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Mr. SmartCentres, Mitch Goldhar, gives Canadians what they want Add to ...

I meet Bonnie Thomas in a small trailer that serves as the temporary headquarters of the Switz-malph Culture Centre, located on a reserve of the Neskonlith Indian Band. The centre, just west of Salmon Arm, B.C., has a display of native artifacts and some information boards for visiting schoolchildren. After we talk for a while, Thomas leads me along a path that runs past several traditional native dwellings and then into a lush forest.

The ground beneath our feet grows boggy because the Salmon River has recently flooded, swelling dozens of metres beyond its banks. “We just let the river do what it wants to do without trying to change it,” Thomas muses, waving away swarms of mosquitoes.

Eventually, we have to stop because the puddles are getting too deep. The site of a future power centre mall, to be anchored by Walmart, “is just down around the corner and directly across the river,” she says, gesturing into the trees. “People don’t have any idea how close it is.”

Water matters here in Salmon Arm. Nestled in the mountains of the North Okanagan, this is the sort of place that gives British Columbia its reputation as North America’s quality-of-life capital. The picturesque city of 17,000 spreads out in a leisurely crescent along Salmon Arm of Shuswap Lake, a spectacularly beautiful finger lake. The CP freight trains that rumble through town offer a reminder of the region’s resource-industry roots. But today, Salmon Arm is home to lots of hale retirees and enough big-city refugees to give the downtown a sophisticated vibe. There’s a repertory theatre, an art gallery and a roots-music festival. Yet Salmon Arm also attracts Alberta ATV enthusiasts, houseboaters and bikers who roar through for an annual rally.

In short, Salmon Arm seems to have a bit of everything—everything, that is, except a power mall with national retail chains, just like the ones crowding the fringes of Vernon, 40 minutes to the south.

But, barring the success of a pending appeal, that deficit is about to be corrected. After a long and divisive battle, construction on a 240,000-square-foot mall will begin this fall on the site pointed out by Thomas. It covers 21 acres of what had been designated agricultural land, straddling the flood-prone delta of the meandering Salmon River, which empties into Shuswap Lake. The correction also means that Salmon Arm, a place proud of its identity, will see its urban form merge with the scores of other Canadian places that have hitched their futures to the vision of Mitch Goldhar.

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Goldhar is the owner of SmartCentres, the Toronto-based developer that emerged from nowhere in the early 1990s to become Canada’s most successful shopping centre builder. It rapidly became synonymous with “power centres”: uncovered shopping centres featuring large-format retailers surrounding a parking lot so expansive that customers often take trips within the lot. SmartCentres’ success is thanks in large measure to a joint venture with a famously transformative retailer that put Bentonville, Arkansas, on the map.

It’s the only such relationship that Walmart has anywhere in the world. Since 1994, SmartCentres has invested $8 billion to build 47 million square feet of power-centre retail malls, and has almost that much again in the pipeline. Over the course of its history, the company has, on average, opened a mall every three weeks. Walmart is almost always the lead tenant, taking an equity stake in each project.

About a decade ago, Goldhar began selling his malls to real estate investment trusts to raise capital because Canadian banks couldn’t keep up with the company’s voracious cash flow needs. In 2002, he forged a relationship with Calloway REIT , then a small Calgary-based operation. Since then, SmartCentres and Calloway have all but merged. The REIT operates out of SmartCentres’ head office, and Goldhar owns a 25% share. SmartCentres and Walmart obtain fairness valuations on each completed shopping centre, and then flip them over to Calloway’s unitholders, who have seen the trust’s asset value explode from $100 million to $5.7 billion. A dollar invested in Calloway units nine years ago is now worth $18.

It has certainly not been a controversy-free run. In his office, Goldhar keeps two phonebook-sized binders packed with doom-and-gloom news stories published in the years after Walmart arrived in Canada. Since then, Goldhar has carefully attended to the image of his companies. In 2005, he hired Liberal insider Sandra Kaiser, a former aide to John Turner, to run Smart Centres’ government relations and communications operations. A few years ago, he rebranded the company, deploying a trio of friendly cartoon penguins in its logo. And like many developers, SmartCentres has made large donations to good causes such as children’s charities.

Nonetheless, the company, as a proxy for activists’ favourite punching-bag of a retailer, has encountered stiff resistance in Vancouver, Guelph, Stratford and Toronto. Critics argue that SmartCentres exacerbates the trend toward sprawl and dependency on cars, while also sapping the energy of downtowns. It speaks to B.C.’s “Left Coast” and nature-loving culture—in which salmon is a potent symbol—that Salmon Arm is the smallest place in Canada where a concerted opposition has emerged.

