The life and death of the Toronto strip mall
The strip mall came into prominence in Toronto and North America at large in the years that followed the Second World War. Car ownership was rapidly on the rise, suburban areas were being developed en masse, and no one was much concerned about the space taken up by surface parking lots.
Following the post-war boom, the strip plaza became a fixture of the suburban landscape, and you can still see hundreds of them spread around Toronto and the surrounding area. We tend to think of these places as lacking in any architectural value, but they are a product of car-oriented design principles that also gave us motels, drive thrus, and a place like Las Vegas.
The idea is to draw the would-be customer with a roadside sign and the promise of ease of commerce. Unlike a major shopping mall or a grand hotel, at a plaza or motel you can drive your car right up to to the door. It's hard to figure now, but there's was an incredible appeal to such convenience at the dawn of the automobile age.
Toronto's landscape isn't in danger of losing its ample strip malls anytime soon, but the signs of their ultimate demise have started to show for the first time. For one thing, it's rare to see a new one built. The plaza has been subsumed by the shopping mall and the power centre, as ever bigger retail outfits slowly kill off the type of independent retail that was key to their existence.
More significantly, residential development pressure has finally started to reach the city's strip malls. Sunnybrook Plaza, the first of its kind in the city when it was built in 1952, will soon be a mixed use development home to an LRT station, condos, and retail at ground level. The new development will notably lack a surface parking lot.
Similarly, Bathurst Manor Plaza will close on July 31, 2016. There's no development imminent here, but various proposals have been made over the last half decade for a mix of condos and retail. During that period business has slowly dried up at Bathurst Manor, much of it migrating to the much larger Rimrock Plaza to the southwest.
These days a plaza might even be torn down because it no longer suits the character of a neighbourhood and ceases to serve a use. Such is the case in Parkdale, where a small strip plaza at Queen Street West and Callender Street was razed a little over a year ago after the Sak's convenience store shut down and left the place vacant.
All of this makes sense, and it's nothing to be mourned. A few years ago at a debate regarding Toronto's aesthetic merits (or lack thereof) prominent architect Jack Diamond singled out the strip mall as one of the chief reasons why the city would not, on the whole, be a truly beautiful place.
Forgetting the architectural argument, from a planning perspective, it only makes sense that such places are eaten up as the city's population increases. Toronto is a city that could benefit from more density, not less. Sunnybrook Plaza in particular is an example of postive redevelopment, as the Crosstown LRT should render the need for old school plazas mute.
All that said, there is something lost in the slow demise of the strip mall. I remember working at Netwonbrook Plaza (itself slated for redevelopment) when I was younger. After a few months, you got to know all the other shopkeepers. There was a palpable sense of community in the mall. That's difficult to replace, and certainly won't return with the type of retail that's built at the base of condos.
Photos via the Toronto Archives.
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