Throughout the Greater Toronto Area, colossal structures stand as silent reminders of a bygone era. These are behemoths of concrete and steel, vestiges of the city’s past as well as symbols of its struggle between preservation and progress. They are shopping malls, the once-bustling hubs of commerce and community, that are now facing an uncertain future in light of relentless urbanization and population growth. But as the city evolves, so too must these giants.
At the 2023 ULI Spring Meeting in Toronto, industry leaders tackled this very question in the panel titled “Reimagining the Mall: The Final Urban Frontier.”
Embracing Neighborhoods and Immigration
Moderator Rob Spanier, president of the Spanier Group—a Toronto-based provider of real estate development and advisory services—and a seasoned real estate professional, set the stage with a poignant observation. He emphasized the opportunity these projects present “for people to embrace the neighborhoods and communities they are in,” a sentiment that would echo throughout the panel’s discussion.
Spanier noted that a significant factor influencing the transformation of Toronto’s malls is immigration. This is driving demand for housing and amenities, further underscoring the need for the redevelopment of these large-scale shopping centers into mixed-use developments. The city, however, is building only about 70 percent of the units required to accommodate the incoming population.
A Developer’s Perspective
Rafael Lazer, CEO of North York, Ontario–based development company Almadev, offered a developer’s perspective, sharing his experience with the Galleria Mall project.
“We took a different approach with this,” he said, noting the long consultation process. “It delayed us over a year, but it made the next stage of our planning exercise go seamlessly, with zero objections from the area.” This approach underscores the importance of community engagement in shaping the future of these spaces. The Galleria Mall project encompasses eight residential buildings, more than 3,000 residential units, a community center, and an eight-acre (3.2 ha) park.
The Cloverdale Mall Transformation
Toby Wu, executive vice president of Vancouver-based QuadReal Property Group, highlighted the transformation of Cloverdale Mall, a post–World War II shopping center.
“When Target left a number of years ago, it really opened up the full and northern portion of the site for development,” Wu explained. The deserted Target has been used for art exhibits, yoga events, and a COVID-19 vaccination clinic. The redevelopment process involved a careful balance of preserving the site’s history while adapting to the needs of a growing urban population. With the nearly 400,000 square feet (37,200 sq m) of retail space to be brought down to 130,000 square feet (12,100 sq m), the new anchors for the area will include the park and other communal features.
The Future of Mixed-Use Development
Another key project discussed during the panel was the Square One District, touted as Canada’s largest mixed-use development. Veronica Maggisano, vice president of Oxford Properties Group, gave an overview of the 18 million-square-foot (1.7 million sq m) master plan consisting of over 18,000 residential units and a 2.2 million-square-foot (204,400 sq m) shopping center. It represents a bold vision for the future of malls, she said. The project is intended to create a community where people can live, work, learn, and play, all within walking distance of one another.
Cadillac Fairview’s Vision
Josh Thomson, senior vice president of Cadillac Fairview, a Toronto-based company that is 100 percent owned by the Ontario Teachers’ Pension Plan, spoke on the challenges and opportunities of these large-scale projects. With Cadillac Fairview having a portfolio that includes top shopping centers in Canada, Thomson’s focus is on how to reimagine and evolve these spaces over time.
“You have some pretty harsh environments that our shopping centers create,” he told the crowd, “and you have the ability to really transform that into . . . the public realm, pedestrian connection, bike connection, [and] green space.”
The Final Urban Frontier
As Toronto—the capital of the province of Ontario and Canada’s largest city—continues to grow and evolve, its malls stand at the precipice of transformation. They are the final urban frontier, ripe for redevelopment into spaces that reflect the city’s future rather than its past. The panel’s discussion underscored the importance of this transformation—not just for the future of retail, but also for urban living.
These behemoths of the city’s real estate landscape can be catalysts for progress. They are the foundations upon which the city’s future will be built, and their transformation will shape the urban landscape for generations to come.
Related: Turning Malls into Neighborhoods | ULI Report: Why Retail Location Is Not Everything | From Ordinary to Extraordinary: Added Density and Mixed Use, Vancouver’s Mall Redevelopments Charge Ahead