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The construction where King Square commercial centre will be built in Markham, Ont. (Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail)
The construction where King Square commercial centre will be built in Markham, Ont. (Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail)


The rise and fall of the ethnic mall Add to ...

Yaso Somalingam, the architect behind the Tamil-themed T.Junction plaza that was to open near Eglinton Avenue and Warden Avenue in Scarborough in 2009 (in 2010, the land was sold to another developer), also blames inexperienced developers in part for the failure of the shopping centre.

“I think the main reason they collapsed was because their assumption of getting financing was very wrong. They got some bad advice by the accountants and the financial agents,” he said.

The condo model and wary investors

Gavin Barrett, a partner at the multicultural idea consultancy firm Barrett and Welsh, says the concepts for Chinese malls were born out of Hong Kong models, which are condominium-style, meaning each store unit is sold rather than leased. South Asian mall proposals, on the other hand, drew from the large complexes in Mumbai and Delhi which cater to the upper-middle class and offer a mix of shops and entertainment.

But would-be buyers of space at proposed Chinese and South Asian megamalls have noticed the shift in consumer habits and that’s what stopped projects from moving forward, Dr. Wang theorizes.

“The main reason is demand. If enough buyers to invest to buy a unit, the construction is started. Apparently they could not sell enough units.”

The Landmark, a Chinese mall planned for the corner of Middlefield and Steeles, should have opened its doors in 2008. Those who’d bought units in the mall back in 2005 watched the land sit undeveloped for months. Two years ago, after many failed attempts at getting their money from developers Terry Yiu and Charles Chan, a group of about 30 buyers turned to Ken MacDonald, a Richmond Hill lawyer, for assistance. A few cases were taken to court, but many got their refunds through out-of-court settlements, he said. Just this week he heard from another buyer seeking a refund for the unit he’d purchased in 2005.

Mr. Yiu and Mr. Chan could not be reached for comment.

Court records suggest the two struggled for years to secure financing and last summer their numbered company was in receivership. DeLoitte & Touche, Inc., the receiver, sold the land where the mall was to be built to Mady Development Corporation.

Charles Mady, the chief operating officer of Mady Development, says he plans to turn it into a mainstream mall rather than keeping it Chinese-themed.

That’s the direction the Remington Centre, proposed at Kennedy and Steeles, is headed. It’s one of the lone projects on track, but it’s changed its marketed identity over time. It’s to be built on the site of Market Village – another Chinese mall – which sits beside Pacific Mall.

“We wouldn’t see it as a risky gamble [to open a mall at that location] because we do have the data supporting our project: the population growth, the expansion of the York Region,” said Albert Yong, director of sales and leasing for the Remington Centre.

While it was first promoted as a Chinese-themed mall, Mr. Yong describes it now as a “crossover mainstream mall” – presumably fewer bubble-tea shops and a retailer mix similar to that of the Eaton Centre. It will be connected to Pacific Mall, though Sam Cohen, Pacific’s developer, said it’s too early to discuss the details of the double-mall project.

One of the only projects currently underway is King Square – a million-square-foot Chinese mall at Woodbine and 16th Avenue. Construction began in March, according to a receptionist at the project’s head office, but it’s been a long time coming.

“It had several false starts,” said Dr. Wang. “They had a groundbreaking ceremony a few years ago.”

As well, a robust, pre-existing matrix of businesses targeted at ethnic minorities has made it hard for some businesses to flourish.

This spring, a new jewellery store with outposts in other parts of the GTA opened at Tamil plaza at Markham and Steeles. Its early success has likely sealed the fates of other jewellery stores in the complex, Mr. Somalingam says.

“Gradually what happens with the stores which have already opened is they have no choice but to close it or do something else.”

After 16 years at Pacific Mall, Edwin Wung, the owner of Wing Tai Hong Trade Company Ltd. – a Chinese herbs store – says given the competition and slower traffic at his shop, he can no longer count on Chinese clientele if he wants to stay in business.

“In order to survive you have to look into different customers – not just the Chinese. You have to open to different cultures of people,” he said.

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