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It's the end of the road for North America's strip malls

Once an anchor of North American suburban neighbourhoods, land developers are eyeing thousands of derelict malls.

OTTAWA // Strip malls — once anchors of postwar North American suburban neighbourhoods — are doomed, with thousands across Canada and the United States already derelict and eyed by land developers.

But at least one Canadian academic sees value in maintaining the ubiquitous local retailing plazas, and has amassed proposals such as adding community gardens or toboggan slides, or morphing them into giant bee hives or parking lots for food caravans.

"Strip malls were once the economic hubs of new suburbs," said Rob Shields, a sociology professor at the University of Alberta in Edmonton, who received a government grant to rethink strip malls to benefit communities around them.

For more than 50 years, retailers favoured the rows of boxy single-storey shops opening onto a common car park facing major roadways, bringing commuters driving between their suburban homes and downtown workplaces.

But they are losing favour due to rising fuel prices, traffic congestion and city planners' demands to make cities denser as part of a drive for more "walkable" cities.

More than 11 per cent of strip malls in North America are derelict, representing 27 million square metres of vacant retail space, according to the Washington-based Urban Land Institute.

The rest are arguably in decline.

City planners such as Winnipeg's Jeff Palmer view strip malls as "retail relics".

"They reflect a time and a place that is no longer environmentally sustainable or economically viable. They do nothing to add to the vibrancy of a neighbourhood and they don't encourage walking, communicating or socialising," he said.

They once housed banks, dry cleaners, drugstores, post offices and video stores all in one convenient location.

But retailing has changed. Video stores lost out to online downloading while superstores now sell groceries as well as other goods and services all under one roof.

Developers, meanwhile, would rather build regional "power centres" — big strip malls that pack in more stores and two or three anchor tenants locked into 20-year leases providing more stable cash flows.

And owners increasingly view "not very pretty" strip malls as "superb redevelopment opportunities," said Ed Sonshine, chief executive of RioCan Real Estate, which owns more than 100 strip malls in Canada and the United States.

Mr Sonshine turned a 2,136-square-metre strip mall in Toronto into a seven-storey condominium building with retail stores on the ground floor and three levels of underground parking.

The main argument for strip malls is that they allow some form of neighbourhood retailing to survive, said Mr Palmer, "so that we're not all driving five kilometres to buy milk."

Some have been transformed into restaurant plazas, which proved to be popular. Food retailing is one of the few still strong segments in retailing.

Mr Shields, along with cities' researcher Merle Patchett, held a design contest to generate new ideas to transform others. The top entries from 11 countries, including Australia, Brazil, Egypt, Germany and Iran, are posted at www.strip-appeal.com.

Updated: January 29, 2012 04:00 AM

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