But SmartCentres has mastered the art of pushing and cajoling municipalities to approve its plans, as any ambitious developer must. And some municipalities—including the conflicted City of Salmon Arm—have actively encouraged SmartCentres to build. In any case, cost-conscious Canadians have voted with their dollars. As Goldhar likes to point out, precisely one covered shopping centre—Vaughan Mills, in a suburb of Toronto—has been built in Canada since he and Walmart stormed the mall industry. “We’re just building what we’re told to build by the Canadian consumer,” Goldhar says. “That makes for a pretty complex relationship. Sometimes people don’t like to see what they look like in the mirror. Jekyll says, ‘We like to look at nice buildings.’ Hyde says, ‘We have to get in, get my stuff and pick up the kids from gymnastics.’”

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At a youthful 50, Mitch Goldhar is an intense, analytical and surprisingly candid figure who still seems vaguely surprised by his considerable success. He is, according to one ranking, the 38th-richest person in the country, with an estimated wealth ($1.5 billion in 2010) that puts him a shade north of the high-living celebrity duo of Gerry Schwartz and Heather Reisman.

Yet while Goldhar is well-connected in political circles, he is hardly a household name. He lives on his own (with two pets) in an unprepossessing bungalow in North Toronto. He is a sports buff; his staff knows that nothing, including even meetings with VIPs from Bentonville, takes precedence over pickup hockey. A few years ago, Goldhar bought an Israeli soccer team, and he recently spent $1.2 million to own Paul Henderson’s Team Canada jersey.

The passion for sports aside, Goldhar mostly works—a lot. He once described his malls as “my children.” He immerses himself in the minutiae of each project. Sometimes, he’ll load up an RV and head out on the road, camping in Walmart parking lots, chatting with consumers and pretending to be an ordinary shopper. “We keep an eye on every community in the country,” he says. “It may sound crazy, but I relate very much to the average Canadian’s reality.”

Goldhar comes from a family of entrepreneurs: His grandparents, Jewish immigrants from Poland, ran a midtown Toronto cigar store. His father, Leo, transformed a carpet-contracting business into a thriving commercial/industrial developer. Indifferent to classroom learning, Mitch joined the family business, First Professional Management, in 1983. While his friends only followed the careers of athletes or entertainers, Goldhar was fascinated with iconic Canadian builders like the Reichmanns. He watched them soar, and then he watched their crazily overleveraged empire crash. He took one particular lesson to heart: “I treat debt like dynamite.” To this day, SmartCentres and Calloway maintain highly conservative debt-to-equity ratios; Calloway’s is just 52%.

After a few years of working with his father and brother, Goldhar decided to strike out on his own. As he scouted around for development opportunities in the late 1980s, he was struck by the peculiar position of deep-discount retailers. He knew there were a few chains in the market, like Majestic Sound, that offered wide selection and low prices, but noticed they couldn’t be found in established shopping centres. It was a classic market gap, and he saw his opportunity.

Goldhar’s idea of a discount mall met with immediate resistance from suburban municipalities. “They were obstreperous,” he says. “They used whatever instruments they could to discourage us.” He suspects the cities were responding to back-channel pressure from entrenched shopping mall developers like Markborough, Cadillac-Fairview and Cambridge. After all, these companies had invested millions in covered malls—this was that distant era when the Eaton Centre was a magnet in downtowns across Canada—and behaved, in Goldhar’s view, like a cartel. They passed on costs to retailers in the form of high rents, which led in turn to brutal markups on goods. “I realized that retailers didn’t put themselves out of business,” Goldhar says. “Landlords put them out of business.”

In 1989, while he was still hustling his discount-mall concept, Goldhar got a call from an American named Doug Sperber, who was looking for Canadian locations for a retailer and wanted to chat. During a subsequent meeting, Goldhar laid out his scathing indictment of Canadian retail. Sperber was all ears. “We had a very lively discussion,” he recalls. “Then he left. He didn’t tell me who he was.”

A few months later, Sperber phoned again, explaining he was Walmart’s real estate director, and that he wanted to recruit Goldhar to lock up Canadian locations for Sam’s Club, Walmart’s warehouse-club division. Goldhar, just 28 years old and with only a couple of strip plazas to his name (and those via the family business), was gobsmacked. They did the deal on a handshake.

For over a year, Goldhar criss-crossed the country on a quest for locations. With the property market in free fall, he had little difficulty optioning sites. “I was working seven days a week, doing it all myself, secretly. No one knew.”

