With only two indoor KC malls left, one is facing dual crises

The man working the shoe-shine kiosk napped with his head in his palms.

The number of seniors exercising seemed to eclipse the ranks of shoppers.

On a cold afternoon last week, Independence Center held the hallmark smells of Auntie Anne’s pretzels and Great American Cookies. But signs on the Hallmark store upstairs announced a going-out-of-business sale — promising more vacancy at one of the Kansas City area’s last surviving indoor malls.

The rise of online shopping has threatened traditional retailers across the country. And the pandemic has only exacerbated those challenges, with dozens of mall stores closing across the Kansas City area last year.

Independence Center certainly hasn’t been spared — just last week Macy’s announced it would shutter its two-story department store there.

But the mall is facing a second threat as city leaders look to clamp down on violence in and around the area.

Like other malls, Independence Center has for years worked to limit the number of unaccompanied minors hanging around the venue. But two recent shootings have pushed the mall to beef up security and city officials to get involved.

Combined, the challenges leave many wondering if the mall can survive. Aside from reshaping the metro area’s retail mix, major disruptions at Independence Center stand to threaten city coffers, which are disproportionately reliant on sales tax revenues. And the mall is the city’s most important retail center.

The challenge facing Independence Center underscores just how drastically the fortunes of malls have changed in recent years. Two decades ago, Kansas City was home to a dozen enclosed malls.

Those included Antioch Center and Metro North Shopping Center in the Northland; Johnson County’s The Great Mall of the Great Plains, Metcalf South and Mission Center along with Indian Springs Marketplace in Kansas City, Kan.

But now, Oak Park Mall in Overland Park and Independence Center are the metro’s only remaining regional indoor malls.

The current situation has many comparing the Independence mall to Bannister Mall in south Kansas City, which suffered for years as stores closed and management increased security. At one point, so many retailers had fled that half the mall was blocked off. It closed in 2007 and was demolished in 2009.

“Remember how Bannister sat there empty for all those years? Do we really want to see that in our community?” said Lucy Young, a former Independence council member. “We’ve got to address this now before it gets any worse.”

In the early evening on New Year’s Eve, police say a fight broke out between a group of people in the Foot Locker store. They exchanged gunfire, and a 16-year-old boy was shot in the leg, requiring officers to use tourniquets to control the bleeding.

Just days later, on Jan. 4, a man was shot in the head as people inside two vehicles fired at each other in the mall’s parking lot. At the time, a police sergeant was patrolling the lot.

Mall officials did not respond to multiple requests for comment. But city leaders say they are doing all they can to help save Independence Center.

Police are working to amp up security at the mall, where the department already has a substation. They’re paying officers overtime to patrol there. Mall management has implemented strict curfews and officers temporarily checked IDs for visitors who appear under age.

“We don’t need any extra complications,” said Independence City Manager Zach Walker. “There’s already enough adversity facing those types of facilities.”

The mall is one of, if not the largest, economic engines in town. The wider southeast Independence area, home to the mall and other big box stores and strip malls, is responsible for most city sales tax revenues, Walker said.

“We’ve got to get a handle on the situation because this is a place people in our community go to spend their dollars and meet their needs,” he said. “And it’s a place where people go to work.”

In applying for a business license renewal last year, Macy’s alone reported collecting $260,000 in city sales taxes between September 2019 and September 2020. Sales tax revenues fund about $30 million of the city’s $75 million general fund.

Aside from its economic importance, the mall has become a staple for the community of more than 115,000 people. Shoppers for years have flocked there from Independence and the surrounding area to buy holiday gifts, back-to-school clothes and prom dresses.

“It really holds a special place in everybody’s hearts and minds out here,” Walker said. “So to see it struggling not only hurts financially but it’s also hard for people emotionally.”

Crimes at Kansas City malls

Malls are big venues that by their nature attract big crowds. Nearly early every mall has some history of cracking down on teenagers hanging around aimlessly and minor crimes like thefts and fights are relatively common.

