Vol. 51, No. 3 - Fall 2021

Vol. 51, No. 3 - Fall 2021

By Mike O’Dwyer

Zombies and shopping malls - what’s up with that?

Well, you could say it all started with George A. Romano way back in 1961 when the director/writer/producer jump-started a new craze - the zombie apocalypse film - with the release of Night of the Living Dead, in which a group of men and women barricade themselves in an old farmhouse to try and stay safe from a horde of flesh-eating ghouls. That film did not end well for the besieged group but it did lead to a sequel, Dawn of the Dead, that follows a few of the survivors who take refuge in an abandoned, upscale, suburban shopping mall during a zombie attack.

Here’s a sample of dialogue from that movie as two characters watch hordes of zombies repeatedly bang up against the locked doors of the mall:

Woman: What are they doing? Why do they come here?

Man: Some kind of instinct. Memory of what they used to do. It was an important place in their lives.

Shopping malls: important to (living) people then and through the intervening years, but maybe lesser so now in what seems to be a sea change in the traditional views and uses of malls heading into the future.

More proof of the difficulties faced by shopping malls, further exacerbated by COVID and a rise in internet purchasing: The proliferation of zombie malls (also known as ghost malls or dead malls) suffering from high vacancy rates, low consumer traffic levels and general deterioration.

While zombie malls are more prevalent south of the border than here, there is no doubt that enclosed shopping malls in Canada are facing similar challenges to their continued viability as consumer preferences evolve away from previous shopping norms. IBI Group is the largest Canadian architecture firm and the sixth largest in the world, specializing in the design of integrated cities that bridge the gap between design and technology. From IBI’s Toronto headquarters, Robyn Brown leads the Group’s Real Estate, Economics and Planning team, which provides its clients with a broad spectrum of real estate advice including best-use, market and feasibility studies. Brown says that COVID didn’t create the trend away from malls but it did accelerate it: “Malls were already facing a decline. In 2018-19, malls experienced a 22 percent decline in foot traffic.

“With steady income streams diminishing, mall landlords were forced to look at their assets in different ways. For some, this meant reassessing the need for large brick and mortar footprints and perhaps moving to less square footage. It also presented an opportunity to change - especially for those landlords with excellent locations in the middle of cities.”

Coupled with the reduction in mall shoppers and the corresponding growth in online purchasing, mall tenancies are also under fire. But well-located mall properties also offer significant potential for unlocking added value.

“While city-centric malls are often in areas of high growth, they are also constrained by land supply,” says Brown. “So, if landlords can’t grow ‘out’, they must look ‘inward’ and leverage every aspect of their properties. For example, huge parking lots with free surface parking are unproductive - land that could be much better used by moving the parking underground and building multi-unit housing - condos or apartments - over or around a retail footprint.”

So, adding a residential component is one way malls are being reimagined - bringing new direct revenue streams to the landlord and adding a substantial cohort of shoppers in close proximity to the retail component of the ‘new’ mall.

But what should that ‘new’ mall look like to increase and sustain foot traffic and drive tenant success in an increasingly online world? “To be successful, reimagined malls must better connect with their communities - become ‘destinations’ by being social hubs, by expanding cultural offerings - like a more diverse and inclusive food court - and by adding new uses such as offices and residential components. ‘New’ malls should be welcoming and engaging at street level and provide visitors with a sense of safety, comfort and convenience.”

Other industry experts echo Brown’s strategies for creating successful ‘new’ malls. For example, in a 2020 report from Deloitte Canada, The Future of the Mall - Building a new kind of destination for the post-pandemic world, interviews with mall landlords, retailers and consumers led to these five critical changes that landlords and retailers must embrace to keep consumers coming back:

1. Focus on safety and convenience, balancing consumers’ desire for social interaction with their need for a safe, easy shopping experience.

2. Rethink the role of the store, emphasizing the associate’s role in facilitating an exceptional customer experience and focusing on flagship, showroom, pop-up locations, and other innovation formats.

3. Make way for the food revolution, which will become the new anchor that brings visitors to the mall as less relevant fashion retailers move out.

4. Embrace technology, capitalizing on digital tools to maximize productivity and efficiency and to create experiences that are dynamic and engaging.

5. Become a new destination, creating a multi-purpose environment that offers extensive leisure activities as well as other services, like office, residential, and cultural amenities. Deloitte’s research found that shoppers want ‘a multipurpose destination that offers leisure activities as well as other functions like residential and cultural amenities’ and one of the top mall modifications that will bring back shoppers is ‘green space, trees and parkland for relaxing ambience.’


Target: Zombies That Strip

So ... where does the zombie/mall connection take us? Over there, by that empty Target store. According to Brown, “Zombie malls aren’t really a Canadian thing. The US has much more retail space per capita than Canada. Developers here were more conservative in their developments. But Canada does have zombie properties - for example, large Target store properties that are sitting idle - and Greyfield sites that are solid candidates for redevelopment.”

