Metrocenter mall fights crime stigma to get back in the shopping game

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PHOENIX – Metrocenter Mall was built in the early 70's in the heyday of the regional mall. But competition grew, and then there was crime. Within the last ten years, there were months where dozens of cars were stolen.

That's no longer the case, and now there are new owners and a new reality of lower rents and local businesses as the mall tries to make a comeback.

Metrocenter has a glorious past that many people in Phoenix still remember.

“Metrocenter was the place to be,” said Commander Chuck Miiller of the Phoenix Police Department.

Miiller said when they were in high school, no one ever asked where they were meeting after a football game.  Everyone cruised the giant oval shaped road around the mall and hung out in the vast parking lot.

Today it is a different place, an example of changes in American shopping habits and the dog eat dog world of retail competition.

“When I come over here, I see empty spaces like crazy,” said Lee Arison who was at the mall with his wife.

It is true. There are a lot of empty store fronts. But on a recent Monday afternoon, there were also plenty of people.

“It appears to already be working,” said general manager, Brent Meszaros.

Meszaros is bullish on Metrocenter's future after Carlyle Development Group bought it in January for only $12.2 million.

“Not only did we get the building for less money,” Meszaros said.  “But now we can offer lower rates to entice new tenants to come in, or keep tenants we want to stay.”

Meszaros said low rents are attracting local businesses and national chains wanting to test new concepts.  But the old Broadway building and JC Penney are empty.  Dillard’s building is for sale.

“We're over 70% occupied, so we still got a great base of tenants,” Meszaros said.

Attracting a new generation to its air conditioned expanse is also about combating recent history.

“This was a high traffic area for stolen automobiles,” Commander Miiller said. “Then over five years, working with security, we worked hard to make sure people who came here, when you left the business their cars were here.”

To some extent Metrocenter still struggles with a perception versus reality problem. Police say the crimes numbers are way down and 86 security cameras on site have a lot to do with that.

“No mischief please,” Meszaros said with a laugh as he proudly showed us the security station in the middle of the mall where guards monitor the cameras.

Last summer, they knew there was a string of catalytic converter thefts at area businesses. Metrocenter guards spotted two men in the parking lot as they stole a catalytic converter from a truck. They recorded the evidence and police arrested the men.

“It's a big deterrent,” Meszaros said of the cameras. “We want people to know this is not the place to do this kind of stuff”

Commander Miiller said the numbers show improvement.

“Property crimes dropped over 75% over those five years in addition to violent crimes, assaults, robberies also dropping over 25%,” said Miiller.

“Jordans, new?” Randy Dixon asks a young customer in the Finish Line store.  “Low-top, high top what do you want?”

Dixon is the manager of the store.  He said he knew sales numbers at the store were low, but he still likes where Metrocenter is going.

“The way that everything is running now,” Dixon said.  “Actually haven't seen anything that would have me believe this is not going in the right direction.”

Meszaros is very candid when he says the mall will never be what it once was.  There is too much competition.  So they are looking at different businesses long term, perhaps assisted living, a medical office and a college campus to fill some of the empty space.  He expects to have a number of new tenants by Christmas.