No longer a post-apocalyptic consumer experience, the Dufferin Mall has shed its notorious gloom.
The centre, affectionately referred to as the "ghetto mall," has almost completed a three-year, $11-million re-launch, an effort culminating most recently in a cheeky ad campaign.
"We wanted to create a more positive experience - to give [it]a new feel," said the mall's marketing manager, Tatiana Shovkun.
She says its new slogan, "Dufferin Mall. Really," tackles its troglodytic image head on.
"We're saying: 'Hey, we're here. Suspend your judgment and come and take a look.'"
Urban Planet and a Costa Blanca outlet have recently joined H&M and Aéropostale amid the mall's former fashion plates, Voluptuous and Anna Bella.
Located just south of Bloor Street on Dufferin Avenue, the mall for years was seen as a neighbourhood blight, a destination of low-end and also-ran retailers beset with crime problems. But these days, it's also in a commercial sweet spot, with gentrifying areas such as Dufferin Grove and Trinity-Bellwoods nearby.
More attuned to its prospective clientele, it offers free WiFi in its food court, a family room with kids' activities and bathrooms that don't make you feel like you need to bathe after visiting them.
Gone are the cracked tiles and eighties colour scheme that almost cry out for a Glass Tiger tune. The centre now boasts newly installed skylights and a modern chrome-and-earth-tone décor.
The brightness is a welcome development for retailers like Farzad Rahnama, a framing-store owner who's been a mall tenant for 18 years. "It's definitely much better," he says, adding sales have gone up since the renovations were done. "They've let the light in."
Visitors - many of them fathers pushing Maclaren strollers - seem pleased with the new look. "I've lived in the neighbourhood for 45 years," says Marty Train, "and the mall used to be scummy." He likes the new look but wants a greater number of high-end stores - "for my wife."
Dufferin Mall's ascent comes on the heels of other major mall renovations, most notably the April opening of the up-market Shops at Don Mills, Fairview Mall's new look and the recent addition at Yorkdale. All have been completed at a time when consumer spending has been trending downwards.
"I think that it comes back to what you offer the consumer," said Alexandra Smythe, general manager for the Cadillac-Fairview-owned Shops at Don Mills. "If it's new, that's what attracts people - whether there's a recession or not."
Ms. Shovkun says the renovation and arrival of new stores will appeal to the changing demographics of the area, a former stronghold of Portuguese families which is increasingly seeing an influx of single professionals in their 20s and 30s. Residents of Dufferin Grove, Trinity-Bellwoods, Brockton Village and Parkdale are now flocking to the quaint coffee houses and galleries springing up in the area. And they very well may stoop to visit a mall.
But Ms. Shovkun is looking farther afield, hoping to also attract residents of neighbourhoods such as the Annex and Little Italy as well as High Park.
"New customers are coming in," she says, adding the mall's blue-collar clientele continues to be served by retailers such as Wal-Mart, No Frills and Dollarama, as well as the dozens of smaller shops that still line its corridors.
If property values are any indication, there's more disposable income in the neighbourhood. According to Ryan Roberts, an agent with Bosley Real Estate who has lived in the area for the past three years, Dufferin Grove, an enclave east of the mall, is the "new Annex."
"There's been huge gentrification - and property values have skyrocketed in the past few years," he says, adding the value of his own home has gone up 25 per cent since 2006.
As for Dufferin Mall, Mr. Roberts admits he only started shopping there recently, given the mall's dodgy reputation. "To be perfectly frank, I didn't visit it before," he says.
Though the mall still lacks the cachet of Sherway or Bay and Bloor, it's possible young recessionistas may pop in for a Second Cup latte and H&M clutch. "Why should they drive to Yorkdale?" says Ms. Shovkun. "We're here."
Special to The Globe and Mail