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Arbutus. HANDOUT

Doreen Braverman likes her local shopping mall. From her leafy street on the west side of Vancouver, she can easily walk to the Safeway or the liquor store at the small, neighbourhood-size Arbutus Centre. If she wants to bring home a heavy load, she can park her car at ground level, near one of the doors.

"It's an important centre for us," says Ms. Braverman. "It's important we don't lose it."

Malls are increasingly reviled by urban designers. A mid- to late-20th-century creation of clustered shops, the mall is defined by its melding of the automobile with indoor retail, with large swaths of off-street parking. Though designing anything around the car is out of fashion these days, it turns out the mall - the flat, boxy buildings surrounded by a sea of asphalt so beloved in the car-happy 1970s - still has loyalists.

Ms. Braverman, who worries about planned changes to her local mall, is one of them. The property's owner, Larco Investments Ltd., is proposing the seven-acre site be reconfigured into four city blocks with two new streets running through it. The plan envisions a slightly larger shopping centre and four new residential towers, and most parking underground.

Canadian mall owners are exploring the idea of transforming their properties into more urban spaces The occasional mall has been redeveloped into a more pedestrian oriented design, sometimes with residential components. But pressure from various directions is making mall owners seriously consider adding towers or townhouses to their sites.

Land values are rising outside downtown cores. Some malls have been challenged by newer, larger malls, or have been done in by their own poor design. Recently, city planners, weaned on the benefits of mixed-used cities from urban theorist Jane Jacobs, have been energetically pushing developers to re-imagine properties in radically different ways.

"My premise is that shopping malls are a waste of land - boxes in fields," says Terry Crowe, the manager of policy planning for Richmond, a suburb just south of Vancouver and a city that is famous for having a centre that is largely composed of malls.

Experiments in mall redevelopment in the United States are pushing the boundaries.

Eight out of 13 regional malls in Denver are planning to retrofit. The giant Belmar mall, in Lakewood, Colo., was demolished in 2001 and transformed into 22 new blocks of mixed stores, offices and homes. A dead mall in St. Louis was rehabbed into art space.

These examples were the bulletins from Ellen Dunham-Jones, the Atlanta-based author of Retrofitting Suburbia, when she visited Vancouver and Richmond last fall to talk to planners eager to hear the word.

Malls take up valuable urban space, and the people who live around them are changing, she said. "There will be a huge demand for more urban lifestyles in suburbia. And suburbia is full of these underperforming spaces, with underused parking lots," said Ms. Dunham-Jones

Her presentation included malls that take up too much space for what they provide to their neighbourhoods, or that create dead zones in communities, or are actually failing economically.

At Arbutus Centre, where Ms. Braverman shops, owner Larco Investments, is working its way through a rezoning that would see the mall slowly rebuilt over 10 years into a site split into four new blocks, with four towers with 540 apartments and townhouses, along with slightly more commercial space than the 110,000 square feet it has now. Two new streets would run through what is now the parking lot.

"It's a failing mall," said Norm Hotson, an architect from Dialog, the firm that has been overseeing the design. It's caught between being a neighbourhood shopping centre and a regional mall, but it doesn't have enough critical mass to be the latter, he says.

He is also working on preliminary designs for redevelopment that include a residential component at Lansdowne Mall in Richmond, an inviting sea of frequently empty grey next to the new Canada Line rapid transit line, and at Park Royal in West Vancouver.

"It's economical for them. If they can take that parking lot and turn it into two 22-storey towers, why not?"

In Toronto, the city planning manager for the north area of Scarborough, a Toronto suburb, says interest is high throughout the city in redeveloping malls with residential components. One proposal at Bridlewood Mall is in the works, with a rezoning completed that allows 975 residential units for owners Malibu Investments Inc. There are likely to be more.

In Vancouver, the large and high-end Oakridge mall is getting set to go through a rezoning that would create 1.2 million square feet of residential space, as well as 350,000 square feet of retail and 250,000 of office space.

But experts warn that turning a mall into an urban village, complete with residential, is not right for every place or mall.

"It really depends on where the centre is," says Gordon Wylie, director of development for Ivanhoe Cambridge, which owns 80 malls around the world, including 50 in Canada, worth $13 billion. He dismisses the possibility for a centre where Surrey planners have been pushing hard and unsuccessfully for something besides more retail. "The residential value doesn't offset the cost of building underground parking."

Another potential nightmare is the construction phase, since the existing centre needs to be kept alive while new parts are phased in. That can take up to 15 years.

And finally, there are the neighbours. At Bridlewood in Scarborough, it took three years of community consultation before the redevelopment was approved last August. The project got scaled down from the original plan for 1,375 units, after many residents expressed serious unhappiness about the traffic impact.

And in Vancouver, Ms. Braverman and her neighbours have been mounting determined opposition to the plans for the Arbutus Centre.

"Ninety-five per cent of our community want a better centre. But we don't like their plans. We gave them a compromise plan with 250 units," she said. And she continues to add names to her petition opposing it.

"I walk around here three times a day with my dog and get signatures."

Special to The Globe and Mail