Business & Economy
June 7, 2017

Let's Build a Bigger Mall!

In the truth is stranger than fiction category CNN Money reports   on the puzzling emergence of  “American Dream Miami” a South Florida retail and entertainment complex that will be 6 million square feet-or roughly three times the size of the  Tsawwassen Mills Mall built between Highway 99 and the Tsawwassen ferry terminal.
Despite the fact that Amazon is taking over nearly every aspect of retailing and that large retailers are going to on-line sales to maintain their margins, the “American Dream Miami” hopes to create enough “experiences” that people will want to spend a lot of time shopping there too.  The Triple Five Group  who is developing this behemoth is owned by the Ghermezian family from Edmonton that have developed the Mall of America and the West Edmonton Mall. These are the same folks that took over the failed “Xanadu” Mall in New Jersey and are attempting to remake it into American Dream Meadowlands.  
complete with a giant ferris wheel and water slides. That project has missed its targets and now appears stalled.

Triple Five is counting on Miami shoppers wanting experiences, with a “skating rink, an indoor ski slope, an aquarium, nightclubs and theater space that can host acts like Cirque du Soleil and the Russian ballet.” This $4 billion project will also include 2,000 hotel rooms, and will not be built with public funding. “You’re talking about a regional entertainment destination,” said Miguel Diaz de la Portilla, a zoning lawyer for American Dream. “It’s not a run-of-the-mill mall.”
With County approvals projected for this year, this mall could be built by 2022 and is expected to create 23,000 construction jobs and 14,500 jobs associated with the mall. But if they build it are there shoppers and experience seekers that will come?


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No, not the Robson of the last two decades.  More like the Robson that emerged in the late ’70s and ’80s, just after the completion of Robson Square, when it re-emerged as the pedestrian commuter street between the West End and the CBD.
Something similar is happening on Dunsmuir.

No, not the old Dunsmuir prior to the Olympics, when it was a one-way arterial with four lanes of fast-moving vehicles on synchronized signaling from the viaduct to Burrard. The Dunsmuir that emerged after the opening of the separated cycle track in 2010 is taking on a distinct character from block to block.  It feels, even with all the traffic, as a predominantly pedestrian street and cycle arterial – quieter, safer, more eccentric.
It’s the preferred feeder for the ‘academic quarter’  – from BCIT at Seymour to VCC at Hamilton, with ESL colleges, the SFU complex and the Vancouver Film School populating the blocks to the north with thousands of students of no visible majority.
It has three SkyTrain stations blocks apart.  There are corporate office buildings and civic institutions like the Queen E.  There is a cathedral and the country’s most profitable mall.  There are restaurants and bars, from Ramon joints to the Railway Club (back again!).

It is a street still creating an identity, with an even more energetic future to come (the Art Gallery at Cambie, the redevelopment of the post office at Homer, a connection to False Creek when the viaduct comes down).  It will become even more Robson-like as the residents in the eastern towers and offices populate that end of the street, and more businesses open to serve them.
My favourite intersection is at Granville, anchored by the elegant old BC Electric showroom, now incorporated into The Hudson.  The pacing of people, vehicles, bikes and buses is an urban gavotte, a choreographic rhythm of traffic signals.  And with downtown’s biggest gym nearby, the people watching is pretty good too.

There is a lesson here.  If a separated cycle track and the removal of a vehicle lane with parking was going to kill the economics of a street, Dunsmuir should be dead by now.
In particular, the St Regis Hotel, having lost its curbside access, should be suffering. That does not appear to be the case.  Indeed, it can only profit more from the changes that are occurring as a consequence of the Dunsmuir cycle track.
In which case, the owner, a prominent businessman named Rob MacDonald – he who led the vilifying campaign against separated bike lanes, and even spent close to a million dollars backing the NPA in the fight – should perhaps offer a full-throated apology, or at least a recognition that the apocalyptic op-ed that he penned back in 2011 – “Downtown bike routes are a disaster” – was maybe a tad overstated.
And that Dunsmuir is turning out way better than anyone really expected. Thanks to a bike lane.

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Henry Grabar in The Slate reports that it was  ten years ago that the  death of  the suburban shopping mall was announced.  This was the first year in fifty that no new malls were built in the United States. “Brick and mortar” retailing has been failing, when “The Limited, a women’s clothing store, shut down 250 stores and laid off 4,000 workers earlier this year. Sears Holdings will close 150 stores, including 108 Kmarts, and Macy’s will close another 100. As anchor stores close, more and more malls are entering foreclosure. Financial instruments composed of debt from mall deals are looking as risky as their counterparts in residential debt did before the housing crisis.”

