Last week the Duke of Data, Director of the  City Program at Simon Fraser University Andy Yan and I ventured to do some retail market research at Tsawwassen Mills Mall. I have written about this merchandising mega mall since before its inception and covered its opening day. The CBC interviewed retail consultant David Gray four years ago who said

“It’s not going to be a slam dunk They’re not going to be a convenience mall or mall for locals. Sure, locals will shop there, but for them to be successful, they’re going to be what’s known as a destination mall or a mall where people are going to make some pretty major time investments for their shopping trips.”

Mr. Gray was right. The mall has had challenges attracting staff and now provides buses for employees to get to the mall and back. And while there was a burst of interest when the mall first opened, it has not been able to keep all the shops open with approximately 20 percent creatively shuttered behind facade treatment that blend into the mall decor.

A walk around the mall does provide 2.5 kilometers of walking. But it is a huge space to maintain with 1,100,000 square feet and has 188 storefronts.

At the time of opening the mall, which is the third in the Ivanhoe Cambridge  mega mall stable along with Cross Iron Mills near Calgary and Vaughan Mills near Toronto hopes were higher for retail success. Ivanhoe Cambridge saw this location as centred in the third largest urban area in Canada, and felt that traffic would come from all over the region. With the mall’s location near the ferry terminal and connecting to Highway 99, customers spend the most time at the mall than any other in the developer’s portfolio, 113 minutes.

But think of that~they have driven 30 minutes if they came from Vancouver, and just the size of the mall means that you are spending a lot of time just traversing the place from one store to another.

Out of all Ivanhoe Cambridge’s Canadian retail holdings Tsawwassen Mills brings in the lowest sales per square foot at $377 per square foot. In comparison, Vaughan Mills in Toronto with 1.276,324 square feet and 216 stores brings in $886 per square foot, while Calgary’s Cross Iron Mills brings in $689 per square foot with 191 stores and 1,161,065 square feet. These figures are data from December 2019. They are pre-Covid statistics.

Patrick Sisson with Bloomberg describes what has happened at the Alderwood Mall in Lynnwood near Seattle which has become a 300 unit apartment complex that will augment a lower square footage of retail. Instead of seeing this as a new trend it is the acceleration of a current trend, to live in walkable places close to shops and services. Already real estate groups with shopping centre holdings are planning on mixed use developments instead of the mono economy of retail. Since the recession of 2008 retailing has completely recovered to have the same number of shops as before the crisis.

One analyst describes it as “Before the Great Recession we had too many retail spaces; now we have way too many retail spaces. The outdoor lifestyle centers will survive — they’re perceived as safer than indoors. But it’s hard to escape the fact that we’ve trained people to fear the world, and that it’s going to have long-term impacts on their behaviors.”

Adapting retail space in malls to residential or even warehouse space will be the next challenge in mall design.

The mall may be evolving, but the desire, and challenges, in creating a community-oriented development still remain.”


  1. Many malls in good locations now add units on top, eg Center Street Mall in Calgary, Park Royal in W Van, Oakride Center in Vancouver, and several in the Greater Toronto Area such as this one or this one

    Tsawwassen Mills may do that in time, too. For now they build around it, eventually on top too.

  2. With predictions of decreased revenues for malls, it seemed very shortsighted at the time and seems even more so now. Why they would build such a large mall far away from their customer base, with limited transportation options is beyond me.

    1. People love their cars, esp families in fast growing Surrey, Richmond, Delta etc .. Their death declaration is premature.

      Tsawwassen Mills is not Oakridge nor Pacific Center with excellent transit nearby. It’s on a major ferry access route, usually by car and easily accessible with plenty of parking. With massive population growth in MetroVan over the next 20-40 years this mall will do OK, as will more transit oriented malls like Oakride or Pacific Center. There’s room for BOTH, as one type doesn’t fit all tastes, budgets or occasions.

      Malls are not just for shopping but also to meet family, have an icecream, go for a walk without snow, heat or rain, people watch etc .. all stuff one cannot do online.

