In my previous blog, I wrote about ‘Retrofitting Suburbia’, a 2009 book by Ellen Dunham – Jones and June Williamson. They describe how older suburban malls from around 50 years ago, when the car was still seen as the solution to many perceived problems, rather than the cause of many problems, can be successfully retrofitted into new town centres, including housing, entertainment, work spaces etc.
3000 parking spots
A number of US mall owners have been rethinking the traditional model of the mall as we know it. They are interested in intensification; this naturally leaves less surface space for the car and therefore a higher demand for mass transit, walking and cycling.
One such mall in Ottawa, that is actually not even that old, is South Keys. South Keys is known for its vast parking lot of 3000 surface spots (excluding the Park and Ride) and some run of the mill retail. The usual suspects are there: Loblaws, Walmart, a movie theatre etc. Not too long ago, South Keys was for many where Ottawa stopped, much like Billings Bridge was the end of Ottawa when my father-in-law was young.
A few years ago an old railway track was revitalised to run a diesel powered Siemens train. The tracks have been upgraded from an area near downtown to South Keys, passing across Carleton University property. This immediately started a shift in thinking by students who realised that they could now rent cheaper 4 km south of the university, in the South Keys area instead of in Old Ottawa South.
But South Keys is still the end of the track. This is going to change eventually as lots more development took place further south over the last two decades, creating an opportunity for South Keys to become much more of a central location in Ottawa. Eventually the light rail, now known as the Trillium line, will continue both further south and to the airport.
Community Design Plan
Currently a South Keys to Blossom Park community design plan is being drawn up, with a vision for a main street area on and around the South Keys mall. It should be released soon (spring 2015).
The central pieces consist of mix use buildings for working and living, a 30 meter wide expanded naturalised buffer along Sawmill Creek that runs like a green ribbon through the area, a Main Street running along the length of the South Keys mall, a town square, an integrated cycling and pedestrian plan, transit plazas in front of the two stations and underground and podium parking instead of surface parking. A 3 meter wide pathway though the town centre is suggested with green buffers of 1.5 meter on each side.
There is only one catch. South Keys isn’t that old yet so the box stores are not going to disappear soon. Unless of course, on line shopping upsets commercial real estate enough that it becomes a lot more attractive to develop those empty and now fairly centrally located lots into new vibrant centres. And that might be sooner than we think. The city planners are clearly on board; the entire community design plan took a page from Retrofitting Suburbia.
I even expect that South Keys will give the Byward market a run for its money. Not next year, not in the next decade, but perhaps 20 years from now. Without a retrofitted South Keys mall the plan could still go ahead, but it won’t be as attractive. The keys (pun intended) to a successful development are in the hands of the mall owner, Canadian Real Estate Investment Trust.
The Shops at Mid Town Miami
Last winter I visited Miami for the first time. We stayed on South Beach in an AirBnB rental. Our first day there was somewhat rainy and our ‘AirBnB host’, a Brazilian woman who happened to have her parents over, suggested we could come with her and her parents to go to the Shops at Mid Town Miami. We had never heard of it, but always open for a new adventure, we decided to join her.
The Shops at Mid Town Miami are built not far from the Wynwood district (known for its funky murals) in typical mixed use fashion. Although it isn’t suburbia, the concept of mix use is the same.The large Target is surrounded by liner shops that face the street, as Target doesn’t need windows anyway. The liner shops connect nicely with the street. The mall’s roof is a big parking lot, but one would not know from the outside. A block further south the developer built a town square (where we actually had a Mexican lunch), and narrow streets with lush vegetation.
Another block contains a podium parking garage and on the east side of the block you’ll find a couple of high rises. The total area covers 28 acres. The South Keys mall mentions two conflicting numbers on the developer’s website: 56 acres and 38 acres.
So don’t despair, there is hope for suburbia’s own town centers. The box store will be a lot less omnipresent. It is happening in the US for a number of years already. And as usual, Canada will follow a decade or two later.