17 after 5 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays.
Simon, the world's largest retail real estate company, owns 317 retail properties, including 160 traditional malls.
The ICSC counts more than 70 malls nationwide that have some kind of curfew or escort policy. At least 21 policies have gone into effect since the start of 2008, despite retailers’ suffering from a recession-driven drop in consumer spending.
The TenPoint Coalition, a local group of volunteers who patrol downtown, asked Simon to set a youth-escort policy at Circle Centre mall after a Jan. 26 incident in which a teen who’d been kicked out of the mall fired his gun outside, said the Rev. Charles Harrison, chairman of TenPoint.
Simon declined. The company reiterated its position after March 9 melees around Castleton Square Mall drew a huge police response. Two teens were arrested outside the nearby McDonald’s on 82nd Street — one for carrying an unlicensed gun — after a fight that drew a crowd of 15 to 20. About an hour later, police responded to a disturbance at the mall, where three more teens were arrested for fighting and knocking over a clothing rack in the Sears.
“I’m not sure what the fascination is with escort policies as a panacea for this stuff,” Morris said.
Harrison figures that if teens can’t gather at malls on weekends, they’ll be more easily lured to a community center, which TenPoint would like to establish.
“It’s the only alternative that I see right now to address the problem at the malls,” Harrison said. “We know that malls across the country that are having the same problem have gone to that.”
Morris said Simon prefers to rely on its own high-tech security measures, which he declined to detail for confidentiality reasons. A youth-escort policy would mean posting guards at every mall entrance, he noted. “At a center like Castleton, think about how many entrances that is.”
Simon also believes excluding teens would be bad for business, considering they’re the target audience for so many retailers. In Aurora, Morris said, “the mall manager told me it has, obviously, cost us a lot of business.”
Mall managers that use the curfew policies claim just the opposite. They contend that the return of adult shoppers on weekends can help sales.
CBL & Associates Properties, based in Chattanooga, Tenn., imposes youth-escort policies at 24 of its 100 malls. The effect on sales is either neutral or positive, depending on the retailer, vice president of marketing Barb Faucette said.
The teens end up shopping at a different time of day, Faucette said. “They come to shop; that is the key.”
Faucette said escort policies do drive up security costs, but they’re effective. “Once the program is implemented, rarely have we had any issues,” she said. “I think it’s becoming more commonplace now.”
Teens are still allowed to go to mall restaurants and movie theaters after 6 p.m. on weekends, Faucette said.
The Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department would welcome an escort policy at local malls if Simon was willing to implement one, spokeswoman Linda Jackson said. “I’m sure it would be helpful,” she said. “Any tool we can put in our tool belt, it wouldn’t hurt.”
Since that’s not an option right now, IMPD has ramped up its presence downtown on weekends. And Castleton Square management met with the department’s north-side commander Tuesday and agreed to take stronger steps to dispel teen crowds, Jackson said. Security will now break up groups of more than four teenagers at the mall.
Taking the same step downtown is unlikely. Indianapolis Mayor Greg Ballard said requiring teens to be accompanied by an adult on weekends at Circle Centre would be impractical, especially since the mall is a magnet for young convention-goers. “When the FFA comes to town, are we going to escort them?” he asked, referring to one of the city's largest regular conventions.
Other malls in town also attract convention visitors, Ballard said, and he wouldn’t want them to be affected, either. “Nobody wants what’s happening to happen,” he said. “It flares up occasionally. We tamp it back down.”
Could Simon be held liable if someone is shot inside a mall? Carmel litigator Jeffrey Zipes, who has represented retail clients in liability lawsuits, said it's generally more difficult to prove a property owner's liability for a third party's criminal activity. "There's less they can do about it. It's less foreseeable," he said.
But it also depends on circumstances leading up to the incident, Zipes said. "If you're in a crime-ridden area, the store's chances of being held culpable for that are much greater."
Simon also has to consider the potential legal costs associated with making it more difficult for certain groups of people to visit the mall.
After meeting with Simon respresentatives, Harrison said he suspected a fear of perceived racial discrimination is a factor in the company's reluctance to limit teen-age access. “You got the sense, the racial issues, that was the big elephant in the room,” he said.
Simon's Morris said allegations of racial bias did not become an issue after Simon started requiring youth escorts in Aurora. He said there are other reasons for not implementing the policy elsewhere. “We don’t think it’ll work operationally," he said. "Philosophically, we’re opposed to it.”