The International Council of Shopping Centers says curfews are common practices implemented in malls across the country, though they generally are eventually relaxed.

But many malls have seen violent crimes, as well.

Oak Park Mall had two shootings in 2018, one indoors and one outside. Last year, prosecutors say a 60-year-old man raped a woman at that popular shopping center.

And many Kansas Citians recall the 2007 shooting at Ward Parkway Center, where David Logsdon killed two shoppers after he had killed his neighbor at home and stole her car.

For any mall, the perception of safety threats can be just as damaging as the reality.

After crowds of youths gathered at Bannister Mall in summer 1989, the south Kansas City center hired more security guards and started piping in classical music on Friday nights rather than the latest pop tunes.

Two years later, the mall banned loitering after teens crowded the food court and parking lots on weekends, according to Star archives. It also installed guard towers in the parking lots, a chilling site for many. Those were demolished five years later in favor of bicycle and golf cart patrols, but the mall never recovered from its image problems.

Often, as U.S. malls have sought to quash gatherings of teenagers, those efforts have been followed by accusations of racial profiling.

In 2014, Kansas City Police denied any racial profiling in their enforcement of city curfews. Data for the year before showed that police detained 19 Black teens for curfew violations at the Country Club Plaza, while only arresting two white minors.

Dennis Savard, an assistant professor of criminal justice at Saginaw Valley State University in Michigan, said malls must be cautious not to target minors by race. But he said many malls have worked to prevent children and teenagers from hanging around.

“I don’t want to pick on juveniles by any means, but if we look at crime statistics, who’s more likely to commit crimes when we consider age and gender? Young males,” Savard said. “So you certainly have to be cognizant of juveniles causing problems. But that doesn’t mean we can blame juveniles for all crimes at malls.”

He said malls must strike a fine balance when enhancing police and security presence. A fortress-like environment can be off-putting to shoppers and retailers alike. And though Americans have accepted heightened security measures at airports and concerts, they still expect to enter and exit most commercial places unencumbered.

“We’re a free society so to speak,” said Savard, who has written about mall crime and safety. “As Americans, we expect not to be intruded upon by security or police officers if we’re just walking around doing our normal business such as shopping at a grocery store or going to the mall.”

While retailers have long viewed the congregation of bored or rowdy teens as a deterrent to business, city leaders said the most recent incidents at the mall have created a more urgent public safety risk.

In December 2014, police said a social media-organized “flash mob” led Independence Center to lock down some stores as 200 to 300 youth congregated at the mall and some fights broke out.

In late December 2020, police called on parents to pick up their kids after multiple large disturbances and fights involving several hundred teenagers broke out, causing the mall to close early.

Police, along with mall management and local groups, had already instituted a 9 p.m. curfew for minors, which began Nov. 26. But now, no minors are allowed in the mall without a parent or legal guardian present after 3 p.m. Friday through Sunday.

On Jan. 4, investigators found about 30 shell casings, including rifle and pistol rounds, after the shootout in the parking lot.

Several witnesses who spoke with an officer — who had been working off duty at the mall’s DICK’S Sporting Goods store — said they had been “narrowly missed” by gunfire as they sat in or walked to their cars, according to court records.

Other vehicles were hit by bullets. As was the Chick-fil-A in front of the mall. A stray bullet broke one of the restaurant’s windows. Employees were inside and customers were in the drive-thru at the time.

“This could’ve been a lot worse,” Officer John Syme, a police spokesman, told reporters.

Changing mall landscape

Though the Sears store closed in 2019, signs inside Independence Center still provide directions to the vacant department store.

That store’s departure was no doubt a blow to the mall. But the impending closure of Macy’s will leave the center with only one anchor tenant, a Dillard’s department store.

Anchors are key to mall survival for two reasons: they generally lure shoppers in, providing traffic and sales to smaller retailers. And many malls allow those smaller retailers to break leases or reduce rents if anchor stores depart.

