Why Southridge Doesn’t Want Your Business
Its owner, Simon Property, has a history of relocating bus stops and discouraging certain kinds of customers.
These are good days for the Simon Property Group. This ever-growing mega-business is larger than all but about 60 companies in the world, with a total value or market cap of nearly $50 billion. Simon has grown earnings by 17 percent annually for the past five years, as dailyfinance.com notes, while its stock skyrocketed from $33 per share to $160 per share.
Shopping malls like Southridge are the key to that business. Simon currently owns or has an interest in more than 325 retail real estate properties in North America, Asia and Europe. Included on that list are some of the largest shopping malls in the U.S., led by Florida, where the company owns some 45 of them.
Wisconsin is a tiny part of that empire, with just five shopping malls, but Southridge, its only one in metro Milwaukee, is generating tons of bad publicity for the company. The company has a history of taking actions to discourage certain kinds of customers, often with little opposition locally, but in Milwaukee it faces a firestorm of criticism.
On November 1, Southridge moved the bus stop for the Milwaukee county bus from a location near the Sears main entrance to the edge of the mall parking lot near S. 74th St. and W. Edgerton Ave. That put the stop about 1,000 feet and across a street from the closest mall entrance, making access difficult for the disabled and elderly. As soon as the mall announced this decision, in October, the idea generated protests.
County Supervisor Patricia Jursik called on people to sign a petition opposing the move (she is still collecting signatures), and joined by protestors, met with Southridge officials but failed to budge them on the new policy.
Perhaps the most dramatic gesture of protest was a youtube video created by John Haupt, a disabled bus rider who has MS and is filmed in his wheel chair making the difficult journey from the bus stop to the mall. This got considerable coverage, including from TV news shows.
Milwaukee County officials have since referred the matter to federal authorities to determine whether the move violates civil rights law or the Americans with Disabilities Act, as the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel has reported. County Corporation Counsel Paul Bargren said that Assistant U.S. Attorney Lennie Lehman was reviewing the matter.
That has created an uncomfortable issue for Greendale Village President John R. Hermes, who tells me the TIF agreements “contained no contractual requirements regarding transit. To my knowledge, para transit services continue to operate direct to the mall entrance, allowing both elderly and individuals with disabilities direct access.” Meanwhile, he adds, “the village has, and is continuing to attempt to facilitate discussions between the County and Simon Property Group.”
Why is the mall happy to allow paratransit services direct access to the mall, but not the regular county bus? The explanations by Simon Property’s representatives have varied.
Back in 2012 the company said the issue was “noise” caused by the bus, but Hermes said he wasn’t aware of any customers complaining about this. More recently, and in response to Jursik’s group, the company said the move was made to enhance safety. Clearly it’s now less safe for riders making the 1,000 foot trek to the mall. Does moving the bus stop make things more safe for other mall customers? If so, company officials have provided no information to back up that claim.
Simon Group has given various reasons for a similar policy in other cities. In 2007, it moved bus stops to the outer edges of large parking lots in three of its shopping malls in the Pittsburgh area “because of negative feedback from customers and retailers having to navigate through large groups of people” at mall entrances.
In 2009, in Peoria, a mall owned by Simon Properties demanded a reduction in the number of bus routes to the mall, which was cut from six to two. In that case Simon Property said it was concerned about damage to the mall.
But Tom Lucek, general manager of the CityLink bus company, offered a different explanation, telling the press that it’s company policy for Simon Properties to not allow public transportation on its privately-owned malls.
That same year, Simon Property faced a lawsuit because access for the disabled was so difficult at its Cielo Vista Mall in El Paso. It’s not clear if bus stops were moved or were from the beginning set up in a place far removed from the mall, but the impact on passengers sounds similar to what’s transpired at Southridge. “The problem is people here have to travel in the street and they’ve almost been hit by cars,” said Briana Stone with the Paso Del Norte Civil Rights Project.
WTMJ radio host Gene Mueller contends the Southridge issue is really just about rowdy teens, and particularly minority terms. There’s a simple solution, he writes: ‘Take a page out of the Mayfair playbook… and slap some restrictions on who can be at Southridge and when. Dictate the terms, mandate that anyone under 18 HAS to be with a parent after, say, three p.m.”
Elsewhere, Simon Properties has taken such actions. Indeed, one newspaper credited Simon with inventing this concept in the mid-1990’s with its mega Mall of America in Minneapolis “that prohibits unescorted youth and teens on Friday and Saturday evenings.”
In Boston several area malls owned by the Simon Property Group implemented a “No Swearing” policy, aimed at foul-mouthed teenagers.
And at some of its malls in Florida, Simon Property “posts notices… to warn shoppers that loitering, disorderly conduct and dress that is ‘identified as gang-related through law enforcement intelligence’ will not be tolerated.
Similarly, its Aurora mall in Colorado posts a code of conduct that doesn’t mention “gang apparel” but requires shoppers to wear “appropriate” clothing. “Apparel that may provoke a disturbance or incite violence is prohibited,” it states.
Southridge has never suggested there was any problem with rowdy teens at the mall. And if it has moved its bus stop to make life difficult for minority teens, that seems pretty silly. They will be the least troubled by the 1,000 foot trek to the mall. Meanwhile, it’s conflicting explanations and lame PR have turned even supporters like Mueller into critics, while raising many questions about the role and responsibilities of the semi-public square that malls create in America.
Neither Simon Property Group nor Southridge responded to my request for comment. Their handling of this controversy could provide an entire chapter in a book on public relations disasters.