E-commerce,the rise of Amazon and online shopping has taken some of the blame. While there is increasing employment in warehousing, “department stores; general merchandise stores; and sporting goods, hobby, book, and music stores” have lost jobs, with clothing stores severely hit the last few months. Ironically 71 per cent of workers in ” sales and related occupations live in the suburbs, according to the Brookings Institution, about 2 percentage points higher than the average for U.S. workers.”
What seems to be successful for retail is the mix of an urban “retail corridor” in cities, with “stores flanked by restaurants, bars, and other entertainment attractions”, close to mixed use density and good public transit. But while media has blamed internet shopping for the end of the suburban mall,  retail may have been overbuilt. The challenge for suburban locations is finding alternative ways to create employment and repurpose lands to contribute to the tax base.  As Leah McLaren writes in the Globe and Mail Canadians still have not caught up with online shopping. While  10 to 12 per cent of Americans spend on the Amazon shopping site, only 6 per cent of Canadians do. Colliers reports that “online shopping sales growth can be blamed for vacancy of roughly 14.8 million square feet of mall space between 2012 and 2014.” Given that indicator, shopping malls  will be shrinking dramatically in Canada as well, as E-commerce catches on.
It is therefore no surprise that the Vancouver Sun writes that malls “are fighting for shoppers with one things their web rivals can’t offer: parking lots”, by using them for carnivals, concerts and food truck festivals. Tsawwassen Mills which has had spectacularly empty parking lots featured a carnival on site this month. They are also now running a “shopping shuttle” picking up prospective shoppers in downtown Vancouver for a day of mall shopping at the Mills.  But will shuttles provide enough consumer traffic for that long drive in the face of the quick access of E-commerce and Amazon? Is this a portent of changing consumer tastes?
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The Guardian  comments on the “Oculus”, the  1.4 billion dollar mall linking New York City’s One World Trade Center, the subway lines and trains. Michael Sorkin, an architecture professor at New York’s City College pinpoints the new trend in these downtown shopping malls which he notes “is virtually indistinguishable from Dubai duty-free. The effect is compromising and imperial – a real estate formula.”
The 100 shops contained in this downtown mall are the same multinational shops you’d see anywhere in the world. But what is curious here is that while malls in suburbia are declining, the urban mall contains a commercial mix that   integrates “so seamlessly into its urban surroundings that it can be difficult to draw any line between city and mall whatsoever. London’s Boxpark, Las Vegas’s Downtown Container Park and Miami’s Brickell City Centre are examples of mall-like environments that try to weave into the street life of a city.”
Using the principles that attract people to downtowns, these urban malls attempt to  offer a physical experience that is different from that of being online.  As one mall  builder noted “Customers prefer to be outside and to feel less artificial”.  Landscaping, paving of open spaces and how the space will be used for public space is now taken into account.
There are also cost savings with these urban malls, where  spaces and buildings are exposed to open air and are naturally ventilated, as opposed to heating and cooling the massive big box mall.
Hong Kong has over 300 shopping malls built with subway stations and as part of skyscrapers. Hong Kong’s transit system also develops property so that transit riders can seamlessly move to shopping experiences and to the office. But is this the way forward, with international brands and downtown shopping experiences? And how can independent shop keepers and regional stores compete with the international brands?

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Many thanks to Scot Bathgate who sent this story of the 1.1 million square foot “Galleria” mega mall at Pittsburgh Mills in Pennsylvania that foreclosed after the owners didn’t pay a $143 million dollar (USD) debt. The mall was auctioned off for $100.

Wells Fargo foreclosed last year on the mall, which opened in 2005. The mall once was worth $190 million but recently was appraised at just $11 million and is slightly more than half occupied. Pittsburgh Mills Limited Partnership defaulted on the loan.

When this mall opened in 2005 it was owned by Mills Corporation, a “publicly traded real estate investment trust (REIT) with 18 so-called “landmark” shopping-and-entertainment centers nationwide, as well as three more in the pipeline.

In advertising this mega mall in 2005 the Mills Corporation stated “Today, with the anchor announcements we make, we offer our consumers what they’ve been telling us they want — the broadest possible variety of value retail and entertainment and full price retail on a single Mills campus.”

This mall was divided into two sections: the 110 acre  1.15 million square foot “Galleria” at Pittsburgh Mills and another collection “big-box” tenants called the Village at Pittsburgh Mills. It included two department stores, restaurants and food courts, and had themed “neighbourhoods” with a “Sportstreet”.

“With this broad array of retail and entertainment offerings in one location, the Pittsburgh Mills campus will be the dominant retail and entertainment offering in the Pittsburgh market.”

From boom to bust in 12 years.