But then Sperber called to say Walmart had changed its mind. It would go to Mexico instead of Canada. Goldhar didn’t feel betrayed, but he was still put out. “I’d found meaning, bringing fair prices to average Canadians. It sounds hokey, but that’s how I felt.” After Sperber thanked him for his efforts, Goldhar couldn’t restrain himself: “‘I don’t care,’” he recalls blurting out. “‘I’m going to keep working on it.’”

On spec, Goldhar continued to option properties and leave messages on Sperber’s voice mail. The Walmart executive never responded. And so it went for a year, until Sperber finally called to say the company had reconsidered. Goldhar claims he persisted because he always believed that Walmart would change its mind. “It made sense.” So much so that in 1994, Walmart sealed a blockbuster deal with Woolworth’s to convert 122 Canadian Woolco outlets into Walmarts, with Goldhar on board as the advance man and local development partner.

Walmart’s Canadian invasion had begun.

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In 2005, Salmon Arm was abuzz with rumours that Walmart was coming to town. Several locals set up the Committee for a Strong Sustainable Salmon Arm, rented a basement room beneath a local store, and set to work protecting the town from sprawl. The group helped block a large supermarket project, but suffered a bit of a mission crisis. “When I started,” former board member Bill Remphrey, a spry retired University of Manitoba science professor, recalled, “we just wanted to be an organization that was against everything.” But CASSSA soon broadened its scope, looking to not just oppose development but to promote environmentally friendly development—smart growth.

City officials had identified a need for large-form-at retail in town, even though Salmon Arm had two smaller shopping plazas, which dated to the 1970s. Local legend has it that several local politicians, including Colin Mayes (who was mayor; he’s now the area’s Conservative MP) and Marty Bootsma (who was a city councillor; now he’s mayor), took matters into their own hands, renting a minibus and driving around the area, scouting potential locations. They homed in on a swath of land abutting the Salmon River delta, situated between two native reserves. It sat on the north side of the Trans-Canada Highway, three kilometres west of downtown. The politicians set to courting SmartCentres.

Bootsma, however, says that the tour was the work of the city’s Economic Development Society and the site on the Trans-Canada actually came to the city’s attention when council was informed of an application from its owners to change its designation as agricultural land.

Either way, the application brought B.C.’s Agricultural Land Commission into the picture. The commission, set up by an NDP provincial government in the mid-1970s to save farmland, oversees 11.6 million acres of B.C.’s best arable land, and has a mandate to ensure this resource isn’t depleted. Owners can apply to the ALC to remove their land from the Agricultural Land Reserve, but the agency has to ensure the net supply of B.C. farmland remains unchanged overall.

According to Remphrey, the pro-development officials decided that the location on the Trans-Canada “was where the shopping centre should be. Mayes cajoled the ALC to release the land. There [was] no public input.” Two local businessmen assembled a parcel that, official designations notwithstanding, sported an old abattoir and a wrecking yard. “It was a relatively unsightly piece of property,” Bootsma recalls. He acknowledges that the city lobbied the ALC: “We probably made a little extra effort.” SmartCentres bought the entire property for $15 million in 2007 and began planning a 50-acre mall (later revised to 38 acres). Next step: Persuade the city to rezone the site.

News of the land deal spread quickly. CASSSA’s modest membership roster swelled to 100, and the organization counted another 800 supporters. The local repertory theatre screened Wal-Mart Nation, a Canadian-made documentary about the “international anti-Wal-Mart movement.” “There are a lot of people in Salmon Arm who just don’t want Walmart and they don’t care where it is,” says Remphrey. “My hope is that these things won’t destroy the downtown. But I fear it.”

When SmartCentres applied to rezone the fallow property in the fall of 2008, the contras were ready for a fight. Over five nights in October, hundreds of residents turned up in the municipal council chamber to urge local politicians to reject the plan. Some citizens scolded them for encouraging sprawl. Others predicted that Walmart would kill the city’s downtown. Many questioned the wisdom of allowing anyone to build a mall on a flood-prone delta.

The outpouring of anger was unprecedented. “When you get that many submissions on one property, there’s a lot of repetition,” says Bootsma with a smirk. A flinty retired carpenter who was elected mayor on a pro-development platform in 2005, Bootsma has little patience for the naysayers. The council split down the middle, and SmartCentres’ application lost on a tie—a galvanizing moment for opponents. The SmartCentres debate dominated the November, 2008, municipal election. Residents elected a mixture of pro and anti councillors, with Bootsma re-elected as mayor.

In the wake of the rejection of the rezoning application, a new community group emerged to take up the cause and shift the debate away from garden-variety NIMBYism.

