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Shoppers World in Brampton, Ont., is one of the most visible examples of rethinking the mall.

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In the coming years when you go to the mall, your shoppers’ world will likely include not just spending money, but also spending time outside.

Affected by the pandemic and the growing financial and environmental costs of heating and cooling acres of property, malls across Canada are being newly built or reconfigured as outdoor shopping and recreational spaces.

The trend started before the first COVID-19 lockdowns in March, 2020, and is continuing as the pandemic staggers on.

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“It started with developers pulling the roofs off of old malls,” says Jonathan Tinney, partner at SvN Architects and Planners and former chief planner for the City of Victoria.

“At first it was a just a shrewd financial decision because the owners found they didn’t have to heat or air-condition the open space. Now, as with a number of changes in retail, COVID has accelerated the trend,” Mr. Tinney says.

One of the most visible examples of a rethinking of the mall is a project that Mr. Tinney’s firm is working on for client RioCan Management Inc. in Brampton, Ont. – Shoppers World, a mall that first opened in 1969. RioCan bought the property from OMERS, the giant pension fund, for $46.5-million in 2000.

The mall, which sits on 53 acres, is being replaced by a mixed-use neighbourhood with approximately 4,500 residential units and some 800,000 square feet of commercial and retail, plus community amenities such as green space and bike lanes. The plan is to begin the first phase of construction in mid-2022.

The new Shoppers World will be considerably different than the 20th-century plaza that sprang up on a farmer’s field 52 years ago in what used to be a community of 40,000 at the edge of Toronto.

We often call it a ‘porosity’ of urban spaces: opportunities for pedestrians to move fluidly and ‘inline’ from indoor to outdoor spaces

— Ian Chodikoff, communications director of SvN’s Architects and Planners

Today, Brampton is Canada’s ninth largest city, with more than 600,000 people, and the mall’s boomer-era stores, such as Dominion, Jumbo Video and Simpsons department store, are long gone and sometimes barely remembered.

The first parts of the project will be phased in over at least five years and the entire redevelopment will take much longer because it is complex, large and coming amid big changes to the Brampton area in transportation.

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The Brampton mall site is becoming the terminus for the new Metrolinx Hurontario LRT mass transit line that will run 18 kilometres from the lakeshore.

Shoppers World, which sits on 53 acres, is being replaced by a mixed-use neighbourhood with approximately 4,500 residential units and some 800,000 square feet of commercial and retail, plus community amenities such as greenspace and bike lanes.

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Shoppers World is one of the bigger reinventions of the mall idea, but it’s not the only one, says Justin Forgione, a commercial broker with Rexton Commercial Realty Advisors Inc.

”In retail we’re seeing a lot of reorganization and reconfiguration in both retail and office space. Interest rates are low and people want more open areas where they work and where they shop,” he says.

“The mall of the future will not be your parents’ mall,” says a 2020 report by Deloitte Canada called, appropriately, the Future of the Mall.

Even before COVID-19, foot traffic in Canadian malls fell by 22 per cent from 2018 to 2019, as consumers opted for more online shopping or looking for a different experience than traipsing through an indoor space.

“For some time now, the customer journey has been evolving. It’s no longer simply about visiting a store. It now involves an overall brand experience … having done their research online, customers arrive at the store already knowing exactly what they want,” the Deloitte report said.

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Deloitte’s research included a finding that 30 per cent of those it surveyed said one of the top modifications to malls that will bring them back after pandemic restrictions are lifted is more “green space, trees and parkland for relaxing ambience.”

Shoppers want “a multipurpose destination that offers extensive leisure activities as well as other functions, like office, residential and cultural amenities. Shops should be mixed in with other complementary uses, giving visitors an interactive experience,” Deloitte adds.

“Our research shows that these behaviours have likely become fully entrenched during the pandemic. The result: the path to purchase has been altered permanently.”

”We’re seeing the addition of park space and outdoor dining as an organizing principle in redevelopment now,” says Mr. Tinney, who has been consulting with several business improvement associations.

”Our climate is not the barrier we thought it was,” he adds. True, climate change seems to have triggered more wild weather swings. But it also seems to be that since COVID, consumers have become more comfortable and safer in socially distant outdoor spaces.

“People will come to a shopping centre if there’s a viable outdoor eating area. Some people will come just to bring their kids to play in a splash pad,” Mr. Tinney says.

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Shopping designers are extending their ideas to include more recreational facilities and opportunities, aware that consumers need something to lure them to the store rather than click for items online.

They note the popularity in recent years of factory outlet malls that have large outdoor dining areas, or malls such as the Victoria area’s Uptown Shopping Centre that operate food and craft markets with live entertainment.

”We architects often call it a ‘porosity’ of urban spaces: Opportunities for pedestrians to move fluidly and ‘inline’ from indoor to outdoor spaces,” says Ian Chodikoff, SvN’s communications director and an architect himself.

Mr. Tinney points to earlier successful redevelopments such as the Shops at Don Mills in Toronto, which replaced a tired suburban mall that started as outdoor shopping but was later enclosed. The old mall was demolished in 2006 and replaced with a network of more upscale shops, accessible by sidewalks and outdoor pedestrian laneways.

Along with mixing outdoor space with stores, new malls thrive when there are people living nearby who don’t always have to drive. Shoppers World wants to start with two 23-storey residential towers, which will also have about 60,000 square feet of retail out of a total 950,000 square feet of commercial and retail space envisioned for the entire site.

With people living in such places and walking from store to store, this new type of mall looks more and more like, well, a city. As the Deloitte report asks about such future developments: “Do we even call it a mall?”

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