To a passerby, the construction taking place at Metrotown’s Station Square may look the same as any of the others taking place on nearby plots where condominium towers are sprouting. A closer look, however, reveals that all the dirt, demolition, and digging is part of something much bigger, for both Metrotown and the entire Vancouver region: the rebirth of the mall. The one-time domains of commerce, department stores, and vast expanses of parking are on the cusp of a dramatic change, one that may, in the next decade, redefine the meaning of a trip to mall.
In this, Station Square is not alone. Brentwood Town Centre and Oakridge Centre have put forth proposals that reach even farther. This latest wave of renewals have much in common: mixed use with offices, expanded commercial space, and proximity to transit, be it Skytrain or the Canada Line. In space-starved Vancouver, it is no surprise to find that housing is included on all the projects – and lots of it. Across all three sites, there is the potential for over 8,000 residential units.
The orientation of the malls is new, as well. Instead of the isolated bunker, divided from its surrounding context, the revitalized centres aspire to be just that – centres. They will use their advantage of space and location in an effort to become the focus of neighbourhood life for residents both on-site and nearby. Some of the proposals include green space and new streets tying neighbourhoods and mall sites together, creating spaces of interaction and community. New high streets, brimming with activity, pedestrians, and bicyclists, are the vision promised by developers.
Malls offer unique opportunities for city-building. The land is consolidated under single ownership and situated in prime locations. This opens the door for local city governments to work with private interests to craft cohesive master plans, avoiding the pitfalls of piecemeal development that often occurs. Growth at mall sites limit sprawl in other corners of the region and provide more housing choices in Metro Vancouver’s regional centres. Residents will be spoiled for good transit access, with frequent trains and regular bus service. The potential is enormous.
The singular nature of the malls, however, are also their downfall. Operating on such a massive scope, developers and municipalities must get the details right on these large, complex, and time-consuming rebirths. Striking the balance between public space, residences, offices, and commercial, while providing spaces both active and reserved, is essential.
Even today, the 41 bus faces a string of riders waiting, as it arrives at Oakridge. The Canada Line station, with only a single exit, is busy throughout the day. Locating thousands of new residents will add to this burden without more investment in infrastructure. Oakridge developers should help pay for a second exit at the Canada Line station. Articulated buses may be needed along 41st, one of TransLink’s busiest routes. Willingdon Avenue bus service, connecting the growing nodes of Metrotown and Brentwood, will likely require service improvements as well.
The new malls purport to be the next frontier in urban neighbourhoods. Yet regardless of how they are built, they will lack, by virtue of youth, the grit, the variety, the age, and the diversity of buildings of an older urban setting. It remains to be seen whether manufactured urbanism can create an authentic space or if these transformations will further burnish the notion of Vancouver as a ‘resort city’.
Renderings and drawings of the proposals reinforce this. The people are exclusively fit and well-dressed strolling on impeccably clean streets around late-model cars, an attractive if high-end vision. Will the reborn malls have homes for retail employees or single-parent households? Will commercial rents be within the grasp of small local businesses? At Oakridge, larger units are proposed and provisions for rental and senior housing exist, appropriate nods to the need for true diversity of homes. Less certain is whether these units will be sufficient or simply a gesture.
Beyond social equity, what services will be provided? At Oakridge, will a new library be big enough to handle the increased population? How will the extension of public streets through private property be managed? Will public greenspace be available or simply reserved for those able to purchase into the developments?
Mall transformations offer rare opportunities to create unique spaces that can better where we live, but all of us must be vigilant, as residents, as cities, and as developers, to ensure the best possible outcomes. For now, keep an eye on Station Square – chances are you won’t recognize it soon.
Zak Bennett is a UBC graduate student researching youth travel behavior in China. Locally, he is interested in urban development, transportation, and finding the city’s most interesting bicycling routes.