Greyfields are typically urban area strip malls and empty office parks that are no longer profitable. Unlike Brownfields - contaminated properties like defunct gas stations that require expensive remediation measures - Greyfields offer greater opportunities for redevelopment because they are frequently situated along arterial roads, have accessibility to public transit, are on large parcels of land, and may already have zoning permissions for mixed-use development.

Brown says, “Old retail plazas with their large parking lots are good choices for intensification including a variety of development options such as townhouses, midrises, office and retail. They are often owned by small investors which simplifies the redevelopment process.”


Malls Reimagined

Milton Mobility Hub, Milton Ontario

IBI Group was retained by site landlord, Paradise Developments, to prepare a master plan for the redevelopment of the Milton Mall site. Currently, the site is an underutilized mall and big box retail development with vast parking. The 7.6 ha (18.6 acre) site was identified for redevelopment because of its close proximity to the Milton GO Transit Station. The proposed intensified, phased redevelopment will include high-rise mixed use residential buildings, mid-rise apartments and townhomes, a new pedestrian-oriented street network, community spaces, and retail opportunities – transforming the site into a truly transit-oriented development.

Robyn Brown: “The Town of Milton and Metrolinx are seeking to transform a suburban community to transit supportive densities. Through IBI, I will assess the market fundamentals, financial assumptions and feasibility of the planned development.”


Galleria Mall,

Toronto, Ontario

This massive project at the intersection of Dufferin and Dupont Streets in Toronto, replaces an aging landmark with a 20-acre mixeduse community with approximately 2,846 residential units (including 150 affordable units), 300,000 square feet of retail space and an 8-acre park.

According the ELAD Canada and Hariri Pontarini Architects, the developer and architects for the new development, “The Galleria project ... seeks to create a complete community (...) with a revitalized streetscape and pedestrian network (reflecting) the needs of the community, and improving transit and multi-modal transportation options.”

Opened in 1972, the Galleria Mall was an enclosed single storey shopping centre with approximately 50 tenants. Described by Toronto writers as cave-like and run-down, retail activity diminished over the years to the point where tenants could barely survive - and some didn’t. For the surrounding, and increasingly gentrified, neighbourhood, the mall was considered an important community hub. The new development retains and expands its place as a community and retail centre while adding eight mixed-use buildings with 2,900 condo units, 150 affordable rental units, 300,000 square feet of retail, an eight-acre park and a 95,000 square foot community centre.

Robyn Brown: “The experiences consumers are looking for have completely changed and malls are adapting. Today’s shoppers want openness to the surrounding streetscape and within a mall that feels and acts like a community hub.”


Edmonton City Centre

Edmonton, Alberta

The Edmonton City Centre Mall is located in the heart of city’s financial district. Redevelopment saw the mall consolidated from four levels to three with the top floor becoming a 500-seat food court. Since 2019, new condo developments have and will add over 23,000 new residents to the downtown area.

Through the past few years, a number of retailers pulled out of the Edmonton City Centre, including major anchors Hudson’s Bay and Holt Renfrew. The mall hadn’t had a renovation since the 1980’s so the $41.3 million revitalization was extensive - opening up the mall to the streetscape, adding sidewalk restaurants and cafes, as well as multiple new entrances and underground parking.

Robyn Brown: “The Edmonton City Centre is in an ideal location - the LRT is right out front, the Edmonton Oilers arena is nearby, condos and apartments are rising up - so it made sense to revitalize it. ‘Experiential’ shopping means giving people a reason to come - providing more than they can get from buying online. The Edmonton City Centre redevelopment did just that. It now looks outward, not inward and has become a vibrant part of the city.”


Jackson Square

Hamilton, Ontario

Jackson Square is part of the Hamilton City Centre, a commercial area, located at James Street N. and Wilson Street, in the heart of the city, that is a shell of what it once was. IN8 Developments is spearheading a $700 million plan to demolish the existing buildings and construct five residential and commercial towers in its place. Also planned for the site: a convention centre, hotel and shop-filled thoroughfare with an indoor-outdoor ambience.

The design includes approximately 2,000 units in four condo towers joined at their base by ground floor commercial space with a glass exterior that flips the mall’s current inward-facing orientation to an outward look and a more attractive streetscape.

Robyn Brown: “Jackson Square was part of the Hamilton Eaton Centre opened in 1989, built on the same site as the original Eaton’s store that had opened in 1927. It is covered, very inward-looking, dated and struggling. The new mall will be open, spacious and inclusive - a new design for a different time.”


