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Mall Greets Shoppers With Lists of Do's and Don'ts : Northridge: Some say signs will ensure safety of shoppers. Others fear they'll unfairly target youth.


NORTHRIDGE — It reopened last month with the expected fanfare: balloons, fireworks, even live entertainment. But shoppers browsing through Northridge Fashion Center's sparkling new shops and corridors--remodeled after the devastating earthquake--found something decidedly unexpected.

Posted near mall entrances were signs declaring a long list of banned activities--from running to wearing clothes "likely to embroil other groups." Patrons and mall merchants said the signs even prohibited shopping in groups of more than four--a claim mall management denies.

"It's just behaviors that are not allowed on the property because we feel they would be disruptive to other individuals," said Annette Bethers, marketing director for the Northridge Fashion Center. "[The code of conduct] explains very clearly what we expect and why we expect it."

Although the signs have been removed so that management can revise their wording to make them "friendlier," the content will remain the same, Bethers said.

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday August 19, 1995 Valley Edition Metro Part B Page 2 Zones Desk 1 inches; 20 words Type of Material: Correction
Mall manager: The general manager of the Fallbrook Mall was misidentified in a story about the mall in Thursday's Times. His name is Eric Knudson.

As startling as the signs may have seemed to eager shoppers, they only made public policies that were already in effect before the quake, Bethers said. And the rules were hardly original but part of a nationwide trend: Beginning in the early 1990s, mall managers started creating laundry lists of "do's and don'ts" for visitors. A growing number of operators say such codes are needed to ensure the safety and comfort of shoppers.

"The reason malls are instituting codes of conduct is because apparently, parents aren't instituting them at home," said Mark Schoifet, spokesman for the International Council of Shopping Centers, a trade association representing 30,000 shopping centers.

"Over the last few years, handling teen-agers in enclosed malls has been one of the most difficult problems for managers," Schoifet said.

But civil libertarians and others argue that the codes are often used to rid malls of young people who may be perceived as troublemakers, whether they have done anything illegal or not. "The issues that concern us are primarily issues of discrimination," said Ed Chen, a staff attorney for the ACLU's Northern California office. "We find that whatever the code says--you can't wear certain colors, or be in groups of four--it's almost always only applied to youth and most often to youth of color."

The daily conflict unfolding in malls--between youths who want to hang out and managers who want to make money--reflects society's overall frustration in dealing with young people. Perhaps more than in any other generation, teen-agers today are feared by their elders.

Yet, society cannot afford to dismiss teens, and neither can shopping malls, experts say. "It's not a group any mall manager wants to alienate," Schoifet said.

According to a study by Teenage Research Unlimited, teen-agers spent a whopping $99 billion in 1994. Of that amount, about $63 billion was their own money and $36 billion belonged to their parents or other adults.

Teen-agers take that spending power with them wherever they go--and they go to malls more than any other demographic group, Schoifet said.

In California, the courts, urban planners and others have acknowledged the mall as the new urban center, the modern-day equivalent of the old town plaza. In an era where organized recreational venues for youth are scant, malls are perceived as safe terrain, acceptable to both teen-agers and their parents as a wholesome form of recreation.

"A lot of teens see going to the mall as a social event, not just as a means to an end as a lot of adults do," said Marla Grossberg, director of syndicated research for Teenage Research Unlimited.

While the overwhelming majority of teen-agers and others who visit the mall are well-behaved, managers say, a small number push the limits: yelling, running, skateboarding and roughhousing. Sometimes just their presence in large numbers is alarming to other customers.

"It's a tough situation for malls," Schoifet said. "In many cases they're put in the position of being baby-sitters. This is not a day-care center. This is not a recreation center. It's not a public park. It's a privately owned shopping center."

In the view of Schoifet and mall managers, the codes are just one way of handling troublesome visitors and assuring others that the mall is a safe place.

At the Northridge Fashion Center, the code of conduct signs will be replaced in the next few weeks, once they are rewritten.

"We just weren't happy with the way it was worded," Bethers said. "We felt maybe there's a better way we could do it. . . . We just wanted it to read in a more friendly tone than it read." She refused a Times request to release the original wording but outlined the code of conduct in an interview, while shoppers and mall merchants described the signs.

"No smoking, no drinking, no traveling in groups of four or more--it covered basically everything they might want to kick somebody out of the mall for," said a store employee.

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