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Malls, with one foot in the grave, are trying to become entertainment destinations

Malls are now expected to be new and exciting for shoppers and the objective is spreading all across Burnaby.

Walking in, the mirage of the past wavers in front of my eyes. Once, the place was packed with families bustling in and out of stores, the play area crammed with children laughing and playing, and throngs of teenagers nonchalantly congregating in the center, but the glory days of my neighbourhood mall are long gone. Now replacing it all is the scattered occurrence of stores and the ghost of what it used to be.

Across North America, the eerily quiet and bare mall is becoming an all too familiar sight. Something that was a sure part of many people’s childhood has now become a dying paradigm, slowing fading away like its monotone walls.

The supremacy of online shopping and e-commerce has overrun and hollowed out the brick-and-mortar retail industry. Amazon especially has won over consumers with the endless information that can be offered and the convenience of 24-hour, at home shopping. Mall owners are now worried for the future, with most finding their way out of the business. Major retailers have closed around 300 of their stores, and the vacancy rate in malls has risen. But mall owners have a plan to make a comeback with a new strategy

Owners now are spending billions of dollars to upgrade their malls, outfitting them with upscale restaurants and more entertainment, turning empty department stores into non-retail attractions. They are focusing on giving consumers an experience that they can’t achieve online.

Alberta’s West Edmonton Mall exemplifies the strategy. Over many decades, North America’s largest shopping mall showed what was possible in an entertainment and retail merger. The mall has attractions such as an indoor amusement park, a mini-golf course, an underground aquarium, and a water park. Those attractions are what keeps people coming back. Danielle Woo, general manager at West Edmonton Mall says, “It’s not just about coming here and going to the brick-and-mortar stores… people are coming here for a full experience.”

That strategy can also be seen in my hometown of Burnaby, BC, where the Brentwood and Lougheed malls are rebranding themselves as destinations. With Shape Properties’ redevelopment of the two, the new centres have garnered some interest in residents and travelers to the region. Not only is the architecture a major upgrade from the past one, with an integrated indoor and outdoor shopping space, the area is made for festivities and crowds. The new Brentwood mall, set to open this summer, will be a $2 billion dollar development. The two imposing residential towers are not the only thing being built, the mall is getting a huge 85,400-sq-ft Cineplex entertainment complex, complete with 5 auditoriums, restaurants, and sports bars. New upscale restaurants and fashion anchor stores are also set to be added inside of the four distinct indoor and outdoor retail areas: Brentwood Boulevard — an outdoor retail street with patios for restaurants, The Plaza — an open-air social hub featuring fashion brands mixed with patios, pubs, and casual dining, West Mews and Grand Lobby — retail and restaurant space, and Brentwood Interior — the centre’s indoor retail and restaurant space. The development hopes to compete with downtown Vancouver’s luxury quarter, where space is definitely tight.

The $7-billion dollar redevelopment of the Lougheed Town Centre, now to be called The City of Lougheed, is also something to rival that of Brentwood’s. Taking the spot as the second largest mall in Burnaby, its notoriety is pretty large. Speaking of large, the actual scale of the redevelopment is 37 acres, compared to the 28 acres of Brentwood’s. And where Lougheed mall has lacked in entertainment with its loss of a movie theatre in 2002, it replaces with a 300 metre long outdoor retail strip, snaking around the center. To add to the changing up of the mall, to not make it as stale and claustrophobic as the last, the section would be protected by a glass structure above, giving a sense of the outdoors, where pedestrians will most favourably be able to get to and from stores without having to deal with the elements coming down on them. Consisting of 12 towers, the aerial view of the centre will also be densely populated, but to break it up a number of public open spaces connected by pedestrian and cycling pathways will also be added. At the end of all this construction, the malls will be inevitably inescapable with its highrises and flashy new stores, especially with the convenience of the skytrain that is connected to the two. Hop right off at your stop and “voilà”, there’s a mall.

Clearly mall owners are banking on the new evolution of their live-work-and-play atmosphere to help ward off the threat of becoming obsolete in the era of e-commerce. The retail industry must evolve or die. And those unwilling to change may not find their place in the future.

Image Credit: Flying Penguin

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