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St. Peters alderman Don Aytes remembers well the fears some of his constituents expressed back in 1998, the year MetroLink supporters tried to bring light rail into suburban St. Charles County.
"I thought for sure it would pass, and then someone on the MetroLink campaign made the decision to advertise that the train would connect Mid Rivers Mall with East St. Louis," Aytes recalls. "That pretty much killed it right there. Soon you had people saying MetroLink riders would come to St. Charles by train and leave by car — stolen car."
Ten years later and a growing number of Saint Louis Galleria and Delmar Loop merchants worry that St. Charles voters may have been right: that maybe MetroLink actually enables criminals, especially teenage lawbreakers.
Ask virtually any store manager at the Saint Louis Galleria about shoplifting, and you'll invariably get two responses: One, it's out of control; and two, it's gotten exceedingly worse since August 2006, when MetroLink opened a stop just 500 yards from the high-end shopping center.
In the first six months of this year, Richmond Heights police made 345 arrests at the mall. That's nearly double the number of arrests made in all of 2005, before MetroLink opened its Shrewsbury line.
More alarming are the numbers of juveniles (kids under the age of seventeen) arrested at the mall. This year police are on pace to take 276 juveniles into custody for shoplifting and other offenses — a sevenfold increase over the 39 kids arrested at the Galleria in 2005.
"I know it's not politically correct, but how else do you explain it?" comments a frustrated Galleria store manager who, like many Galleria shopkeepers interviewed by Riverfront Times, says her employer prohibits her from officially speaking for the company.
"Anyone can see all these people crossing Brentwood Boulevard from the MetroLink station," the manager continues. "Most of them aren't here to shop. They're here to hang out and cause trouble."
Mall workers say it's not just shoplifting that's causing problems. In November 2006 police arrested five juveniles and four older teenagers following a fistfight at the Galleria that involved dozens of minors.
Four months later in March, another fight in the mall — this one involving up to 100 teens — led to three more arrests and the Galleria imposing new sanctions on teenagers. The so-called "Parental Guidance Required" policy, put in place in April 2007, prohibits anyone under age seventeen from entering the mall after 3 p.m. on weekends without an adult chaperone.
"It's not as bad as it used to be on the weekends," states another store manager. "But come here any weekday while school is in session — it looks like there's an entire high school class here for a field trip. Instead of going to school, they come to the Galleria."
Now — eighteen months after the Galleria curfew first went into effect — many store owners in University City speculate the ban has resulted in pushing troublemakers six stops up the MetroLink line to the Delmar Loop. Police in University City confirm that they first noticed large groups of teens congregating in the Loop in June 2007, two months after the Galleria imposed its curfew.
In recent weeks dozens of those same teens have been implicated in violent attacks that have hospitalized people working and living near the light rail stations in the Loop and the nearby DeBaliviere neighborhood. On July 26 a group of at least twenty teens assailed a family as they left the platform at the Forest Park-DeBaliviere station. That same night another group, according to police, attacked a person at the Delmar station.
MetroLink officials contend that the same group of teens was involved in both attacks. Moreover, the transit agency vigorously denies that the commuter train has anything to do with the assaults in the Loop or the spike in shoplifting and juvenile misconduct at the Galleria.
"What we do for the Galleria is take them their employees and shoppers," stresses Metro spokeswoman Dianne Williams. "With the Loop incidents, we and our passengers were the victims. These kids aren't traveling there by Metro. They're coming by car or walking. They're not coming by Metro."
Police testimony, however, tells a different story. The two seventeen-year-olds implicated in the group assault of the family were apprehended on the MetroLink platform. The teens told police they were on their way to their homes in Jennings and St. Louis City after spending the night hanging out near Loop restaurants and bars.
Several teenagers who gather at the Galleria and in University City connect MetroLink with the rowdy behavior. "We used to hang out in the Galleria, but when MetroLink opened it got too crazy there," notes Johnnie Fields, a senior at Gateway High School who met with friends on the sidewalk of Delmar Boulevard on a recent weekend.
"We started coming to the Loop last summer," says Corey Stewart Glaze, an eighteen-year-old student at CBC High School. "Then more and more people started coming. Now, it's a lot of the same people from the Galleria who hang out in the Loop. It's like you have two groups. There are people like us, and then there are the dropouts. I don't know where, or if, they go school. But they're ruining it for all of us."
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