Councillor Josh Matlow

National Post: Canada’s strip malls crumble toward extinction

November 13, 2011


Parking lots are cracking, roofs are leaking and vacancies are soaring at North American strip malls. South of the border, the malls face vacancies of more than 11%, a historical high.


The first time cultural geographer Merle Patchett saw Edmonton’s sprawl from the airplane, she felt the culture shock shared by so many European immigrants to the Prairie city.


The place was built for the automobile: Endlessly sprawling suburbs, winding highways and, above all, strip malls.




This month, Ms. Patchett, a native of Glasgow, Scotland, and the University of Alberta’s City Region Studies Centre have launched Strip Appeal. It’s a contest calling on designers, architects — anyone really — to retrofit the much-maligned strip mall for the future.


“It’s just a rectangular box surrounded by a sea of empty space,” said Ms. Patchett. “It’s a really easy building to redesign.”


Crumbling, tacky and unloved, the bland 1950s-era strip mall remains the scourge of developers and urban planners alike.


They are seen as patches of “underperforming asphalt,” treading water until they can be swept aside in favour of pedestrian-friendly marketplaces or a multi-storey mix of offices, shops and condos plugged into a light-rail network.


A strip mall in Edmonton, Alberta. As Canada’s strip malls enter their twilight years, architects and city planners alike are figuring how to reconfigure the much-maligned buildings for the modern era. A contest launched this month by the University of Alberta is calling on designers to reinvent the “suburban blights” of modern strip malls.


“It’s easy to hate them and it’s hard to love them,” said Lance Berelowitz, a principal with Vancouver’s Urban Forum Associates.


Yet, as Canada’s aging strip malls prepare to join castles and drive-in movie theatres in the trash can of architectural history, their brightest days may yet be ahead.


First taking hold in the 1950s, strip malls were originally an auto-friendly twist on the corner grocery store. Even in their heyday, they were never particularly useful — they were just easy.


“It was the dumbest, lowest-risk thing that a developer could do,” said Mr. Berelowitz.


Driven by no central plan or configuration, strip malls are markets of chaos: Maddeningly random hodge-podges of drycleaners, video-rental stores and nail salons.


“You have to drive from strip to strip to strip just to get anything done,” said James Smerdon, director of retail and strategic planning at Colliers International, a real estate firm.


And once the sun sets, the mall’s dark back alleys become magnets for drug dealers, arsonists and graffiti writers.


Which is probably why nobody builds strip malls anymore.


Today, most city-dwellers shop in multi-storey complexes sandwiched between condominiums and underground parking. In the suburbs, they prefer massive multi-acre “power centres” of big box stores.


Caught in the middle, strip malls are slowly drifting into extinction. Their parking lots are cracking, their roofs are leaking and vacancies are soaring.


South of the border, strip-mall vacancies are reaching historical highs of more than 11%.


Mr. Smerdon does not mourn them, calling them “a necessary evil when you have to go there for your drycleaning or your shawarma. There will be no nostalgia for the strip mall.”


Not everyone agrees.


In June, the county board of Arlington, Va., next door to Washington, voted unanimously to add two 1930s-era strip malls to its list of “essential” preservation-worthy properties. “What are they preserving it from? Another strip mall?” one online commenter asked.


“Not every

[strip mall] falls into the detritus category,” said Richard Longstreth, an architectural historian at George Washington University.


Indeed, when developers in Kansas City cut the ribbon on history’s first suburban shopping district in 1922, they packed it with a high-brow collection of murals, statues and fountains. Huntington Beach, Calif., has a whimsical 1970 strip mall designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, Jr.


As a member of the Society for Commercial Archeology, Mr. Longstreth is dedicated to preserving the remnants of 20th-century architecture: Filling stations, diners and gaudy roadside neon signs. Strip malls remain plentiful for now, but their days are numbered.


“Take another look,” he said. “Although strip malls may be fleeting, they still perform an important role.”


“New ideas must use old buildings,” wrote Jane Jacobs in her legendary 1961 book The Death and Life of Great American Cities.


Pop artist Andy Warhol established his “Factory” in an old electrical substation in New York, Apple computers started in a garage in Los Altos, Calif., and even the Ghostbusters set up shop in a dilapidated fire station.


Affordable and easy to reconfigure, strip malls have emerged as ready venues for artist studios, tech start-ups and ethnic hubs.