The closure of big department stores has accelerated the downfall of traditional indoor malls. Last April, experts at Green Street Advisors predicted more than half of all mall-based department stores would close by the end of 2021.

Coresight Research expects a quarter of the 1,000 U.S. malls to close over the next five years.

To stay alive, many malls have sought to add experience-based offerings such as fitness centers, children’s entertainment and movie theaters. Independence Center in 2019 removed its carousel and added climbing walls, an aerial ride, ropes courses and an arcade.

But it hasn’t kept the mall full: several storefronts still feature the signs of now-shuttered independent merchants.

“There’s a lot of empty stores in the mall,” said Teresa McDermott, who owns the 20th Century Legends store there. The seasonal store sells licensed memorabilia featuring icons like Marilyn Monroe, Star Wars and superhero franchises.

She worries that the current safety concerns will push more merchants to leave.

McDermott said she stays late some evenings stocking shelves and worries about walking out into the parking lot, which sits off the busy 39th Street.

“I don’t think vendors are going to be likely to come in if they don’t feel like there’s enough security to protect them and the patrons,” she said.

McDermott believes increased police and security presence can help reassure shoppers and retailers, while also signaling to would-be offenders that crime will not be tolerated there.

“I think there’s still hope for this mall,” she said. “We don’t have that many malls left. I’d really hate to see this mall completely go away.”

Finding a balance in mall security

For years, Independence police have occupied a small substation at the mall. The mall has also staffed up with off-duty officers on weekend nights.

But after the Dec. 31 shooting, the police department decided it needed more officers there. Operating in “emergency mode,” the city paid a dozen officers overtime to increase security, said Syme, the department spokesman.

“It’s kind of a stopgap right now,” he said.

The department has had frequent meetings with mall management. Police officials are adding more external video surveillance to the area and talking with mall staff about offering safety training.

Additionally, there will soon be electronic billboards set up around the shopping center to remind drivers about the curfew.

“We’re doing our best with the resources we have,” Syme said last week. “We also acknowledge that it’s definitely a business’ responsibility to increase their own security measures. But we’re gonna do what we can to keep people safe, because that’s our job.”

City leaders believe the mall isn’t so much a creator of crime as it is a convenient location. Sitting near the intersection of interstates 70 and 470, the mall and the vast strip malls and parking lots surrounding it make for easy meeting points.

Walker, the city manager, said the current police measures are only a temporary solution. The city can’t afford to indefinitely pay overtime for mall protection. And the 200-person police department is already understaffed: it has about 18 vacancies among its 150 or so officers budgeted to work the streets.

The city manager said the mall’s needs have forced the department to pull personnel from other areas like the sex crime and drug units. And the current shortage of officers was already increasing police response time, he said.

“We have a responsibility to make sure our police resources are available and appropriately distributed through the community,” Walker said. “When you have one disproportionate property, you need to get a handle on that so they’re not sucking resources and time.”

Two to three police officers in Overland Park routinely staff Oak Park Mall, said Officer John Lacy, a spokesman for the Overland Park Police Department. Those are often the same officers because they know the stores well, he said. The department also staffs at least two plainclothes detectives there.

Lacy said Oak Park has occasionally had its own problems, including thefts that could occur in any American mall. But he said it hasn’t seen large fights or groups of teenagers “causing a ruckus.”

Last week, Lacy warned parents against dropping their children off at the mall and thinking they have a “babysitter” in the facility.

“Don’t drop your kids off at the mall with $20 in their hand and leave them there all day,” he said.

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Kevin Hardy covers business for The Kansas City Star. He previously covered business and politics at The Des Moines Register. He also has worked at newspapers in Kansas and Tennessee. He is a graduate of the University of Kansas

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Luke Nozicka covers crime and courts for The Kansas City Star. Before joining The Star, he covered breaking news for The Des Moines Register.