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Price Tags did award a 2016  Gordie to the Trump Tower for being one of the most polarizing planning issues of the previous year. In our comments we noted-

Trump Tower –”what are they thinking low hanging fruit, definitely a huge sore spotOfficial opening postponed, although much of the building is in every-day use through the back door.”

Price Tags has visited the Trump Tower on business in New York City and noted that the interior was-well-kind of early 1980’s, complete with lots of outdated marble finishes, and a lot of what could only politely be termed as Las Vegas glitz. However Price Tags was fascinated to learn that the Vancouver Trump Hotel that is still not opened already has a load of reviews, as noted in the Metro News.

“If you’re looking for a luxury hotel offering “unpresidented” guest service, “only takes Russian Rubles” currency, and “sucked, bigly,” look no further than the bizarre Google reviews pouring in for Trump International Hotel & Tower Vancouver…At time of publishing on Tuesday afternoon all but two of the 58 anonymous, user-submitted written reviews for the hotel that accompany its Google listing are negative — most of them mocking the Trump brand using the President-Elect’s own insults and idioms. “Unpresidented care for guests,” quipped Grant Moore, who gave the hotel just one-of-five stars. It was a reference to Trump’s Dec. 17 tweet in which he misspelled “unprecedented.”

While some Trump Hotels have been rebranded “Scion” hotels, Vancouver’s Holborn Group has not indicated that any rebranding will happen at the Vancouver Trump Hotel due to be opened any day. Until then, the Google listings are the only hotel reviews available for Vancouver’s Trump Tower.

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A compelling video from 2014 (quoting 2014 budget prices) is narrated by Vancouver architect Peter Cardew about how the current Vancouver Art Gallery could be renewed and expanded. Peter Cardew  was commissioned to look at the gallery spaces a decade earlier, and his take is very similar to that of the late architect Bing Thom’s-the current location of the art gallery is the centre of pedestrian traffic and importance in the downtown. Bing Thom Architects developed a “post-gallery” plan below the building’s North Plaza.

Like many Vancouverites,  the late Bing Thom architect extraordinaire loved the current site of the Vancouver Art Gallery on Hornby which is the place to sit, to people watch and functions as the navel of the city. Bing proposed a remarkable redo of the old gallery once vacated  to include a light-filled entrance to a 1,950 seat underground concert hall, a multi-use theatre and retail stores. Importantly he also proposed reopening the Georgia Street entrance of the building and focusing a new plaza on Georgia Street as the City’s primary public space and square.


Peter Cardew thought the Vancouver Art Gallery should stay on this site. In  this article  Peter Cardew thought “ as much as 176,000 square feet of additional space can be added to the historic courthouse building by creating additional underground spaces underneath the outdoor plaza facing West Georgia Street. It includes an underground “Grand Hall” measuring approximately 300 feet long and 70 feet high that incorporates a glass ceiling from the plaza to allow natural light to stream in. The vision also proposes to renovate the existing gallery spaces and repurpose UBC Robson Square into added space for the museum.”

At that time in 2014 dollars, Peter Cardew estimated that the cost of  changes would be $100 million less than the proposed $300 million dollar Larwill Park site  on Cambie Street across from the Queen Elizabeth Theatre. And there are precedents-both the Louvre in Paris and the Tate Modern in London expanded their facilities at existing galleries.

“I don’t know any gallery in the world that has such a prime site as the Vancouver Art Gallery does. If it were a vacant site that is where the Vancouver Art Gallery would be.” -Peter Cardew


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Bill Cunningham who wrote for the New York Times died at 87 in 2016.  You may have seen his column-Bill went around New York City by bike and by foot and photographed fashion trends. But he was doing more than that-as The New York Times stated  he “ turned fashion photography into his own branch of cultural anthropology on the streets of New York, chronicling an era’s ever-changing social scene for The New York Times by training his busily observant lens on what people wore — stylishly, flamboyantly or just plain sensibly”. 

In 2009 he was designated by the New York City Conservancy a  living landmark. There is also an excellent documentary on him called “Bill Cunningham New York.” He lived in a tiny apartment in the Carnegie Hall building. And if you saw him in his peasant jacket on a bicycle, you knew it was Bill.

I think Foncie Pulice who took photos of Vancouverites from the 1930’s to 1979 was also a bit like Bill Cunningham, someone who was at ease with talking to people on the street and leaving a cultural gift of all those photographic memories. And until 2006 there was David Cohen, a music lover that went to every symphony concert he could and would always talk to anyone on Granville Mall about music, bus routes, life and living in Vancouver. David always carried books with him and was passionate about music. Bramwell Tovey the conductor of the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra played the piano for David at his hospice when he was dying. David Cohen was for me the epitome of a Vancouverite, approachable, kind and just plain friendly.

