Edmonton: The New Capital is a special series taking the pulse of the city. From Terwillegar to Castle Downs, CBC journalists are talking to people about how Edmonton is changing and what it means for the future.
Edmonton is the festival city, the gateway to the North, home to the Alberta Legislature.
It is also a shopping mall mecca.
For those of us who live here, that last moniker might make you smile — or, perhaps, cringe. For all the efforts to highlight Edmonton’s natural beauty, homegrown arts scene and first-rate cultural institutions, who hasn’t had an out-of-town visitor who just wants to visit “The Mall”?
For years, part of Edmonton’s identity went hand-in-hand with the behemoth retail centre in the city’s west end. When West Edmonton Mall opened in 1981, it was the biggest indoor shopping mall in the world. And it just kept growing.
Three decades later, West Edmonton Mall is still bustling — and other malls are thriving, too. Retail analyst Craig Patterson says Edmonton is a “shopping capital.”
“These are really exceptional shopping centres,” says Patterson, director of applied research for the University of Alberta’s School of Retailing, about the Edmonton mall landscape.
“People are shopping there, even though there have been some economic challenges.”
The statistics are impressive: West Edmonton Mall remains the largest shopping mall in North America; Southgate Centre ranks fifth in the country in sales per square foot; and the owners of Londonderry Mall just plunked $130 million into a total renovation.
At the same time, the Edmonton region is second only to Toronto in retail space per capita — 16.2 square feet per capita, according to Patterson’s research.
And more is soon to come. A 428,000-square-foot outlet mall should open on Edmonton International Airport lands later this year.
Malls appear to be here to stay. But in an era of online shopping and a hunger for dynamic public spaces, what will make them tick in 2018? Clearly Edmontonians embrace their malls — but can malls be designed in a way to embrace Edmonton’s city-building ambitions?
The bucks stop here
The key to being a great mall, whether it is 1981 or 2018, is to draw people for one thing: shopping.
As Patterson notes, Southgate Centre is one of the top malls in the country despite having neither a roller-coaster nor a pirate ship. What it does have, Patterson points out, is a “compelling mix of retailers” — an Apple Store, Lululemon, Crate & Barrel and Michael Kors.
That mix of stores, plus space for local retailers, is a draw for customers. That blend is just as important as the big, anchor department stores that used to make or break a mall. With the closure of Sears, the Hudson’s Bay is the last of Southgate’s original department stores.
But other stores are stepping up.
In northeast Edmonton, the renovated Londonderry mall brought in a new anchor tenant, La Maison Simons, the Quebec City-based retailer that’s started to make forays into western Canada.
The 2017 arrival of a second Simons store in Edmonton (the WEM location first opened in 2012) made a splash with its dazzling 15-metre public art display and its promise of solar panels that would produce half of the store’s energy needs.
“Simons looks at everything differently,” says Jordon Adams, general manager at Londonderry Mall.
“They’re very engaged with what’s out there in the fashion world, how to make it affordable, and how to offer high-end items that people are looking at. They have something for everyone.”
The store itself is bright, something the rest of the mall is trying to emulate with glass panels around the food court and huge windows to let in sunlight.
“Malls are not low ceilings and dark areas anymore,” Adams says. “They’ve brightened them up, they’ve made them more pleasing and they’re giving more to the customer base and to the employees.”
Come for the shopping, stay for the socializing
Edmontonians may love to shop at malls but e-commerce is cutting into sales at bricks-and-mortar locations.
That makes the focus on esthetics even more important for the companies that operate shopping centres.
Streams of natural light and pleasant greenery will make the ambience more cheerful for shoppers, but also might attract a walking group that’s looking for a place to get their steps in on a cold, winter morning.
“You have to give something to the consumer that’s more than running in to buy an item and running out — it’s a place to come, to socialize, to visit, to go shopping, to meet in a food court,” says Adams.
Calgary author Kit Dobson admits he would have once called himself a “mall hater,” but he has accepted that malls have turned into civic gathering spaces.
“They’re part of the fabric of city life in Edmonton that they might not be elsewhere,” says Dobson, who spent hours hanging out in shopping centres while researching his book, Malled: Deciphering Malls in Canada.
“People go there in the winter to walk. There’s lots of parent groups,” he says.
West Edmonton Mall even got pulled into the Idle No More protests of 2012 and 2013 when the area around the pirate ship was used a staging ground for protests, he adds.
“That’s an interesting shift of taking social issues from the town square into the centre of a mall.”
But that shift has come at the cost of public gathering spaces and “main street” shopping areas.
‘That’s an interesting shift of taking social issues from the town square into the centre of a mall.’ – Kit Dobson, author of Malled: Deciphering Malls in Canada
Patterson, the U of A’s retail analyst, says cities across Canada have been “profoundly transformed by shopping centres.”
And not always for the better.
“Shopping centres cater to our car culture,” he says. “And car culture has been quite destructive to North American cities.”
A paved paradise in those parking lots
But you can’t argue with the bottom line: malls have bolstered the economy and benefited retailers.
So is there a way that malls can continue to be economic drivers and also build dynamic urban landscapes through smart design?
Some think they’ve found the answer — and it’s in the parking lot.
Look at an aerial view of a mall built 30 years ago and you’ll see fields of concrete surrounding the shopping centre. For urban planners, that parking lot is dead space that sucks the life out of city streets.
But increasingly, developers and mall owners are seeing those parking spaces as a new opportunity.
What if the vast stretches of concrete were filled with residential towers, street-facing retail and office buildings? What if rapid transit connected these hubs to the rest of the city?
The concept has taken off in parts of America, where a glut of retail space has lead to the “dead mall” phenomenon and landlords are desperate to re-invent their properties. In real estate hot spots such as Vancouver and Toronto, the tracts of land once devoted to parking are irresistible to developers.
“Developers are saying, ‘We’ve got several acres in the middle of a residential area that has excellent access to transit and already has amenities,'” says Patterson.
By reconfiguring the parking lots — or perhaps by building underground parkades — developers can plan housing developments that will drive up the value of the shopping centre, he says.
You can’t swing a stick in #MetroVancouver without hitting a transforming shopping mall, especially on transit. This started in the US earlier because they dramatically overbuilt retailing, so failed malls needed solutions. Canada didn’t — here it’s often a successful mall thing. pic.twitter.com/NAHRlNqs5U
In Edmonton, the idea has been floated several times, in several different iterations. Just recently, the city reviewed an industry report that suggests the areas around malls are most suited to infill and redevelopment.
After all, the report said, malls have shops, grocery stores and transit in one location.
But it remains to be seen when and if the model will be applied in Edmonton.
A mall capital, but probably not forever
With a new LRT stop set to open at Mill Woods Town Centre, mall owner RioCan has indicated it wants to develop residential towers in the area and make a more pedestrian-friendly retail thoroughfare.
But the plans are expected to take decades.
Bonnie Doon Shopping Centre recently submitted a proposal to redevelop its vast real estate into an area with high-density housing, shops and better LRT connections.
That plan is set to roll out over 30 years.
But even if the timeline is long, market watchers say that malls will eventually change and adapt.
“We built them all across North America, it was part of the total embrace of the car,” says urban designer Ken Greenberg. “A whole way of life developed around that and so we have them everywhere.
“I think the world is changing and younger people are looking for a different kind of convenience and connectedness — and the market is responding.”
Read more stories from Edmonton: The New Capital on cbc.ca/edmonton or listen to CBC Radio One, 93.9 FM/740 AM.