On a September afternoon, Goldhar emerges from a Bay Street tower looking like a slightly rumpled office drone who’s just toughed out a meeting with a hard-driving boss. Indeed, he’s spent the morning and half the afternoon locked up with lawyers and a prospective tenant for a new office tower he’s developing. The site, on Toronto’s northern fringe, is now a scrubby cow pasture, but it will eventually be known as the Vaughan Metro Centre.
In one hand, Goldhar is carrying a sheath of ambitious architectural plans and a stack of design magazines. In the other, he’s got a reusable shopping bag. “Is it warm enough to sit outside?” he asks, peering out at the plaza next to the tower. He makes a beeline for a bench and starts rooting around in the sack. Mitch Goldhar—billionaire, pre-eminent retail developer—has brought a bag lunch. Two chicken sandwiches. “Please, have one,” he insists. “I can’t believe they didn’t take a break.”
In Goldhar’s empire, the insurrection in Salmon Arm registers as little more than a minor skirmish in some remote colony. Many projects come with political and regulatory hurdles, all of which need to be sorted out according to Walmart’s demanding timelines. Although he’s less likely these days to negotiate with public officials personally, Goldhar never tires of the process; he’s endlessly fascinated by retail and what our consumer habits say about families and broader social trends. “Shopping centres,” says Goldhar, his eyes wide with enthusiasm, “are way more interesting than any other form of real estate development.”
But as today’s meeting suggests, Goldhar has other preoccupations these days than just the ordinary Canadian’s relentless search for $5 T-shirts and the best price on a bag of milk. With Target due to open in Canada in 2013 (see story on previous page), SmartCentres has begun to experiment cautiously with slightly more urbanized mall formats in larger cities. Some front onto main streets, with the Walmart up on stilts, built above a covered parking lot tucked out of view. Others will have internal pedestrian walkways between the various big boxes. This shift, Goldhar says, is driven by increasing densities in big cities that create the financial conditions to develop malls with more buildings and less tarmac. In fact, SmartCentres has a kind of built-in growth engine because parking lots account for about 75% of its land holdings, providing plenty of serviced real estate that can eventually be redeveloped. “Ten years ago, I wouldn’t have done that.”
The Vaughan Metro Centre will dominate Goldhar’s attention for the next decade. He bought the 100-acre site in the mid-1990s; 40 acres of it are now owned by developers Rudy Bratty and Silvio DeGasperis, and the remainder by Goldhar’s firms. Originally, Goldhar figured the property would house conventional malls, and he quickly parked a Walmart on the land. But in 2005, Dalton McGuinty’s Liberals announced they would extend Toronto’s Spadina subway line to the edge of Goldhar’s property. The project is due to be completed in 2015.
The suburban City of Vaughan wants that terminal station to become the hub of a new high-density, pedestrian-friendly downtown, served by not just the subway but also by the regional commuter bus service. Thus, Goldhar now finds himself in the unfamiliar role of city-builder. “Clearly there’s the infrastructure to do something much more dense than single-storey at grade,” he says. Besides lining up tenants for that new office building, he’s down in the trenches, negotiating with municipal officials about relocating the Walmart and building a bus station. And his many critics might be surprised to learn that he’s recruited prominent Toronto architect and urbanist Don Schmitt to draw up a master plan that envisions 16 million square feet of development over at least 15 years, including office buildings, condos, public open spaces, schools and, of course, retail. “It’s not going to be a shopping centre,” muses Goldhar, his imagination fired by the prospect of developing something more ambitious, and more enduring, than just boxes surrounded by asphalt. “It’s going to be a city centre.”
Call it his conversion on the roads of suburbia.