Rolling Acres Mall in Akron, Ohio, opened in 1975 as the premier shopping destination for the surrounding community. But as customer traffic started to slow more than a decade ago, several department stores abandoned their leases, and the mall began to fail. It lost its last store tenant in 2013. Over that period, the mall was the scene of several crimes. A homeless man was sentenced to a year in prison for living inside a vacant store. Another man was electrocuted trying to steal copper wire from the mall, and the body of a likely murder victim was found behind the shopping center. The mall was still vacant last year, and it remained a safety concern — the mayor of Akron instructed residents in July to “stay clear of the area.” The city began the process of demolishing the rotting shopping center in late October.
Like Rolling Acres, shopping malls across the country are dying, and in some cases, leaving jobless communities and rotting buildings that are hotbeds for crime in their wake. As stores are boarded up one by one, shopper traffic slows and crime in the area tends to spike. Malls are big contributors to city and state taxes, jobs, and the local economy. Once they close, they are a blight on the community for a very long time.
Kevin Zent, 59, of Memphis, Tennessee, said that crime is a huge problem at malls near his home and that he no longer shops at them as a result. “Cars are keyed randomly in mall parking lots, and there is not enough security to provide the level of safety a family wants while they are at the mall,” he told Business Insider.
There were 890 reported crime incidents at one Memphis-area mall between January 1, 2012, and July 15, 2015, according to an investigation last summer by the local NBC affiliate WMC Action News.
Another example, Regency Mall in Augusta, Georgia, closed in 2002. Fifteen years later, most of the properties along Gordon Highway where it’s located are also vacant, according to WJBF. This has made it difficult to persuade developers to consider renovating the mall.
One key factor common to retail establishments, whether MMDs or restaurants, is that they generate foot traffic. And with foot traffic comes informal surveillance. As Jane Jacobs described in her groundbreaking 1961 work, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, people provide a natural form of incidental surveillance that can increase public safety. This idea, which Jacobs called “eyes upon the street,” has proven enormously influential, and is now a cornerstone of modern urban planning. The closure of a business in a low-walk-score area should have a proportionally large impact on total foot traffic. If our results were driven by eyes upon the street, we should find that, all else equal, crime is negatively related to walk scores. A quick, back-of-the-envelope cost calculation using our results and crime costs from a 2010 study suggests that an open retail business provides over $30,000 a year in social benefit just in terms of larcenies prevented. Retail businesses draw customers, and in doing so, lower crime.