Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Malls can either transform or die

The following Burnaby NewsLeader article explains how struggling malls must change to remain relevant.

Burnaby NewsLeader - Opinion
COLUMN: How shopping malls are being transformed into true city centres

The shopping centre is dead. Long live the shopping centre.
All across the U.S., traditional suburban malls are dying. In Texas, if you can believe it, a Walmart has been turned into an award-winning public library. I know—books? It's a topsy-turvy world.
Here in B.C. most malls are still doing OK, though many malls across Canada are struggling, at least according to DeadMalls.com.
But when things die, new life isn't far behind.
And this new life for dead malls is—and I'm talking as someone who drags his heels into a mall only when new underwear is mandatory—actually quite exciting.
Three local malls are poised to become authentic, living, breathing town centres.
Oh, today's malls are pleasant enough, but it's kind of like watching your favourite TV show in black and white—beyond the occasional decent food fair or services like a doctor or physiotherapist's office, malls are an unrelenting stream of shops cut from a single bolt of corporate cloth.
What? There's a Gap here?
It's the people that give a mall any stitch of charm. Saturday at Metrotown, it's the vibrant human tapestry we're drawn to.
But malls are changing. Soon, Burnaby's Brentwood Town Centre, Vancouver's Oakridge and not too far off another Burnaby mall, Lougheed, will be transformed.
If they get the go-ahead, these malls will become true city centres as they re-shape our idea of the shopping centre. At the core, these changes are driven by the concept called New Urbanism, which means building on a human scale, with emphasis on walkability, easy transit access, a mix of uses and reduced dependence on cars.
The buzzwords are "placemaking" and the creation of "high streets," which tap into our idea of main streets of yore, humming with people and shops, where it's easy to meander.
These new malls will still make space for cars, of course, but it'll be all hush-hush, tucked away somewhere, so the overall feel is more friendly.
Plans for Brentwood and Oakridge amount to a huge bonanza for the mall owners as a sea of wasted asphalt becomes home to residential and office towers, while retaining all the shops (and more) that are on the site today. Residents will win in this change, too.
Instead of being giant boxes of canned air, few windows and no clocks, these new malls offer a mix of everything. Places to live and work, places to shop and eat, places to just hang out—it's a recipe for creating a real beating heart that's active and engaging during all the waking hours.
Oakridge will have a new seniors centre and library, and much of the old-fashioned mally stuff will be tucked beneath 16 acres of green space on the mall's roof.

It's yet to be hammered out, but the Brentwood project will also deliver millions in cash or amenities to the city in exchange for the added density. Shape Properties has an approved master plan to stud the 28-acre site with 11 residential towers and two office buildings. The whole place will be transit and pedestrian friendly, with wide sidewalks (picture bistro tables), bike paths, park space and plenty of pedestrian-only pathways.
The ugly bus loop at corner of Willingdon and Lougheed will be gone, the SkyTrain station will merge into the project, and that corner will become a one-acre public plaza where the developer wants us to imagine cafés, restaurants, public events and a great space to just lounge and people watch.
Brentwood's owner also owns Lougheed and appears poised to do something similar there. At 38 acres, it's 10 acres larger and soon to become the junction two SkyTrain lines.
For people who live near Brentwood, Oakridge and Lougheed, it's quite possible they'll one day find themselves living near real city centres—places to gather, shop, re-create and bump into your neighbours.
Yes, malls have always been community gathering places.
But they've lacked soul.
I can't believe I'm saying this, but I can one day imagine myself spending more time at the mall.
• Chris Bryan is editor of the NewsLeader.

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