Warren Bell, a local physician with keen political instincts, established Wetland Alliance: The Ecological Response (WA:TER), a group of scientifically minded residents determined to scrutinize the ecological impact of SmartCentres’ plan. Throughout 2009, WA:TER’s members devoured the technical data SmartCentres had submitted with its application. Drawing from a $50,000 war chest raised through donations, the group commissioned conservation and hydrology studies.

The studies revealed errors and omissions in SmartCentres’ statutory environmental impact assessment. WA:TER’s experts not only confirmed that the company was proposing to build a large mall over a sensitive wetland bisected by a river necessary for salmon spawning; they also revealed that neither the municipality nor the province nor the federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans—which share jurisdiction—had noticed the glitches. The City of Salmon Arm didn’t even have a bylaw preventing development on flood plains, a standard planning restriction in most municipalities.

Embarrassed, B.C.’s Ministry of the Environment ordered SmartCentres to revisit its technical assessments and acknowledge the environmental no-go zones. As Salmon Arm’s director of development services Corey Paiement concedes, “We didn’t scrutinize [SmartCentres’ studies] to the level of detail that might be expected or wanted by others.”

Bell made sure no one missed the significance of those regulatory fumbles, commissioning a public opinion poll in November, 2009. With 450 respondents and a 4.6% margin of error, the poll found that while three-quarters of the population supported new shopping malls, the town was evenly split on the question of where SmartCentres had decided to plant its flag. “The issue was and still is the site,” Bell says. “Location, location and location. Really, SmartCentres could have been up and running three years ago if they had chosen a different site.”

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Until he began a hiatus last year, Mitch Goldhar spent a decade teaching at the University of Toronto, first in the geography department, and more recently at the Rotman School of Management. Even though he’s brutally busy, he loved interacting with students and furnishing them with some real-world acumen; indeed, when he holds forth in an interview about the shape and texture of Canada’s retail landscape, it’s not hard to imagine him in a lecture hall.

Goldhar argues that a burdensome tax structure in Canada squeezes disposable incomes for most families so much that they’ve become acutely budget-conscious. That creates a prerogative to strip the excess cost out of retail development and keep rents low. “Will Canadians be prepared to pay $20 a week more for basics and groceries so they can buy it in a place with archways?” he asks, taking a dig at Loblaw.

In the bull pit of SmartCentres’ conspicuously austere, open-concept head office in Vaughan, there are dozens of cubicles lined with thick binders packed with the company’s deep-dive statistical assessment of where to build its malls. Goldhar’s analysts, planners and leasing managers pore over demographic data, watching closely to see if there’s a lot of traffic and spending at a particular retail property—usually a reliable indicator that there’s room for a SmartCentre nearby.

SmartCentres’ statistics-driven MO draws heavily on Walmart’s playbook. The partnership is intimate. Goldhar provides quarterly briefings to Walmart’s top brass, and works hand-in-hand with the retailer’s Canadian arm. Senior officials from the two firms have monthly “family meetings” to review the progress of each new project, with Walmart’s target opening dates of paramount importance. Goldhar stresses that he doesn’t go over the heads of Walmart Canada executives if disputes arise.

When SmartCentres began focusing on Salmon Arm, it had more than just the city’s 17,000 residents in its sights. The town, whose population has been growing at a modest pace of 1.5% per year, sits at the heart of a rural region with about 45,000 people. With SmartCentres located in Vernon and also Kamloops (about an hour away from Salmon Arm), the company’s analysis showed that many locals routinely left the Salmon Arm region to shop for items like consumer electronics, children’s clothing and even groceries.

Municipal officials and many local merchants already knew this story well. A 2009 study done for the city by Urbanics Consultants, a Vancouver-based retail consultancy, found that about $200 million to $300 million in consumer spending leaves the Salmon Arm area every year (WA:TER questioned both Urbanics’ numbers and its methodology). “The bottom line,” says Bootsma, “is that a lot of money does go out of town.”

Indeed, given a development slump following the 2008 economic crisis, the benefits of the $50-million SmartCentre project loomed large. Nathan Hilde-

brand, the company’s project manager, says the mall will create 450 full- and part-time jobs, and generate $1 million in annual property taxes (about 7% of the city’s total). Since the population is growing so slowly, some residents predict the new mall’s growth will invariably come at the expense of existing retailers in downtown Salmon Arm, not to mention SmartCentres’ own locations in Vernon and Kamloops. Yet Urbanics president Philip Boname, who has been doing these kinds of studies for years, says major “traffic generators” like Salmon Arm’s future Walmart permanently alter shopping patterns. “Money spent in that establishment causes money to be spent elsewhere in Salmon Arm.”

