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Stopping Malls

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Donald Cooper says he's been shopping at West Mifflin's Century III Mall since it opened in 1979. But the Homestead resident vows he won't spend another dime there.

Cooper is a bus rider, and since Nov. 23, bus service to the mall has been scaled back dramatically. Simon Property Group, which manages the mall, says the Port Authority wouldn't help pay for roadway wear and tear caused by the buses. But bus riders like Cooper -- whose trips to the mall have been complicated by the cutbacks -- say mall management is to blame.

"It ain't the Port Authority," says Cooper. "[Mall management] doesn't give a shit about people who don't have a vehicle."

Cooper voiced his displeasure while standing at a bus stop in front of the West Mifflin Wal-Mart, which is where the weekday 35A (Baldwin-Whitehall) and 59A (West Mifflin-North Versailles) buses now terminate their routes. From there, a walk to the mall takes roughly 25 minutes across hilly terrain, which is not exactly pedestrian-friendly.

"Because of that, I don't go to the mall anymore," says Cooper. "I'm not going to walk to spend my money."

Cooper could continue his bus ride to the mall by transferring to the 51C or the 55M. But those routes, as well as the 46G (Elizabeth), have been scaled back as well. The 51C, for instance, stops at Century III 32 times each weekday, down from 56 daily visits before Nov. 23. In all, the Port Authority says, weekday trips to the mall have been cut in half. (No weekend routes have been cut.)

Cooper suspects that mall managers are trying to discourage bus riders from visiting.

"It's kind of messed up," says Cooper, who now does his shopping at the Monroeville Mall. "My money's not good enough for you because I'm not driving a vehicle?"

"They think people who take the buses are poor," interjects Homestead resident Ron Schubert, who is standing with Cooper at the Wal-Mart stop.

Simon Property spokesperson Stacey Pabis declined to answer questions from a City Paper reporter, but she did release a statement blaming the Port Authority for the route cuts. In the past, according to the statement, the mall alone has paid for road maintenance.

"When it became obvious that the bus roadway needed to be upgraded ... Century III approached the Port Authority to share in a small portion of the total $150,000 expense and was rebuffed," the statement reads. "We questioned the logic of cutting routes instead of simply reducing the frequency of some of the heavier routes but the Port Authority rejected this approach."

"It's a cost issue, cut and dry," counters Port Authority spokesperson David Whipkey, who contends the service cuts were "at the insistence of mall management." 

The Port Authority is already cash-strapped, says Whipkey, and "quite frankly, we cannot afford" to pay for road upkeep. The cost of helping to repave Century III may not be that large on its own, but Whipkey says the Port Authority feared setting a precedent. If the agency shared the cost of repaving private roads, other malls and municipalities might demand Port Authority money, too.

"We cannot be expected to pay for these kinds of issues," Whipkey says. "We believe the business that we bring [to the mall] ... should offset the cost of paving."

No matter who's to blame for the route cuts, Century III businesses say they've noticed the drop in traffic -- and it's hurting sales in an economy that was already feeling the pinch.

"We are losing business," says Joe Reed, who owns a jewelry stand on the mall's second floor. "Since [the routes were cut], we have much less customers."

 "It's sad," agrees Siddia Roccman, who manages a clothing store. "You can feel the difference. It's empty."

Roccman estimates that foot traffic at the mall has dropped at least 50 percent since the bus routes were scaled back. It's hard to calculate how much of that is caused by the canceled routes: Thanks to a broader economic slowdown, this year's holiday shopping season is shaping up as one of the most disappointing in years. But cutting bus service hasn't helped, Roccman says. "This is supposed to be the best time of the year, but it doesn't even feel like Christmas."

Century III isn't the only area mall that has rolled back the welcome mat for bus riders, says Barbara Simpson, who co-chairs the Pittsburgh Interfaith Impact Network's (PIIN) public-transportation task force. Simpson notes that Century III is following a precedent set by South Hills Village Mall and Ross Park Mall (both of which are also owned by Simon Property). In recent years, both those malls have moved bus stops farther from mall entrances, relocating them by hundreds of feet. 

"They're disenfranchising a number of people," says Simpson, who also sits on the Allegheny County Transit Council, an advisory group for the Port Authority. Long treks across parking lots can be dangerous for the elderly and disabled, Simpson says: "They're trying to prevent a certain population from shopping at their mall."

Nor are Pittsburgh malls alone in changing their approach to transit. Malls in Philadelphia, Florida, New Jersey, California and other states have stopped or reduced bus service for a variety of reasons. In some cases, they cite wear-and-tear on roads. Other times, the stated goal is to prevent youth from loitering. 

On Dec. 17, Simpson and a group of roughly 30 bus-riding PIIN members hopped the 12A "North Hills Shopper" from the North Side to the Ross Park Mall. The goal: to deliver a letter to mall managers outlining concerns about the mall's bus stop being roughly 475 feet from its entrance. Wallace Watson, who also co-chairs PIIN's public-transportation task force, says the letter is just the latest effort to encourage local mall mangers to relocate the stops. 

"One of the managers said, 'We're in the retail business, not the transit business,'" says Watson. 

During the Ross Park Mall demonstration, manager Lisa Earl told PIIN members that, again, the issue was the damage buses caused to mall roadways. 

Earl accepted a copy of the PIIN letter, telling the group, "We'll take this into consideration." But it seems unlikely the stop will move. Earl later e-mailed a statement which reiterated concerns about road damage, and added other issues as well: The bus stop was relocated, she wrote, "due to increasing complaints from customers and retailers about the need to navigate through crowds of people waiting for the bus and smoking at the bus stop."

Earl's statement says the mall supports public transportation and values all of its customers. And it notes that 475 feet is less than "one-eighth the distance of the mall" itself. Sometimes, the statement adds, parking lots fill up to the extent that those who arrive by car "are often times required to walk much farther than the distance from the bus stop."

Such arguments, though, do little to assuage transit activists. 

"It's a hurtful thing to do to people who depend on buses," Simpson says. "This shouldn't be happening."

Bus riders hoping to get to Century III Mall now have to get off at the Wal-Mart and walk down a hill. - HEATHER MULL
  • Heather Mull
  • Bus riders hoping to get to Century III Mall now have to get off at the Wal-Mart and walk down a hill.

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