Home is where the mall is.
Torontonians will soon be seeing more condominiums and apartment buildings springing up on big shopping centre properties across the city.
Developers plan to expand and incorporate housing at the Bayview Village plaza, where two new residential towers are planned, and Dufferin Mall, set in the next few years to host four towers of condos and possibly rental units.
At the Galleria Mall near Dufferin and Dupont Sts. and the Agincourt Mall in Scarborough, plans call for the demolition of these centres to make way for mixed-use developments that include condos.
Yorkdale Mall has put forward what it calls a 20-year vision that includes a hotel and as many as 12 residential towers ringing the parking lot — though those behind the project say configurations may change and there are currently no construction timetables or architectural drawings.
The yet-to-be-approved master plan for the Scarborough Town Centre has a long-term “work in progress” vision calling for as many as 36 highrise towers on site, with the mall staying intact.
Housing coexisting on shopping mall sites is a trend spreading in North America, Europe and other parts of the world. In Toronto, where there’s a dearth of land to develop and online commerce sites such as Amazon have altered consumer habits, builders say the co-mingling of housing with the shopping mall experience makes perfect sense.
“The reality of the scarcity of land opportunities within the GTA — that kind of forces developers to think out of the box and find ways to take something and create something … where the whole is greater than the sum of its parts,” says Rafael Lazer, CEO of Elad Canada Inc., the company behind the mega Galleria project.
Experts say malls provide mixed-use opportunities that induce developers and cities as a whole.
“We often plan for one thing — this area is for housing, that area is for shopping and this place is for offices and everything is connected by the car. So the more we can mix these things together, the better everything functions,” says Brent Toderian, a former chief planner for the city of Vancouver and now a city planning consultant.
Toderian, who has researched housing popping up on mall properties in North America and beyond, says the phenomenon took hold in the U.S. as failing malls were turned into housing.
“In most other parts of the world, including Canada, malls aren’t failing at anywhere near as high a rate as in the U.S.” he said.
That’s because in the U.S. the local planning system doesn’t seek to regulate commercial activity almost at all, he said. What you have there as a result is what Toderian calls “massive overstoring” — five times the retail as you have in Canada.
“In Canada we regulate and plan the amount of commercial space in a city. There is such a thing as too much retail. Because of this we don’t have the same rate of failed malls,” Toderian said.
As a result, Canada is a bit behind the U.S. when it comes to reimagining shopping mall space and pairing it with housing, he adds.
The Galleria Mall, on a 20-acre site, will be torn down and replaced by new retail — 300,000 square feet of shopping — and eight towers of 18 to 35 storeys that will include 2,900 residential units including 150 units of affordable rentals.
An eight-acre park in the neighbourhood is being improved and there will be a new community centre that doubles the capacity of the one there now.
Lazer says the first phase of construction is planned to begin early next year.
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Lazer admits the down-at-the-heel Galleria Mall “has its issues” and that’s a significant reason for the redevelopment.
But an appealing aspect of the project is that it provides an opportunity to take the concept of mix-use development to another level, he adds.
“The project will create a live-work-play feeling. It brings a variety of uses — a more walkable neighbourhood, a variety of housing, shopping on site. It calls for investments in infrastructure and community facilities. If we built a stand-alone tower elsewhere, it’s doubtful you would get all these benefits that we are providing. The ability to do a planned community allows us to put those investments into infrastructure.
“The scale is possible through these types of mixed-use communities,” Lazer says.
Several blocks south at nearby Dufferin Mall, where a zoning application has been submitted by Primaris Management Inc., a subsidiary of H&R REIT, that project calls for 1,135 residential units in four buildings.
The mall, a profitable business now, has parking space that offers opportunities for housing, says Matthew Kingston, vice-president of development and construction for Primaris.
“Dufferin Mall is an extremely well-used mall. We get people who walk, bike and take transit there. Our parking lot is large, but never full, not even on Boxing Day. A large surface lot in an urban setting, next to a subway makes little sense,” Kingston says.
Up Dufferin St. at Yorkdale Mall, one of Canada’s leading retail centres, co-owned by Oxford Properties and Alberta Investment Management Corporation (AIMCo), with more than 270 shops on nearly two million square feet of space, a “block study” master plan anticipating the redevelopment is being worked on with input from local residents, the city and the developer.
Because of the heavy transportation nodes around the property — the 401, Allen Rd. expressway, a TTC subway stop and a bus terminal with GO Transit service, not to mention the busy Dufferin St. corridor at the west side of the mall, the city is working on a transportation master plan to support the block study, says Guy Matthew, a senior City of Toronto planner.
The key question for the study, Matthew says, is whether the current transportation network can handle the capacity of the Yorkdale redevelopment or if it needs improvements made to facilitate the project.
But the mall and development team have looked around the world and “needless to say we know the success we have seen and projects of this calibre show mixed-use developments have longevity and do provide an economic opportunity, not only for the site but also for the neighbourhood,” Santamaria says.
Remaining a retail leader and staying relevant to consumers is a big reason for the rethink, she adds.
“We need to be flexible enough in order to be able to capture what our guests, our customers are looking for. That could be housing, a hotel, or office space on site,” she says.
“But even then, the needs and demands and configuration of those things are changing and again we just want to put ourselves in a position where we can be flexible enough to create successful projects that people want.”
Donovan Vincent is a housing reporter based in Toronto. Follow him on Twitter: @donovanvincent