What happened this summer at the Metrocenter Mall, in Jackson, Miss., was one of the worst nightmares for the center's property manager, Boise, Id.-based Grubb & Ellis Property Management.
On Friday, June 6, at 10:00 p.m., a burglar broke into the 1.3-million-square-foot regional mall, penetrated the security gates of four stores, including Lane Bryant and Victoria's Secret, and looted the registers. Metrocenter's security guard was on the premises. And several employees of a T-shirt store were on-site, completing a big last-minute order. Nevertheless, the thief managed to exploit the dimly lit mall and moved about undetected.
A month earlier, similar incidents were reported at nearby malls — in Louisiana, the Lakeside Mall in Metairie and the Cortana Mall in Baton Rouge — each taking place after the malls had closed.
What these incidents illuminate is that some of the biggest issues property managers face arise after shoppers have vacated the premises. That's when the darkness and isolation make the centers more prone to intruders. At retail centers whose tenants include movie theaters and restaurants, violence is not unheard of well past midnight. “Loitering and vandalism are probably the biggest things that go on at night,” says Brad Sebring, director of property management with the Shopping Center Group, an Atlanta-based firm with 7.5 million square feet of retail space under management. “We patrol the parking lot to make sure there is no overnight parking and use security cameras” to deter would-be vandals.
More challenging to deal with are the contractors and cleaning crews that must access the center after closing to perform authorized services. Much of the routine maintenance and construction work at a mall occurs after hours to minimize interruption to sales. From noise to the proper disposal of contaminants, mall operators and managers need to be ready to respond to a myriad of issues on-site.
“You have all of the deep cleaning, all of the parking lot cleaning that goes on through the night and until the morning,” says Larry Jensen, executive vice president and director of management with Jones Lang LaSalle Retail, an Atlanta-based management firm.
Dan Friess, founder of NightResponse, a San Juan Capistrano, Calif.-based property incident management company, adds that when you take into account the occasional overnight malfunction of a security, electrical, plumbing or HVAC system you realize just how intensive nighttime management is.
The concerns vary for neighborhood shopping centers versus malls and lifestyle centers, which typically have a late-night entertainment component on site or adjacent to the property. As a result, hundreds of people can mill around a mall's common areas and parking lot after closing, posing a higher risk for random skirmishes and vandalism. In many instances, the offenders are teens. As a result, in recent years, an increasing number of mall owners across the United States have instituted teen curfews. The ICSC estimates at least 57 U.S. malls require a parental escort for teens at night and/or on the weekends, up from 39 in March 2007.
Jensen recommends that operators keep the mall's parking lot lights on and security guards on duty after all the entertainment venues close. Scheduling periodic patrols by the police in marked and unmarked cruisers overnight also serves as a deterrent, says Rose Evans, vice president of property management with Levin Management Corp., a North Plainfield, N.J.-based firm with 12.4 million square feet of retail space in its portfolio.
For more calculated security breaches, such as someone attempting to drive a car into a mall entrance, Jensen recommends placing bollards at mall and anchor store entrances. “It's a best practice for us; we share those across our portfolio.”
Another recurring situation involves nearby residents using shopping centers as drop-off sites for unwanted furniture and household appliances, especially in towns that impose fees for the disposal of such items. The items can also include old tires and construction debris, and when they are found at the center, mall management could pay several hundred dollars to dispose of them and pass on the costs to tenants in CAM charges.
Levin uses security cameras to identify violators, keeps lights on at the rear of its properties to make the practice risky and removes the garbage as soon as possible to discourage further dumping.
“If you let it go, the word spreads that people can dump things at your shopping center,” says Robert Carson, executive vice president with Levin.
However, the incidents happen so infrequently that they don't warrant the cost for increased security.
Then, there is graffiti. The unwanted artwork routinely shows up during the summer on the exteriors of many shopping centers, in spite of owners' best efforts to keep kids off their properties after hours. At one of Levin's newer properties, management has already had to repaint the entire rear section, which cost hundreds of dollars. To stop the suspected teens from repeat performances, Levin has it whitewashed the very next morning. The company also found that public punishment is an effective deterrent.
About a decade ago, a couple of policemen on overnight patrol caught a teen in the act of defacing Chatham Plaza, a 31,241-square-foot shopping center in Chatham, N.J. The teen was given a choice of either facing prosecution or repainting the shopping center himself. He chose to do the paint job and the graffiti problem disappeared, Carson says.
That brings up another important point — property managers should try as much as they can to work in conjunction with local police departments. Levin's staff schedules regular meetings with the police to talk about potential problems and makes sure they don't forget to drive by the company's centers during the night.
“The police are stretched, but they do pay attention to the shopping centers if you keep in touch with them,” says Carson.
Harder to resolve are issues with contractors. Some insist on making pickups and deliveries overnight. Several years ago, Levin installed a bollard and chain on the gates at Paramus Place, a 261,904-square-foot center in Paramus, N.J., because a waste management firm repeatedly picked up the garbage late at night, disturbing nearby residents with the noise. “We've had a few interesting incidents where people drove through the chain to make a delivery,” says Carson.
It wasn't until a local resident contacted the police department and the contractor received a summons that the incidents stopped, says Carson.
Construction work can also pose a challenge, according to Jensen. The property manager has to make sure that the workers, who often come in after hours, don't create a lot of noise or throw debris out into areas that will be used by customers the next morning.
Not all nighttime concerns are the result of humans causing mischief.
A mundane incident like an overflowing toilet can become a serious issue if it is not dealt with in a timely manner, according to Friess. At one of the centers serviced by NightResponse, this late-night occurrence resulted in a leak in the ceiling of the store below. NightResponse had to mitigate the water damage as soon as possible to spare the owner from having to pay the insurance deductible.
But the company solves human issues as well. When it received a complaint that a homeless man regularly slept at a client's property, NightResponse started making random visits to the center until it caught the vagrant in the act.
A former property manager himself, Freiss explains that he founded NightResponse after realizing the different skill set nighttime management required.
“You have to be part manager, part maintenance technician, part janitor and part security guard.”