Sun, Feb 05, 2012 - Page 11 News List

North America begins to rethink how strip malls are used

By Michel Comte  /  AFP, OTTAWA

A branch of the Applebee’s restaurant chain is seen in a strip mall in Totowa, New Jersey, on Oct. 3 last year.

Photo: Bloomberg

Strip malls — once anchors of postwar North American suburban neighborhoods — are doomed, with thousands across Canada and the US already derelict and eyed by land developers.

However, at least one Canadian academic sees value in maintaining the ubiquitous local retailing plazas and has amassed proposals, such as adding community gardens or toboggan slides, or morphing them into giant bee hives or parking lots for food caravans.

“Strip malls were once the economic hubs of new suburbs,” said Rob Shields, a sociology professor at the University of Alberta in Edmonton, who received a government grant to rethink strip malls so that they can benefit the communities around them.

For more than 50 years, retailers favored the rows of boxy single-story shops opening onto a common parking lot facing major roadways bringing commuters driving between their suburban homes and downtown workplaces.

However, they are losing favor because of rising fuel prices, traffic congestion and city planners’ demands to make cities denser as part of a drive for more “walkable” cities.

More than 11 percent of strip malls in North America are derelict, representing 28 million square meters of vacant retail space, according to the Washington-based Urban Land Institute.

The rest are arguably in decline.

City planners such as Winnipeg’s Jeff Palmer view strip malls as “retail relics.”

“They reflect a time and a place that is no longer environmentally sustainable or economically viable. They do nothing to add to the vibrancy of a neighborhood and they don’t encourage walking, communicating or socializing,” he said.

They once housed banks, dry cleaners, drugstores, post offices and video stores all in one convenient location.

However, retailing has changed. Video stores lost out to online downloading, while superstores now sell groceries as well as other goods and services all under one roof.

“If they’re going next door for a product or service, why not keep them in-house,” John Williams, a senior consultant with retail consulting firm JC Williams Group, said of superstores.

Developers, meanwhile, would rather build regional “power centers” — big strip malls that pack in more stores and two or three anchor tenants locked into 20-year leases providing more stable cash flows.

And owners increasingly view “not very pretty” strip malls as “superb redevelopment opportunities,” said Ed Sonshine, CEO of RioCan Real Estate, which owns more than 100 strip malls in Canada and the US.

Sonshine turned a 2,100m2 strip mall in Toronto into a seven-story condominium building with retail stores on the ground floor and three levels of underground parking.

The main argument for strip malls is that they allow some form of neighborhood retailing to survive, said Palmer, “so that we’re not all driving 5km to buy milk.”

Some have been transformed into restaurant plazas, which have proved to be popular. Food retailing is one of the few still strong segments in retailing.

Shields, along with cities researcher Merle Patchett, held a design contest to generate new ideas to transform others. The top entries from 11 countries, including Australia, Brazil, Egypt, Germany and Iran, are posted at www.strip-appeal.com.

“There’s still a demand for local retail services and these facilities are standing there and so the question is, how can they be reused to make suburbs more vibrant and more sustainable?” Shields said.

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