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Waterfront security upgrade includes cameras

| Sunday, Jan. 25, 2009

Loading her Target purchases into her car at The Waterfront, Joan Neumarkt applauded plans to install security cameras at the retail and entertainment complex on the banks of the Monongahela River.

"Absolutely it's a good idea. If everybody knows that they're there, it'll be a deterrent," said Neumarkt of Oakland. "I feel safe when I come here. You just forget about the things (that have happened)."

Neumarkt echoed the sentiments of many shoppers at the sprawling center that stands on the site of the former Homestead Works steel mill. Memories of two fatal summer shootings at The Waterfront linger, but shoppers feel confident the complex is largely safe -- thanks to recent security upgrades. The new security cameras will record faces and license plates of everyone who enters and leaves the area by car.

The parents of Brian K. Lee accuse The Waterfront and Damon's of lacking adequate security last July when their son was gunned down as he was closing the restaurant for the night. The Lees filed a lawsuit last week in Allegheny County Common Pleas Court seeking financial damages and a jury trial.

"Something should have been done earlier in response to earlier incidents that occurred," said Edward Balzarini Jr., the attorney representing the Lee family.

Homestead Mayor Betty Esper -- leader of one of three boroughs in which The Waterfront sits -- said improvements such as 24-hour security, hiring police officers for patrols and now cameras are more than adequate to fight crime.

Repeated bad press has given The Waterfront an unfair black eye, she said.

"At one point I didn't think (the developer) was doing enough," Esper said. "But they've added more. This is a safe place. Crime can happen anywhere. It's stupid kids who think they can get away with anything. Deterrents help us."

Perception is sometimes even more important than reality, said Jonathan Lusher, executive vice president and principal consultant for security firm IPC International, which is not involved with The Waterfront.

"Reality is not usually the problem -- it's perception," Lusher said. "It's usually only one or two spectacular events that cause that. Various studies say that bad news at a shopping center hangs around for years."

Much of the bad news for The Waterfront came during 2008. Two weeks before Lee was killed, Brendan Brooks, 38, of Homewood was fatally shot outside the nearby Eat 'n Park restaurant.

Fuddruckers and the Rock Bottom Brewery were held up at gunpoint in the preceding months.

District Attorney Stephen A. Zappala Jr. announced plans last month for security cameras at the vehicle entrances and exits to the complex. The federal Department of Homeland Security provided a $75,000 grant. Borough officials expect to receive the remaining $25,000 from the state.

The Waterfront attracts 8 million people a year, according to Developers Diversified Realty, the property management company that acquired The Waterfront in 2007. It declined to release crime statistics, but said the complex has on-site security patrols in addition to regular police patrols from West Homestead, Homestead and Munhall.

After the shootings, DDR started hiring off-duty officers from the boroughs for exclusive patrols at The Waterfront on weekends, spokeswoman Robin Lybarger said.

"As always, security of our employees, shoppers and tenants is a top priority. We are pleased Allegheny County received funds from the Department of Homeland Security to install security cameras at the center. While The Waterfront already has 24-hour security, we hope the cameras add another layer of deterrence," she said.

Increasing security at The Waterfront means the boroughs spend less time elsewhere. The shopping complex generates property tax revenue, but the communities don't get it all. Some is used to pay the development's construction costs as part of a 20-year tax-increment financing plan.

In 2008, West Homestead collected $243,000; Homestead collected $591,454 and Munhall collected $348,785 in real estate tax revenue from The Waterfront, borough managers said. The amounts increase each year under the financing plan.

"It's like a separate city, said Munhall Mayor Ray Bodnar. "The police departments support each other very well, but the merchants have to realize it's their community too. We can't afford to pay for everything for everybody. They have to realize they may have to dig a little deeper."

Esper said that without The Waterfront, the area would have no tax base.

"U.S. Steel was Big Daddy but he left the wife and children to fend for themselves. The wife remarried The Waterfront," Esper said.

Individual businesses have stepped up security in their stores by installing cameras. Homestead police Chief Jeff DeSimone said his department has used footage from outside cameras at Target to catch criminals.

Eat'n Park, which has its corporate offices at The Waterfront in addition to a restaurant, said cameras are installed at both facilities and that the restaurant has employed a security guard on weekends since the shooting.

"We're very pleased with how (DDR) operates," said Bill Moore, director of safety and security for Eat'n Park. "Perception is everything. We want our customers and employees to feel safe or we can't do anything."

Moore said business initially dropped off at the restaurant following the shooting but quickly returned. Damon's did not return phone calls.

"It really ticks you off when your hear radio talk shows and other people say don't go down there," Bodnar said. "We had three shootings in three years and all of a sudden, 'Don't go down there.' That's our lifeblood for God's sake."

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