As for the concern of residents like Bill Remphrey that a Walmart-anchored mall will suck money and vitality out of Salmon Arm’s downtown, apparently the numbers tell a different tale there, too. Jim Kimmerly, the head of the city’s chamber of commerce, says his organization researched the impact of Walmart in other Western Canadian cities, like Portage la Prairie, Brandon and Prince George. The conclusion: “Those cities had problems with their downtowns before SmartCentres/Walmart ever got there.” The parallel to Salmon Arm’s currently healthy downtown is not clear.

The more likely victims of SmartCentre’s arrival are not the downtown retailers but the city’s two vintage shopping plazas, one of which features a dimly lit Zellers that seems not to have been upgraded in a generation.

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On May 21, 2010, SmartCentres unveiled a scaled-back plan for its Salmon Arm shopping mall, with less parking and less retail space; the total developed area would be just 21 acres, a substantially smaller footprint than the original 38-acre layout. The proposal included some pot-sweeteners—a walking trail, on-site stormwater treatment, landscaping and a payment to the city for unspecified projects—in exchange for future rezoning flexibility. Most SmartCentres malls are large rectangles, but the Salmon Arm plot looks more like a trapezoid with a ragged diagonal; curiously, the parking lot will be built around the bed of a little tributary of the Salmon River. The company also sought to turn the tide of public opinion by hosting events with giveaways, setting up pro-mall websites and leaning on the local chamber of commerce to back its proposal.

While Bootsma thought the revised plans represented a workable compromise, WA:TER and other Salmon Arm residents, as well as members of the Neskonlith band, weren’t satisfied. Months before SmartCentres released its new plan, residents had seen construction crews dumping landfill on the low-lying property—“illegally,” as the Neskonlith later alleged in an application for a judicial review that is before the courts.

The fill deposits pointed to yet another unresolved environmental riddle: the impact of Salmon River flooding on the SmartCentre property and adjacent lands. The landfill, according to experts hired by the Neskonlith, will elevate the mall lands beyond the reach of the river, meaning that surging water from the winter melt or a heavy rain will inevitably flow elsewhere on its way to Shuswap Lake, although no one seems to know exactly where. (SmartCentres’ Hildebrand says no further landfill will be moved onto the property during the construction.)

At one public meeting, a local engineer named Calvin VanBuskirk questioned how the city could approve a project without understanding what happens when the river floods. “The city has no plan for managing the flood hazard and the risk associated with the Salmon River,” he says. “The whole [approvals] process seems backwards.” VanBuskirk knows something about this subject, as he helps forestry and mining companies design remote access roads and stream crossings that can withstand floods and unstable slopes. The resource companies, he adds, “are held to a much higher [regulatory] standard, and they seem to accept it.”

Both WA:TER and the Neskonlith hired experts to look at the flooding issue. University of British Columbia professor emeritus Michael Church, a geoscientist and flood-hazard specialist, informed the Neskonlith that SmartCentres’ engineers, Stantec Consulting, hadn’t properly assessed the risk because they used “obsolete” 20-year-old flood data. “There is substantial evidence that the hazard has increased since that time,” Church wrote. (In reports to the city, Stantec defended its analysis.)

The Neskonlith and another, smaller local native band suspected the excess water would inundate their land. “If the water can’t go that way, it’s going to come this way,” shrugs Bonnie Thomas.

Thomas is carrying on the work of her late mother, Dr. Mary Thomas, a residential school survivor who spent years trying to restore both local First Nations cultural practices and the ecosystem of the Salmon River, which was a more accurate name for the tributary before development and agricultural practices silted over spawning beds and lowered water levels. “The river itself seems to have been suffering for years,” Thomas adds. “All of those things don’t seem to be of any importance to the developer or the City of Salmon Arm. We were told, ‘We bought the property and we’re going to develop it.’”

Despite the concerns about flooding, Salmon Arm council approved the scaled-back SmartCentre plan and issued development permits in July. Construction is expected to begin this fall, in time for the civic election on Nov. 19. Bootsma isn’t running again—but Bell and three other mall opponents are vying for council seats. After the July vote, the Neskonlith filed its application for a judicial review with the B.C. Supreme Court, alleging that the city had failed to live up to its constitutional obligations to consult the band council. Merely inviting the band to make a deputation at public meetings didn’t cut it, stresses Chief Judy Wilson. “I don’t believe they were taking our questions seriously.”

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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.

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