Do we still have those characters in Vancouver that connect people through photography, music, or conversation on downtown city streets? If you know of one, please let us know in the comments below.

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Its always wonderful to see ourselves and our lives through other perceptions-and this interesting piece in the The Guardian describes the experience of the West Edmonton Mall in Edmonton Alberta. In much the same way that Howard Schultz thought that every urban street corner could do with a coffee shop and came up with Starbucks, the Ghermezian brothers came up with another big idea. In Edmonton a place that had  a heck of a lot of winter, and in the 80’s, when big hair, big shoulder pads, and consumerism was king the idea of a mall that covered 48 blocks, included a hotel, a wave pool, and a hockey rink that could be used by an NHL team was inspirational. It also sounded like it would work.
The first phase of the mall opened in 1981 and  at 1.14 million square feet was just slightly smaller than the Tsawwassen Mills Mega Mall (1.2 million square feet) . Two more phases were added on in the 1980’s bringing the mall to mighty mega size, over 5.2 million square feet with 800 stores and services employing 24,000 people.  Over 32 million visitors shop here annually. Price Tags has just described Xanadu Meadowlands in this article. Xanadu Meadowlands is also owned by the Edmonton Ghermezian brothers. They  also happen to own  the Mall of America in Bloomington, Minnesota . One family-three mega malls.

As The Guardian states:  “The North American enclosed mall emerged to make the onerous tasks of domestic hunting and gathering convenient and enjoyable. Since opening in 1981, Edmonton’s mall has strived to add “wondrous” to that list, landing somewhere between grand and garish.In an era when about a third of US malls are expected to close because of failing department stores and lapsing consumer interest, West Edmonton Mall appears to thrive”.

“The fact is, West Edmonton Mall fulfils a need in the city as a vast expanse of quasi-public space. It is, at certain times of the year, an easy access biosphere in inhospitable terrain. Apart from the rare treat of a visit to the water park, the kids and I rarely spend a penny on the attractions; there’s no need. Instead, we watch skaters glide across the Olympic-sized rink, visit forlorn-looking puppies at the pet store, eat cheap doughnuts. We merge in and out of a meandering crowd of shoppers, and participate as fully as one can in a community united only by big name brands and the bizarreness of the surroundings”.

The mall is the place for an individual to selflessly delve into consumerism without outside distraction. The success of huge vast malls is that they cut consumers off from the actual world, recreating what the West Edmonton Mall calls “an entertainment and retail city”. 

Is the mega mall a uniquely 20th century phenomenon? As consumer patterns go to online retailing and lifestyles change will malls  continue to dominate on the consumer front?

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It’s no surprise that retailing in Vancouver is a treasure trove for business owners, and attracts a wide cross market of shoppers from various backgrounds and ages. As Chuck Chiang reports in The Province “Vancouver’s retail market, driven by wealthy locals, tourists taking advantage of the devalued Canadian dollar, and new immigrants, currently ranks as Canada’s top location in terms of annual sales-per-square-foot at more than $1,000. Toronto sits second at around $860.”

“Vancouver is a very young retail market and many brands have not yet opened street stores,” said Mario Negris, executive vice president of CBRE’s (Coldwell Banker Richard Ellis)  retail group in Vancouver. “We anticipate a vast number of new entrants into the downtown retail landscape. … In the mid-market, we anticipate a revitalization on streets such as Robson and Granville as larger international users solidify locations in the market.”

Although we have the consumers, many stores breaking into the Canadian market do not look first to downtown Vancouver. The reason? A lack of leasable storefronts, and wait for it-malls.  “According to recent data from the Centre for the Study of Commercial Activity at Ryerson University, Vancouver’s per-capita mall space (at 11.4 square feet for every person living in the region) falls far behind the same figure for not only Toronto (at 16.4), but also Alberta (15.2 for Calgary, 16.2 for Edmonton)”.

I would argue that with the Vancouver climate, the high modal split to active transportation and transit, that Vancouver is not your typical “mall town”. You’ve got Pacific Centre and Oakridge Mall-and a lot of great retailing storefronts in several commercial areas, that fits into the locals’ ideal of a stroll and a shop at grade on walkable streets.

With predictions that Vancouver’s retail sector will lead the way in sales in Canada,  Muji, a Japanese clothing and accessories store is looking for a downtown location. You may have visited their locations in Toronto, Japan or in Europe. They are well designed and  well-organized. While Vancouver is the home of the  Asian cuisine inspired  T & T Supermarkets that opened their first store in 1993, and has several Goldilocks Bakery locations which specialize in Filipino delicacies, we have yet to attract well-known large Asian retailers which will have instant recognition and bring more diversity to the Vancouver retailing market. Will these new brands reboot retail redevelopment in downtown Vancouver?


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