Urban Planning

The Return of the Community Mall

Cover Image Credit: Real Estate, Arthur Hammond, 1973

This article was originally posted by me on July 20th, 2012, then reposted on The Urbanist on July 24th with my permission.

Yorkdale Shopping Centre was the first regional shopping centre in Canada built in 1964. It was a burgeoning mall with Simpson’s, Eaton’s and Dominion as its anchor stores. In the immediate area were various strip plazas including Lawrence Plaza which is within approximately 2 kilometres of the mall. The post war suburb was in full gear. The subway was to the southeast of the mall on Yonge Street and Eglinton Avenue. The definition of the mall centred around the car with the adjacent Highway 401 and with the Allen Expressway being built a few years later.

Spadina Expressway at Lawrence Avenue West, 1963, from the City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 217, Series 249, File 169 (via Historicist)

But within the immediate area, a variety of housing types were present – a mix of single family and medium density residential. Moreso, the public housing complexes of Lawrence Heights were a hop, skip and a jump away. Although regional in scope, many of the stores within Yorkdale, including Kresge, catered to the immediate community. Not only providing everyday shopping needs but as well as jobs.

Many of the older malls like Bramalea City Centre, Fairview Mall and Scarborough Town Centre were also designed in suburban locations but also were knowledgeable of the market, which also included nearby public housing complexes that were provided by the Province of Ontario. In “Real Estate“, the 2nd installment of the 1973 National Film Board of Canada series “The Corporation”, Sam Steinberg a Montreal shopping mall developer discusses the immediate market within the area of the soon-to-be-built Bramalea City Centre (fast forward to 12:50 mark). It is interesting to note the discussions with multiple developers and the mall would “act as a catalyst for growth” before development begins.

Also you will note in the film that the developer also was building a high-rise complex nearby and the mall also had plans for a transportation centre for municipal transit. Of course given the cost of developing land in those days was much cheaper and developers could do such grand schemes. In the end, the suburban shopping center catered to all sorts of land uses nearby, had a balanced transportation network and a mix of amenities that catered to the immediate community.

Flip the page 20 years later, big box retailers and power centres have become the predominant shopping experience with auto owners and new suburban and exurban development. Were these types of facilities catalysts for growth or succumbed to the sprawl that exists in our cities and communities today? Expansive free parking combined with limited transit mobility options and accessibility for those who did not own a car. No connection to the community.

As Andrew Mayer, a Senior Planner from Butler County noted:

Through the 90′s, malls began adding other uses such as movie theatres, full-fledged restaurants, amusement rides, nightclubs, and a host of other activities.

What happened in the United States surely existed in Canada as well. Shopping malls like West Edmonton Mall, Mall of America, the Mills Group of shopping centres (Vaughan Mills) and to a smaller extent Woodbine Centre, started a trend of theme shopping malls built with indoor amusement activities such as swimming, bowling and other family filled fun. Drive the kids to mall instead of the local park or a day at Canada’s Wonderland or Six Flags. In the case of West Edmonton Mall, it sucked the life out of downtown Edmonton and still continues to do so.

At the same time, strip plazas were a dying breed. Major tenants were losing business to these big box stores. Tenants were opening and closing shops as fast as one could change their underwear. Discount and end of the line merchandisers were renting out vacant spaces to make a quick buck and then leave. This continues to be the trend as we speak today.

Shopping malls were an experience. Big Box retailers are of convenience.

Are we seeing a trend back to the community?

Frances Bula, a freelance journalist noted in a 2011 Globe and Mail article:

Due to the shortage of available land, the restrictions that many Canadian cities put on commercial space, and even the stringent demands of provincial highways ministries, mall developers are going to have to be creative and persistent.

Creative and persistent they are.

Bramalea City Centre, as do many other regional malls, have such amenities such as a community police station while continuing to have grocery stores on site.  Yorkdale currently has a Community Arts Centre which was built in coordination with the City of Toronto. Unfortunately this is conspicuously located in the parking garage. Another example is London, Ontario’s Citi Plaza has converted a formerly closed Bay location into a new public library, as seen by the photo below.

At the same time, older shopping malls like Meadowlark Shopping Centre and Capilano Mall are redefining themselves as lifestyle centres where these malls are catering to the aging demographic housing medical facilities and hosting elderly friendly events.

The Shops at Don Mills and Santa Monica Place have reestablished themselves from former indoor malls and transformed into walkable “communities” of their own with high-end stores and restaurants making them destinations to go to beyond shopping. Along those same lines, Downtown Mississauga has a Master Plan in the works looking to transform its formerly desolate City Centre area, with Square One Shopping Centre continuing to be its focal point, into a new destination for residents of Mississauga. Already present are the Living Arts Centre, condos and now Sheridan College campus. Plans are to incorporate light rail transit and a cultural market. Proposed plans for revamped shopping centres are also happening in Vancouver’s Oakridge Mall (Ivanhoe Cambridge) and Mill Woods Town Centre (Rio-Can) in Edmonton.

In Bula’s article of July 22nd, Burnaby’s deputy planning director, Lou Pelletier stated that

The opportunities for development of new regional malls have substantially changed as urban communities have continued to grow and develop. Established communities like Burnaby have been increasingly focused on developing more urban, mixed-use town centres to support improved transit services, higher amenity urban living and more walkable, complete and compact communities.”

To add to Pelletier’s comment, consultant David Moss noted:

Scarborough Town Centre (Monarch and Tridel) have added about 8 to 10 buildings over the last 15 years .. say 2,000 units or so .. Sherway Gardens has added about 3 buildings, say 700 units (Great Gulf), Square One area has added about 5,000 units in 15 buildings .. (Daniels and others), Promenade has added 2,000 units .. some are true ‘on property’ ventures, some are adjacent as part of mixed use areas .. some of this was to liquidate surplus real estate (ie surface parking areas) .. that is only needed for a few key weekends per year .. while these centres should be glued to their communities, at times I think they are glued to their ‘markets’ rather than their communities.

Going forward, are these developers attempting to “control” their own communities as the malls add new higher end stores. With the talk of Nordstrom entering the Canadian market with a potential opening at  Sherway Gardens, it’s all making complete sense now.

And as such, the mall has come back to being part of the community once again – only because growth policies and land values have forced them to do so.

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