Last week, the new Shops at Don Mills opened at Lawrence Avenue and Don Mills Road, in the heart of the pioneering 1950s suburb developed by EP Taylor.The new commercial property, developed by Cadillac Fairview, is an example of a “lifestyle centre”, replacing an earlier mall that was demolished, despite some local opposition, in 2006.
As built, Don Mills was meant to be self-contained, with housing of various types (detached ranch-style houses, townhouses and low-rise apartments), industry, and community uses such as shopping, recreation, and schools. The original mall, opened in the 1950s and one of the first Eaton’s stores to open outside a city’s downtown core, was originally outdoors, with covered walkways, as was the fashion of the time. A renovation in the 1970s expanded and enclosed the mall, which served as the natural meeting space and community hub of the neighbourhood.
The new lifestyle centre is almost “back to the future”, bringing the stores back outside facing private lanes with parallel and angled parking, almost like a genuine neighbourhood retail strip. There’s bike racks, stylized versions of the old Eucan garbage bins, benches, and speakers playing background music.
It is hard not to notice the new stores opening have a up-market mix, compared to the old mall, which while tired, had more neighbourhood-oriented stores like a Shoppers Drug Mart (moved across Lawrence to a new strip plaza) and a Home Hardware. New stores target a more moneyed clientele – indeed, one of the features of the complex is valet parking next to the parking garage at the northwest end of the development. However, one of the new stores is rather exciting – McNally Robinson, a small Canadian chain of book stores, is one of the anchors – finally some local competition in the large-format bookstore market against the Reisman empire of Indigo/Chapters.
The new shopping centre is a perfect example of the types of “Grey Spaces” that the latest issue of Spacing discusses. There is an extensive internal road network, interesting street furniture, and a mix of facades to give the illusion that this is a bona-fide shopping neighbourhood. But this is a managed, private space, and Cadillac Fairview security guards patrolling in Smart cars remind you of this. However, street signs on the private lanes look the same as the new signs being placed by the City of Toronto across the city.
The centre is not yet finished. The part along Don Mills Road continues to be lined with surface parking lots, though this and is slated for mid-rise condo development, and will face the proposed Don Mills LRT line. Right now, the only store to face a public street is an LCBO outlet, at the corner of Lawrence and The Donway.
In the middle of the complex is a central square, with some interesting art, fountains, and a planned winter iceskating rink, again replicating public uses that one would find downtown. A series of new historic plaques detail the history of this first true post-war suburb of Toronto. And on Lawrence, wall-art that was part of the 1962 Eaton’s store was wonderfully preserved.
I have mixed feelings about Shops at Don Mills, though I guess I would consider this to be a very interesting and at the least, a well-intentioned development. The local community lost a local meeting place and a shopping centre that served their needs. There’s also something vaguely Disneyish about the place as well, almost something out of the Truman Show. But as a private development, while still not complete, is worthy of discussion.