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It’s a mall world: casino proposal includes a shopping centre

Last minute Christmas shoppers at Sherway Gardens shopping mall in Toronto, Ont. Dec. 21, 2011.

Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail

If navigating the multiple levels of the Greater Toronto Area's malls leaves you sore-footed and longing for a GPS device, just wait. A 250,000-square-foot expansion is under way at Sherway Gardens. Square One in Mississauga and Vaughan Mills in Vaughan are planning renovations of their own. And last year, Yorkdale added 145,000 square feet to its site, bringing in the likes of high-profile retailers Kate Spade New York and Microsoft. They're adding another six stores this year.

And now there could soon be a mini Eaton Centre landing on the waterfront.

This week, MGM and Cadillac Fairview revealed their proposal for an "integrated resort" at Exhibition Place. Watercolour renderings show their vision for a casino, a permanent home for Cirque du Soleil, a hotel, convention space and a shopping centre that would be between 750,000 and one million square feet, roughly half the size of the Eaton Centre. Wayne Barwise, vice-president of development for Cadillac Fairview, says there's a need for another large shopping centre in the city, since Toronto is "under-retailed."

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As far as per-capita retail space at shopping malls goes among major Canadian cities, Toronto ranks just behind Halifax, with 18.1 square feet per person, according to data compiled last fall by Ryerson University's Centre for the Study of Commercial Activity.

Compared to U.S. cities, Canada as a whole lags when it comes to per-capita retail space, a point Mr. Barwise made in explaining why Toronto needs to step up its mall game.

While retail space in Canada has steadily grown over the last several years (it went from 1,379 square feet per 100 residents in 2007 to 1,453 in 2010), it's been shrinking in the U.S. (from 2,391 square feet per 100 people to 2,370 in 2010), according to a 2012 report from real estate consulting firm Colliers International.

"There is little doubt that in the current economy, the U.S. has a significant oversupply of shopping centre space," the report's authors said.

Since the early days of the MGM and Cadillac Fairview proposal, the anti-casino lobby has raised concerns about the social ills that may result from setting up a gambling facility along Toronto's waterfront. But this week's big reveal of the complex has spawned some hand-wringing about the retail component, too. Planners and analysts are asking if the city really needs another large shopping centre.

Between Sherway Gardens, Yorkdale Mall, the Eaton Centre, Fairview Mall and Scarborough Town Centre, Toronto offers residents more than six million square feet of shopping-mall real estate. The expansion of other malls in the GTA is "indicative of the fact that there is a demand for additional retail," Mr. Barwise says.

But determining whether we need more retail space isn't that simple. "They may say there are one million people who live within a 15-minute drive of Exhibition Place … but if those people are already satisfied with the shopping facilities they have in Etobicoke or downtown Toronto or at Yonge and Eglinton, it's unlikely that they're going to traipse all the way down to Exhibition Place to shop at the same type of store they have in their own neighbourhood," Toronto-based retail analyst Len Kubas said.

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The 21st-century retail game has changed, too, which means tallying square feet in malls doesn't offer a full look at Torontonians' shopping options. The expansion of power centres (clusters of big-box stores) has kept pace with shopping malls, according to the Ryerson report. On downtown streets, major national and international chains have found homes in mixed-use buildings, such as those on the Queen Street West strip. And of course there are e-commerce options.

As Mr. Barwise sees it, the proposed shopping centre would stand out from the existing malls in Toronto and would be a boon for retailers.

"[They're] looking to be part of properties which offer a heightened experience," he said. "They want to be some place where you can increase the dwell time for the customer: places to eat, entertainment."

As far as smart planning goes, a mall isn't the best option for the city, says Ron Buliung, an associate professor at the University of Toronto's geography and planning department.

"Do we really want to be building more auto-oriented, large-scale developments around and within Toronto?" he asks. MGM and Cadillac Fairview's proposal includes 12,000 underground parking spots.

Malls don't often impact neighbourhoods in terms of changes in crime rates or residential development, because they're viewed as destinations: Visitors arrive by car or public transit. But they can have a tremendous effect on surrounding businesses, Dr. Buliung says.

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"One of the things we do know is there can be a cannibalization of markets. … The concern [is] that having a massive retail site at that location would in fact serve to the detriment [of other businesses] along some of our commercial strips in the city of Toronto."

There's a ways to go before a mall within MGM and Cadillac Fairview's complex could come to fruition. Council must vote on the proposal, and then the team must win the request for proposal. In that process, there could be changes to the retail component: It may not even manifest as a traditional mall.

The location of the proposed mall could be an obstacle in its success, says John Williams, senior adviser with retail consulting firm J.C. Williams Group (which counts Cadillac Fairview as one of its clients).

"It just has half a trade area to cater to; on the other side is fish," he said. "There are case studies of retail on waterfront that [show] they don't necessarily do that well."

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