Monday, 23 June 2008

Downtown Malls Part of Urban Blight

A bit of good news about Winnipeg's downtown is that Portage Place Mall is doing relatively well.

Almost completely full for the past couple of years, the few larger tenants to move out were based upon corporate decisions to opt for big box, not a because business was dead. It has attracted new national retailers like Tim Horton's, Urban Planet and Shoppers Drug Mart.

It's not exactly a shopping mecca but as someone who lives, works and plays downtown a healthy retail component in the mall is a necessity.

The 90's were not kind to Portage Place or North American downtown malls in general. The fact that Portage Place has had a bit of a rebound is a good news story for the industry. In some American cities the malls became part of the blight and some even closed.

Salt Lake City did something interesting with their two main downtown malls in '06 and '07 - they demolished them ! The demolished sites include some street level retail, mid-rise office towers and parkades, will all be part of the 20 acre City Creek redevelopment in the heart of Downtown.

From their website "City Creek Center is a sustainably designed, walkable urban community of residences, offices and retail stores that will rise over the next four years on approximately 20 acres across three blocks in the heart of downtown Salt Lake City. Upon project completion in 2012, the city will be one of few in the nation with a vibrant, mixed-use development at its core". Ummm... sort of like what the malls replaced when they were built ?!

A virtual tour can be found here.

There will still be a retail component - 500,000 square feet of it - but instead of being walled in it will be open air. You know, the way downtowns used to be but is now fashionable again. The difference here is that it will have a retractable plexiglass roof for inclement weather. It will also have 750 housing units, both rental and purchase, in a mix of price ranges and vast amounts of office space.

The ambitious plan will be carried out by the landowner the Church of Latter Day Saints. it's not all been smooth sailing. The church faced some controversy for heading this up and Utah Stories likens the new plan for it to Trading Main Street For Wall Street but the conversion is well under way now.

Salt Lake is in the "next phase" of development for downtown retailing. As you can see here their story was not unique. Starting in the 50's the traditional downtown started a decline that continued until it hit a low point. Then, the developers came in and razed large sections of the downtown and replaced it with malls to allow downtown to compete with the suburbs. Here is Utah Stories' take on the proposed development and what killed their downtown what killed downtown Salt Lake.

Salt Lake is not the only city to go this route. St. Louis and others have taken it to their former downtown mall but the sheer size and scale of the Salt Lake project will have a lot of cities tuning in to look at outcomes.

Are there any lessons for Winnipeg ? Portage Place or downtown are not in the same dire straits as some of the US examples. As disliked as some aspects of the Place Promenade / Portage Place development are, they are only 20 - 25 years old so aren't coming down anytime soon. That is not to say that some improvements cannot be done.

In the original plans for both complexes the idea of street level retailing was an important feature. Portage Place's stores would all have large windows opening onto the street with retailers on the main floor having a doorway onto a wide Portage Avenue sidewalk. It did not take long for those doors to be locked and, in many cases, covered over for display purposes.

Similarly, Place Promende's retailers were equipped with overhead doors to allow their shops and cafes to open directly onto Promenade Place. The curbless street was to make browsing to and from the mall easy and seamless.

It never really took root and over the years renovations have either moved shops away from the outside wall or had the overhead doors removed.
There is one guy, a new guy, who is bucking the trend and actually using the door. Maybe he will remind people of the way it was supposed to be.

Even though the demolition or rebuilding of this area will not happen I hope that the trend of people wanting more "walk and shop" options, combined with a stronger downtown, will one day lead to the reopening of these street level entrances.

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