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In Toronto, as shopping centre parking lots grow emptier, property owners are seeking to replace them with people in high-rises. The trend poses challenges as developers and city planners grapple with a new kind of neighbourhood-building

Renderings for the proposed redevelopment of the Galleria Mall in Toronto.

Everyone's heard about spending a night in the museum. But would you live at the mall?

Thanks to the e-commerce-induced demise of major retail chains, such as Sears and Toys "R" Us, the closing of hundreds of malls across North America has triggered a push by municipal planners to find ways to recycle these forlorn asphalt islands. The phenomenon has even spawned a website – While malls in the Greater Toronto Area haven't faced the same kind of pressure, owners are nonetheless thinking hard about future shopping trends.

Across Toronto, the owners of at several large shopping centres, including Yorkdale, are pressing ahead with transformative rezoning/development applications that aim to add high-rise residential, office and entertainment projects onto the edges of malls that have functioned for years as parking lots.

These include sites on the Golden Mile on Eglinton Avenue, a sprawling Loblaw-owned site at Roncesvalles and Bloor, and plazas in Etobicoke and Scarborough.

The upshot: Over the next several years, thousands of Toronto condo owners and tenants will begin calling the mall home.

This move marks a significant shift in residential development patterns for Toronto – one that poses new planning and traffic challenges about how to create genuinely complete neighbourhoods equipped with public spaces and community amenities, such as day care centres or even schools, on land that's long been zoned and operated exclusively for shopping.

Some are simply tabula rasa undertakings that involve the total demolition of older shopping malls. With the Galleria Mall, at Dufferin and Dupont, developer Elad Canada and partner Freed Development are rebuilding the entire property and will then sell the apartments. The eight- to 10-year build-out includes about 2,900 residential units and 300,000 square feet of commercial space spread across eight buildings. The marketing of the first phase is to begin in late 2018, says Elad Canada chief executive officer Rafael Lazer.

With others, the owners, typically the property management divisions of large pension funds, want to intensify their holdings with non-retail uses as a hedge against shifts in the way people shop and travel.

A rendering of the proposed redevelopment of Bayview Village in Toronto.

Willowdale residents last week got a chance to vet the emerging plans for Bayview Village, which is owned by BCIMC Realty Corp., the property division of a B.C. pension fund, and managed by Vancouver-based QuadReal Property Group. The proposal envisions up to five buildings designed by Hariri Pontarini and Dialog, including two mixed-use towers of 28 and 33 storeys, with internal connections to the Sheppard subway and the rest of the mall. QuadReal also intends to redevelop the parking lot to the north of the mall, replacing lost spaces with below-grade parking.

"Retail is going through this transformation right now," says Jay Camacho, QuadReal's vice-president of retail, adding that the project will include uses such as wellness/fitness facilities and more high-end food/restaurant options.

QuadReal has no plans to subdivide the Bayview Village site or build new public streets within the property, which, as Mr. Camacho points out, is relatively modest in size compared with larger regional malls.

The Bayview Village redevelopment plan calls for five new buildings.

The dynamics at Yorkdale are far more complicated. According to mall general manager Claire Santamaria, Oxford Properties envisions a 20-year transformation that will involve high-rise condos, a hotel and office buildings. The mall manager is in the midst of an intensive planning process and an official plan amendment (OPA), and has been negotiating with both local residents and city officials about the impact on adjoining areas. The project could see the construction of up to 1,500 condo units.

As with QuadReal's vision for Bayview Village, Oxford wants to capitalize on the potential of an extended PATH-like network of internal connections between the mall, proposed high rises and the Yorkdale subway/GO station. Such connections represent an important draw as Oxford seeks tenants and investors.

But Oxford Properties and Toronto's planning department are at loggerheads over circulation issues, such as inserting new municipal roads onto the vast property and addressing the question of increased congestion in an already very congested area.

Indeed, Yorkdale sits in the middle of a much larger precinct – extending up Dufferin from Lawrence, and also taking in Wilson and the area near the new Humber Regional Hospital – that is expected to become one of major nodes of new high-density development in Toronto over the next two decades, city planners say.

A high-traffic, mega-block-like Yorkdale is difficult for pedestrians and cyclists to navigate safely, says Al Rezoski, the city planner in charge of the application and the OPA. "Our challenge is that Oxford is not wanting public streets."

Nor is it just a circulation issue. The condo and office towers proposed for the internal portions of Yorkdale, Mr. Rezoski adds, require street addresses and public spaces that meet the city's standards for public realm design, as well as emergency and municipal services.

Ms. Santamaria, however, insists that the Yorkdale's plan envisions the creation of so-called "privately owned public spaces," landscaping and bike paths and potentially shuttle bus loops within an intensified remake of Yorkdale.

In the past, Ontario cities have lost such showdowns with the institutional owners of other major malls, including Square One Mississauga and Scarborough Town Centre, a suburban Toronto mall also managed by Oxford.

"Efforts to put public realm [improvements] through Square One have been going on for 40 years," observes planner George Dark, a partner with Urban Strategies, which has advised on the Galleria project in Toronto and is also working on several other large-scale mall conversions.

Indeed, in the case of Galleria, Toronto officials did succeed in negotiating an ambitious public and community plan for the site, one that includes the creation of internal city streets, pedestrian walkways, a publicly owned park and a rebuilt community centre – with all of these amenities transferred to municipal ownership.

Based on feedback collected during a series of public consultations, Mr. Rafael says, a revamped mall will be embedded in what he calls Galleria 2.0, but the retail is merely one part of a broader plan for this swath of west-end Toronto. As he adds: "We knew people wanted a lot of public gathering areas."

Editor's note: The original print and online versions of this story neglected to mention one of the partners rebuilding the Galleria Mall. This online version has been corrected.