If shopping malls are dying, why can't I get a parking space?

None of the conventional wisdom on retail seems to apply in the booming St. John's marketplace, John Gushue writes.
The Avalon Mall is the largest shopping centre in Newfoundland and Labrador. (CBC)

On Tuesday morning, I made a coffee run and — perhaps because of the caffeine — gained a little insight into the retail scene in St. John's.

I had headed out for Starbucks on Kenmount Road, to pick up a latte and a few coffees for coworkers. The drive back took a little longer than I would have liked; even though it was a Tuesday morning, circling around the Avalon Mall was a slow-motion conga line of cars.

While inching along, I noticed the long queues of vehicles hoping to take a turn into the lots off O'Leary and then Thorburn, and how all the spaces seemed to be filling up.

And it struck me: if shopping malls are dying, why are the parking lots at the Avalon Mall so often packed? I'm exaggerating in the headline about not being able to find a space, but I've more than once had to drive around to find one, even outside of the mayhem that is the Christmas shopping season.

In the last few months, I've read one news article after another that have used words like "dinosaur," "dying," "dwindling" and "moribund" to describe that all-too-familiar component of modern life, the shopping centre. Granted, most of the headlines are coming from the U.S., where the retail industry has been in more of a tailspin than in Canada.

Yet it is assumed in the business press that the very idea of the enclosed shopping centre has been in decline for years, and is ready to expire.

When the research company Green Street Advisors produced the sobering prediction that as many as 10 per cent of the 1,000 or so malls in the U.S. would disappear in the next decade (many of them to be bulldozed), the industry responded by saying the call was too conservative.

A digital revolution and a big-box boom

Several things seem to be working against the poor old shopping mall. First, most shopkeepers, regardless of their location, know how devastating the overwhelming shift to online commerce has been. Among the areas most affected are books and clothing — two of the main pillars of any mall.

If online shopping is an invisible killer for traditional malls, a more obvious threat has been the rise of the big box store. In the industry, they're called "power centres," and there's proof almighty on the northeast Avalon that they're holding sway.

We started with Stavanger Drive in the 1990s, and since then have seen new ones sprout up at Kelsey Drive in St. John's and off Old Placentia Road in Mount Pearl, with plans for a yet another in Conception Bay South.

Malls got a rough ride when they started appearing decades ago, as blights on the landscape and — in the eyes of mom-and-pop stores and downtown shops — an oversized menace.

The marketplace has adapted in the ensuing period. (Believe it or not, the Avalon Mall will turn 50 in a few short years.) Now it's the big-box stores that are often seen as a visual scourge, a symbol of suburban sprawl and a drive-or-die culture that has such side effects as pollution and obesity.

And yet consumers seem to love them. Any trip I take to Stavanger Drive seems to bear that out, particularly on the weekends.

The Mall endures … or at least one of them

But the Avalon Mall doesn't seem to be suffering at the expense of the new, oversize kids up the road. To the contrary, it seems to be as much of a going concern as ever.

That's not necessarily the case with other malls in the province, or even in the city.

Between 1997 and 2000, I spent a fair bit of time getting to know the Village Shopping Centre — everyone calls it the Village mall, its formal title aside — while I worked at The Telegram as an editor. Apart from eating lunch often in the food court, I made at least one coffee run (you may see a trend emerging here in my own shopping habits) each day with friends like Pam Frampton, as we sought out a caffeine hit and caught up on the news of the day.

At that time, the Village had, shall we say, a more relaxed pace than the Avalon Mall, and it got significantly worse in subsequent years. Sears decamped for the Avalon Mall after Wal-Mart left that space behind for a big box of its own on Kelsey Drive. After that point, the Village felt like it was missing some tumbleweeds.

Goodbye grocery aisles, hello cubicles

But the place has been bouncing back. The Village's owners have changed focus and recruited new tenants, including the Telegram itself, which moved its newsroom right into the mall. From what I've been reading about the North American marketplace, that mixed-use approach seems to be a solid plan for survival.

The Village, even at its doziest, always seemed far more active than the place further up Topsail Road that used to be called Sobeys Square. It opened more than 30 years ago, and never caught on with shoppers, even with a six-screen cinema.

Since rebranded as Mount Pearl Square, it's not even primarily a place to shop, as the anchor tenants — BellAliant and Eastern Health, for instance — are there for the converted office space.

I feel deflated whenever I go to the movies over at Mount Pearl Square; it's dimly lit, often empty and — as a colleague put it while we were discussing this just now — always feels kind of sad.

No such vibe at all at the Avalon Mall, especially around the movie theatres. It's not necessarily relaxing getting out of there on a weekend night (the throngs can be so heavy that you have to patiently navigate your way to open space) but the mood is anything but glum.

That seems to be the case for the rest of the mall, too. Whether you love it or hate the place, people flock to its doors.

Downtown buzzes along

The interesting thing is that the downtown retail scene, which definitely took a hit to the gut when the mall opened in the 1960s, and in the years that followed, is also thriving. There are plenty of small, quirky shops on Water, Duckworth and nearby streets, and that's where we're seeing the innovative boutiques, too.

Downtown St. John's has made a vibrant comeback after losing many of its stores years ago to shopping centres. (CBC)

The food is improving too, with more and more interesting options for service and quality than we've ever had. And, to bring it back to my quest for the perfect cup of coffee, I'm a very happy camper downtown, with old favourites like Hava Java and Coffee & Co. being joined by an elegant startup like Post.

So let's review. The Avalon Mall? Booming. The big box stores? Multiplying. Downtown? Colourful, vibrant and more than holding its own. 

Hmm. What I believe is happening are the results of a local economy that has been in a boom cycle for a good few years now. St. John's evidently loves to shop, and we seem to have the disposable income (or credit, which is another issue altogether) to keep the market expanding.

In other words, the scary prognostications in major North American cities do not necessarily apply here, at least as long as this boom keeps swinging along.

Should a bust come our way, I would imagine we'd be having a very different relationship with our shopping spaces.


John Gushue

CBC News

John Gushue is the digital senior producer with CBC News in St. John's.