Academic journal article The Journal of Real Estate Research

Crime and Town Centers: Are Downtowns More Dangerous Than Suburban Shopping Nodes?

Academic journal article The Journal of Real Estate Research

Crime and Town Centers: Are Downtowns More Dangerous Than Suburban Shopping Nodes?

Article excerpt

Abstract The perception of high crime rates in downtowns has hindered the revitalization of downtown shopping districts and adjacent residential areas. This paper presents a better methodology for measuring crime in commercial shopping districts, replacing the conventional method of quoting crimes per 100,000 residences with a measure that more accurately reflects one's chance for being a crime victim. This new measurement is used to address the question of whether the downtown shopping districts of Los Angeles and San Diego are as dangerous as two of their most competitive suburban shopping areas-Santa Monica and Fashion Valley. The findings indicate that actual crime rates in both downtown Los Angeles and downtown San Diego are in fact lower that those of their suburban counterparts.


Shopping districts have historically anchored the core of downtown business districts. Since World War II, shopping in the United States has slowly but steadily migrated to suburban shopping malls. Flagship stores in downtown locations have gradually closed leaving in their wake downtown shopping districts struggling to attract shoppers back downtown from the suburbs.

The long-term shift of retail activity from downtowns to suburban shopping malls has been addressed in numerous studies about retail investment and urban growth (e.g., for example, DiPasquale and Wheaton, 1996). These authors point to a number of factors that have contributed to downtown decline including traffic congestion, interstate highway development, government housing programs such as FHA, suburban housing, retail, office, and industrial development, and ongoing decentralization of jobs and housing. In addition, to these forces 'pulling' jobs and shopping out of downtown, they note 'push factors' including crime, poor public schools, and growing concentrations of minority and immigrant populations around downtowns. Shifts in shopping behavior from transit-oriented downtown department stores and main street shops to car-oriented regional shopping malls and big-box warehouse stores have also eroded the downtown shopping customer base over time.

There are many signs that downtowns are coming back, but their role today is very different from what it was fifty years ago. Rather than being focal points for jobs and regional shopping, downtowns are coming back as cultural centers with significant numbers of residences and shopping that is often entertainment-oriented and must compete successfully with suburban counterparts. During the last decade, downtown shopping districts have been transformed in many cities to cater to new types of shoppers-tourists, immigrants and office workers. Many cities have built shiny new malls in downtowns trying to lure suburban shoppers back downtown.

Great efforts have been made not only to reduce crime in downtown shopping districts but also to advertise urban regeneration efforts and bring people back from suburban shopping malls to shop downtown. As one of the important factors contributing to downtown decline and the persisting reluctance of shoppers to return downtown, this paper focuses on fear of crime. Previous studies have shown that perceptions of crime are slow to die and affect people's shopping behavior and other location decisions long after the situation on the ground has changed.

This study asks the simple question: Is shoppers' perception of crime in downtown versus suburban shopping districts accurate? If not, how can downtown advocates overcome this misperception and help revitalize downtown retailing, assuming that they can overcome other problems retarding downtown recovery. '

The approach in this study is to measure the incidence of being the victim of a crime in two major metropolitan areas-Los Angeles and San Diego. The likelihood of victimization in the downtown shopping cores is compared with a major suburban competitor in each city. Shopping districts were deliberately chosen in high income areas for comparison-Santa Monica, a suburb of Los Angeles, and Fashion Valley, a suburb of San Diego. …

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