      1. People keep bringing up the ferry which I think is entirely irrelevant. Who isn’t in a hurry trying to catch a ferry when going to the ferry? Who is likely to to make a detour to a shopping mall when arriving on the mainland? A novelty once for a few, perhaps.

        Malls are failing all over the place. Some will survive. But the model of build-it-in-the-middle-of-nowhere and they will come is more than half a century old and it is not the way cities are evolving. It is on former farm land. It super vulnerable to rising oceans. They are counting on the taxpayer to dike them up. I wouldn’t count on that.

        1. In a fast growing region they will continue to come. Also see new and expanding YVR airport mall. Doing ok too.

          Covid has upended the urban densification mania. Massive housing demand in suburbs and smaller towns 1-2h outside of big cities eg Chiliwack, Gibsons, Nanaimo, Sechelt, Langley, Tsawwassen etc

          1. Tell me how people moving to Chilliwak, Gibsons, Nanaimo, Sechelt and Langley are going to benefit Tsawwassen Mills. (If that’s even really happening.) Tsawwassen can’t ever have the population to support such a massive mall unless it morphs itself into “densification mania”. Just because a city grows does not mean it will attract people who love going for long long drives to just another mall. The mall is surrounded by the ALR and can only ever have limited local clientelle.

            McArthur Glen is a kitschy, tacky mall that appeals to a certain kind of person. But for all its many flaws it is near a SkyTrain station and much much closer to a larger population base. It was always sold as a place for travelers with several hour layovers to bide their time with a free transit connection. It’s decision to expand was pre-Covid as YVR passenger counts were growing quickly. They’ll be counting on that recovery.

            Covid will almost certainly go away at some point and life will gravitate back to some kind of normal. Since lower-density Fraser Health has consistently had much higher case counts than higher-density Vancouver Coastal Health the smart people aren’t going to rush off to the ‘burbs to get a front row seat for exposure to the next pandemic.

          2. The YVR mall may be doing well, but has a much better location and is easily accessible by transitwith a Canada Line station nearby or a short bike ride.

          3. Shopping with 2+ people happens usually by CAR. Not everyone loves public transit or biking to a mall. The target of Tsawwassen Mills is folks south of the Fraser ie Richmond, Surrey, Delta ie THE FASTEST GROWING part of MetroVan.

            Of course transit oriented development (TOD) will do well too.

            Please accept that not one model fits all of society’s desires, shopping or housing needs. Ask your average Surrey or Richmond immigrant family of 3-6 [ who don;t usualyl blog here, as we know, of course ]!

            Not sure if there are stats out there that show avg spending of folks arriving by train, bus or car.

          4. If Surrey, Delta and Richmond are THE FASTEST GROWING part of metro Vancouver it would make more sense to build shopping and amenities in Surrey, Delta and Richmond. And, in fact, they are.

            That’s why Tsawwassen Mills is doing poorly and will continue to do so. Why drive for half an hour or more when you could drive for half the time and have options besides your car too? Maybe you’re going to meet your friends who don’t want to drive or can’t join you for the trip. There is nothing to suggest that those in a growing Surrey will be interested in the long drive. Most of the growth is centralized around amenities or sprawling out in the opposite direction.

    2. Because the market research the Nation commissioned to tell them what they wanted to hear told them what they wanted to hear – that there was a regional demand for destination retail that was not being met and that Tsawwassen was an ideal location for it. That’s why they built it. Don’t worry, though. Everyone got paid.

  3. A lot of news articles may says that a mall “turns into” or “becomes” condos or residential, but what they really mean is demolition of the existing structure and redevelopment with a new mixed use or residential building. Usually if they retail the existing structure, the new use would be office, institutional or light industrial use since one or 2 storeys of residential wouldn’t really be feasible.

    That’s happening in a lot of places – locally at:
    – Amazing Brentwood
    – City of Lougheed
    – Oakridge
    – Richmond Centre
    – Lansdowne Mall

    An older project in Vancouver is the redevelopment of Champlain Mall in about 1999.
    There used to be a Hudson’s Bay there, which became a Zellers, then it was redeveloped after Metrotown dominated retail in the area.

