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Storefront Protection: Some Say Great, Others Grating

LOTS OF CITY storefronts wouldn’t do without them, but politicians and urban planners inevitably find them grating: solid metal rolldown gates or grates that protect shops after hours but attract graffiti and project an image of urban blight.

To spruce up grim business districts, Boston is trying to strong-arm or coax store owners into abandoning these eyesores. To participate in a grant program that will improve their facades, stores must remove their solid rolldown grates. And the city’s zoning code requires new grates to be open-mesh.

This situation is leaving small business owners in Boston and elsewhere in a predicament, say retail security experts: removing gates and grates attracts pedestrian traffic in the neighborhood, and may eventually lead to higher sales, but it also leaves the shop vulnerable.

Various localities deal with the issue in different ways. In the Western Historic District of Ludlow, Kentucky, according to design guidelines for the district, businesses are discouraged from protecting main entrances with “security storm doors which have large expanses of metal grillwork,” though that is acceptable for secondary doors.

Chula Vista, California’s design guidelines for storefronts bar grates or grilles except if they are located inside the display window. Boston’s Allston Village takes the same approach in its zoning ordinance.

Family Dollar Stores, a discount chain that targets low-to-middle-income shoppers, uses rolldown barriers “in major urban markets where we anticipate break-ins; all of our neighbors use them,” says Mike Zuege, vice president of loss prevention. In most urban stores, however, the chain uses interior bars with one-foot-by-one-foot openings that are mounted directly to the window frame. Zuege acknowledges that the interior bars “don’t look very good.”

But interior grates aren’t a perfect solution either, says Chris McGoey, a security consultant based in California. Interior grates leave the front window and anything in the display area unprotected, he points out, all without enhancing aesthetics very much. “They’re ugly on the inside” rather than the outside, McGoey says.

Open-mesh grilles may be slightly more pleasing to the eye, but they have their disadvantages as well, adds McGoey. They get rusty and catch garbage.

Also, switching to open-mesh barriers or hardened glass isn’t feasible for mom-and-pop shops, McGoey observes. This is especially true if margins are narrowing because area rents are rising. Moreover, landlords are reluctant to bear the expense when there is no obvious return on investment.

Some sites have attempted to prettify rolldown barriers with murals or other decorations, with mixed success. “Even when you paint murals, it still looks like downtown Baghdad,” says Mike Magill, a retail security expert with 35 years of experience.

Magill says if a locality is asking shops to remove security measures, it has a responsibility to enhance police protection. And many localities do marry the idea of increasing police presence with programs that encourage businesses to make their storefronts more welcoming.

Police presence or not, getting shops to remove their barriers will be a hard sell for cities. “For most mom-and-pops, it’s a no-brainer,” says Magill. “If your neighborhood is high crime, you’re not going to participate.”