“They are small, but they can have big hearts,” said Ms. Patchett.


In the suburbs of Vancouver and Los Angeles, Asian shop keepers have repurposed blocks of strip malls into thriving communities of specialty grocery stores and restaurants.


Carolyn B. Heller, a Canadian food writer, admits she was a “strip mall snob” when she first moved to Vancouver, but gradually became disarmed by the top-notch Asian fare being served up in some of the city’s most unassuming venues.


“Who cares if the exteriors are ugly when you can get fresh, authentic dishes from across China, Taiwan, and Japan just a short subway ride away?” she wrote in an email to the National Post.


At the 1990s-era Payal Business Centre in Surrey, B.C., real estate offices, lawyers, jewellers and Indian clothing stores are nestled amidst four banquet halls. Throughout the week, the parking lots abound with bridal parties, political rallies and high-school-age children in suits and ceremonial dress.


In Toronto, urban strip malls have often been fingered as the scruffy foundations of the city’s multi-ethnic mix. A home to Jewish bakeries, Hungarian butchers and Chinese acupuncturists, they have “become as important to their communities as the old warehouses and market districts have been to the inner city.


“We demolish them at our peril,” wrote Toronto urban affairs journalist John Lorinc in a 2005 essay.


Downtown it is a different story.


“We’ve probably reached Peak Car to some degree in North America,” said Gordon Price, director of the city program at British Columbia’s Simon Fraser University.


Amid soaring gas prices, better transit and a slow crawl toward denser cities, the children of today may be the first to own fewer cars than their parents.


“But we’ve overbuilt for the car, so you’ve got to start thinking about what you can do with structures that were never intended for the purposes we know need it for,” said Mr. Price.


In Vancouver, the car rollback has already begun.


Even during the day, there are enough empty parking spots in the city to account for 3% of all land downtown. In the core, more than 100,000 people share only two gas stations. Pushed aside by soaring land prices, the Vancouver strip mall is similarly nearing extinction.


In the rest of Canada, the march to reclaim car-friendly infrastructure is only beginning. In the Prairies, as Calgary and Edmonton’s development pushes to the edges of city limits, urban planners are finally infilling existing sprawl. In the cities of southern Ontario, planners are simply trying to devise a future free from choking traffic.


“In midtown Toronto, the one- or two-storey strip malls have most likely passed their time,” said Josh Matlow, a Toronto city councillor. “They just don’t make sense in the heart of an urban centre anymore.”


Larry Beasley, former co-director of planning for the city of Vancouver, takes it a bit farther.


“I think they should be banned,” he wrote in an email to the Post.


He does not object to neighbourhood shopping centres, only when those shopping centres are packed into alienating cubes surrounded by asphalt.


“It’s not the principle of strip malls that is the problem, it is their form,” he wrote.


Montreal is saturated with underused churches left over from the city’s staunchly religious past. Because they too beautiful or historic to rip down, they have forced developers to compromise, awkwardly fitting them into apartment blocks or nightclubs.


In Germany and Austria, cities are cursed by networks of wartime bunkers that are virtually immune to demolition.


But strip malls? The average complex can be torn down and trucked away in a few hours – and hardly anyone will raise a finger in protest.


“The real virtue is that we don’t give a damn about them,” said Mr. Price.


Many of the submissions received by Strip Appeal are surprisingly basic: a seating area, some flood lighting, a bit of streetscaping, maybe some back doors to connect retailers to neighbouring residential communities.


But some designs have verged into the abstract. One particularly far-fetched submission proposed sprucing up a neighbourhood strip mall with stacks of colourful, renovated shopping containers.


Another suggested ringing the strip mall with food trucks during the summer and ice rinks during the winter.


The Strip Appeal website reprints drawings from the 2010 book The Sprawl Repair Manual detailing how to transform a strip mall into a hip urban shopping complex: Box in the front parking lot with a pair of recycling centres and turn it into a courtyard, and then greenify the roof for colour.


The trick now is to figure out how Canada can destroy its strip malls while saving their cultural “genetics,” wrote Michael von Hausen, a Vancouver-based community planning consultant, in an email to the Post. Canadians must figure out how they can destroy their strip malls without destroying the small businesses and cultural hubs within them.


It is, he believes, “a noble and difficult task.”


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