    Even if you look a “Canada’s first covered shopping centre” built in 1950 (according to Wikipedia) – Park Royal – you have the adjacent Park Royal Towers apartments (I couldn’t find a date for construction).

    1. For the “that’s happening” reference, it should reference back to the demolition and redevelopment, not the office, institutional, etc.

  4. Not one mention in the comments of Amazon the real reason this and other retail are dying, malls or otherwise. I knew bricks and mortar retail was dead 2 years ago when a friend told me they were hung-over on a Sunday and ordered a bag of Potato Chips on Amazon Prime that were delivered in an hour. The irony is the new FBA facility built right next to T-Mills, maybe the Nation hedged their bets.

    1. Dead? Amazon is great for homebodies and those addicted to consumption. I never use it and probably never will. The only things I’ve ever bought on-line are those things that are obscure enough to be too small a market to bother with in bricks and mortar or those that I have no choice, like event or service tickets.

      Am I the oddball? Or has Amazon swept up the homebody market in record time but will stall getting beyond it? People who choose to live in the city do so in large part to be social and close to amenities. Amazon will have a hard time making big gains there.

      And will government begin to intervene in their business model when the true environmental cost becomes apparent to more and more? At least they do appear to be committed to EV delivery. But there’s a lot more to their environmental damage than carbon emissions.

  5. T Mills always seemed like a development disaster to me. When it was proposed, I was sure that it wouldn’t be completed and thus am extremely annoyed that it was. The Mills concept was always destination outlet malls on the cheap. The buildings themselves are just giant barns with simple racetrack layouts and low cost decor. The big attraction is that they are big. I’ve never been to T Mills, but I understand that they actually modified the concept and invested more in the building and the decoration and it is midway between an outlet mall and a giant conventional mall. But even with the upgraded styling, the most obvious repurposing for a warehouse type building is a warehouse. With the Port of Vancouver calling for more space for warehousing and transshipping operations, that is an obvious location. But before we get ahead of ourselves, it doesn’t actually look like T Mills is heading out of business any time soon. Apparently it has found something of a customer base. I don’t know what they need to stay afloat, but sales of $377 per square foot aren’t completely tragic for a newish property.

  6. One day, post-Covid, there will probably be a workable public passenger ferry shuttle system to the Island servicing the major downtown harbours of the South Coast. BC Ferries won’t be charging $85 per passenger, as did the recently-failed tourist-oriented V2V boats. BCF will eventually be running a two-hour passenger shuttle in future. They don’t have to be high-speed to be effective, especially when combined with dedicated transit to the terminals.

    Most people today take their cars across mainly because of luggage needs and poor transit connections to the terminals. However, even with 21 million total passengers in pre-pandemic years, six million were still foot passengers. That is a good captive market start. A better quality passenger service will cost a fraction of the per passenger costs of today’s attendant massive car infrastructure and orders-of-magnitude larger vessel costs.

    Tsawwassen Mills essentially depends on a 1960s era car-dependent mall concept, and the consultants banked on car traffic numbers from the ferry terminal. Someone made a mistake, not in the total quantity of cars, but in the assumptions behind their calculation of how many of the travellers would be willing to add to their travel time significantly, or risk missing a ferry, to shop at another boring suburban mall. They also miscalculated how much residents of Tsawwassen town were willing to support their local businesses over a mega mall they expected would suck the lifeblood out of their high street.

    There might be another miscalculation in the coming years: The diminishing numbers of cars to the nearby ferry terminal as passenger ferries start to increase in frequency and directly link several downtown harbours together, and with any increase in transit service quality connected to the passenger terminals, notably on the Island. The E&N Railway Corridor is still sitting there with rusting rails and growing weeds, not 750 metres from the Departure Bay terminal. The mall shouldn’t have been planned on past assumptions, but on forecasts for the 2030s, which will make the 1960s freeway madness some very expensive developments were based on seem like it originated from a collector’s comic book series..

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