Transforming cities can start with transforming malls, say planners
'There's absolutely no doubt that malls are the low-hanging fruit for suburban rethinking'
Take one underused mall, several hectares of dreary parking lots and a bus loop or transit station.
That may represent a typical scene from suburbia today. But urban planners and developers are banking on transforming that space into the vibrant, high-density urban centres of tomorrow.
"There's absolutely no doubt that malls are the low-hanging fruit for suburban rethinking, and we badly need to rethink the suburbs," says Brent Toderian, an urban planning consultant and former chief planner for the city of Vancouver.
In the place of vast tracts of concrete parking lots, planners like Toderian envision residential towers with a mix of retail and office space at ground-level. They want to take the roof off the giant enclosed buildings that exist today, and create smaller streets that cut through the space.
The idea is to create more vibrant urban spaces, more opportunities for mass transit, and higher-density development to prevent sprawl. And it could all happen on properties that have often been decried as too car-centric and as responsible for sucking the life out of downtown cores.
"There's a really big public interest opportunity to transform these spaces to address communities that need to be healthier and more multi-modal, lowering our carbon footprint and addressing our climate emergency," says Toderian.
"There are all sorts of reasons why we and the public want these malls to transform."
Forced to transform
Edmonton has sometimes been called a mall city, with North America's biggest shopping centre covering several city blocks in the west end. At the same time, the Edmonton region is second only to Toronto in retail space per capita — about 16 square feet per capita, according to research by Craig Patterson, director of applied research for the University of Alberta's School of Retailing,
Edmonton malls are largely successful; owners have plunked money into extensive renovations in places like Londonderry Mall and Kingsway Mall, on the bet they will continue to be profitable.
In the United States, however, a glut of retail space and the closure of traditional department store anchor tenants has resulted in a "dead mall" phenomenon. In that country, re-imagining the mall came out of necessity, says Toderian.
In Canada, mall transformations will largely be driven by owners who understand the economic possibilities of the space, he says.
"What we have now is the small and flexible mall owners have either already had this discussion or are having it now, because it's kind of a no-brainer to capture more value on these single-use sites," he says.
"I often say you can't swing a stick in metro Vancouver without hitting a mall that's being transformed right next to a SkyTrain station, they're sprouting towers, they're turning into mixed-use places."
In Edmonton, city council in April approved rezoning the Bonnie Doon mall site.The 61-year old mall currently houses a popular bowling alley and a Safeway grocery store. But its halls are often quiet rather than bustling.
Owner Morguard Investment Ltd. says it wants to develop a neighbourhood on the site, with up to 4,000 residences. Streets would be cut into the site, and the future community would rely heavily on its proximity to a new LRT station.
But the overall plan is expected to take 20 to 30 years to build.
Future city plans
Peter Ohm, Edmonton's chief planner, says the idea of retrofitting mall sites for higher-density, mixed use development is "interesting and exciting," especially considering the large tracts of land involved.
"Depending on how connected it is to the transportation network, it can it have a big impact on getting those infill numbers up by having the redevelopment occur on those sites."
Meanwhile, the southeast Valley Line LRT route was developed with consideration of areas that had the most potential for redevelopment. In many cases, that aligned with current mall sites.
In a draft city plan, going before the urban planning committee next week, mall sites such Mill Woods, Bonnie Doon and Meadowlark are all identified as "nodes," with the potential for major economic and residential growth.