Cloverdale Mall

Etobicoke/Toronto, Ontario

Built in 1956, Cloverdale Mall at the Intersection of Dundas Street West and Highway 427 is undergoing a complete transformation by landowner, QuadReal Property Group. The aging mall will be redeveloped as the glazed-glass covered Cloverdale Square with 26,000 square metres of retail space and a row of stores along a European-inspired open-air pedestrian street.

The 32-acre redevelopment integrates itself with the surrounding neighbourhoods and features a wide range of living spaces including a mix of market rental, affordable rental, condominiums, and multigenerational housing. Community features include a retirement home and a community centre.

The redevelopment will seamlessly integrate with the Six Points neighbourhood - a massive re-envisioning of Etobicoke’s downtown area.

Robyn Brown: “The increase in online retailing, coupled with changes in the way consumers shop - partly as an ongoing result of COVID - have rendered the traditional shopping centre model a relic of a bygone era. The Cloverdale and Six Points projects have created a micro-city.”


Burnaby Mall

Burnaby, British Columbia

The City of Burnaby has created a 100-year master plan to establish a high-density downtown core. Central to the plan is the redevelopment of Metropolis at Metrotown, a 30-year-old, 47-acre shopping centre, owned by Ivanhoe Cambridge, currently the third-largest in Canada with 27 million annual customer visits. The site of the existing 1.7 million square foot mall will be transformed into a new pedestrian-oriented street grid lined with a mix of new high rises - including thousands of new homes and an arts/events and convention centre - retail space, parks, plazas and street-facing podiums that will essentially turn the mall ‘inside out’, according to Burnaby’s director of planning and building, Ed Kozak, as quoted in a Burnaby Now article by Kevin Gawley (October 28, 2019).

Kozak also said that the redevelopment plan follows recent urban planning trends away from traditional ‘fortress-like’ malls. “There’s a move away from the exclusively internalized mall model to one that’s more outwardly oriented and one that has a relationship to the streets around it,” Kozak said.


When change isn’t possible

Hudson’s Bay Building

Winnipeg, Manitoba

HBC’s Winnipeg store at the corner of Portage Avenue and Memorial Boulevard in the heart of the city’s downtown core, was shuttered by the company in November 2020, citing ‘shifting consumer behaviour’ as a major reason for its closure.

Built in 1923, the six-storey building was once HBC’s flagship store and is a Winnipeg landmark. A prominent, ideally-situated property like this should be ripe for redevelopment but history and cost will very likely keep it empty and untouched well into the future.

The building was designated a historic structure by the city in 2019 - meaning that the façade and many other features would have to be retained during a renovation.

As a consequence, a 2019 appraisal of the building placed its market value at $0.

Robyn Brown: “The valuation also found that it would cost north of $100 million just to bring the building up to code - making the commercial rebirth of what should be a prime piece of real estate nearly impossible.”


The mall where zombies roamed is maybe undead ... maybe not

Monroeville Mall is a super-regional, two-level shopping centre located just east of Pittsburg, Pennsylvania. It gained a measure of fame when the zombie movie Dawn of the Dead was filmed there in 1977-1978 with all-in mall filming taking place at night after the mall had closed. It hosts an annual Living Dead Weekend that includes a horror-themed market and actors from the movie.

The mall has also made appearances in other films and TV shows including Flashdance, Zack and Miri Make a Porno, The Boy Who Loved Trolls, and episodes of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood, and the Netflix series Mindhunter.

The 1.3 million square foot Monroeville Mall opened in 1969. A major renovation took place in 2003-2004 and a second multimilliondollar renovation/revitalization was begun in 2015 which, according to the mall owners, was designed to ‘focus on offering shoppers a welcoming vibrant destination to shop, dine and spend time with family and friends.’ However, a fatal shooting at the mall, also in 2015, reduced foot traffic and prompted the mall owners to introduce extensive safety measures in an effort to encourage shoppers to return.

In 2020, citing reduced mall traffic, tenant closures and COVID restrictions, Chattanooga Tennessee-based REIT, CBL & Associates Properties Inc., owner of 104 mall properties including Monroeville Mall, announced plans for a bankruptcy reorganization. At that time, a company principal said, “Our vision is to transform our properties from traditional enclosed malls to suburban town centers.” As part of that transformation, The Annex at Monroeville has been added next to the mall. An open-air centre, it includes an entertainment destination and indoor karting. 

Will these and other transformations help Monroeville Mall back from its brushes with real, fake and business death? Only time will tell. The Land Economist would like to thank Robyn Brown of the IBI Group for taking the time to speak to us and provide us with her valuable knowledge and insights. Robyn, a recent new member of AOLE, left us with these parting words.

“The AOLE is a great organization. It’s a unique body that provides the opportunity for frank discussion with public and private land economist professionals that broadens and deepens my understanding of industry issues and trends in very important ways.”


Robyn Brown MA, MPL, PLE

Director – Sr. Practice Lead, Planning IBI Group