You know them as crumbling, tacky relics of the past. But, in their heyday, strip malls were busy shopping areas just a few paces from home. They first emerged in Edmonton in the 1950s, when convenience was necessary for families who couldn’t afford more than one vehicle. People needed to do their errands on foot, whether that meant grabbing groceries or getting their shoes fixed.
But, over the course of several decades, these neighbourhood hubs fell out of favour and into disrepair, as they did across North America. A big thrust of this change: Cheaper cars. When families were able to own two vehicles, they could move to cheaper, bigger houses in the ‘burbs. “We started to see more malls being built and fewer strip malls,” says City of Edmonton senior planner Wai Tse Ramirez. In older areas, residents began to drive past their local strip malls en route to the mall. While plenty of businesses survived, only a few thrived, and property owners had less capital to reinvest in building upgrades.
This has left more than 100 strip malls in Edmonton’s mature neighbourhoods limping along through the decades. This was the case in Ritchie, an established area on the city’s south side where families moved out in droves decades ago. “The houses in Ritchie are tiny, usually under 1,000 square feet, and that’s too small for most people,” says Laura Cunningham-Shpeley, who lives in the area and serves as community league president. The neighbourhood’s two strip malls – on opposite sides of 76th Avenue and 96th Street – have continued to keep tenants (including successful businesses like the Blue Chair Cafe and Acme Meats), but the tired infrastructure has frustrated residents for years. At least, until now.
After a couple of years of working behind the scenes, the community league, local businesses and The City of Edmonton are dramatically revamping the area’s two strip malls. Last year, Ritchie was one of three neighbourhoods chosen to take part in the city’s Corner Store Pilot Program, which provides funding to upgrade infrastructure inside and out, and improve the streetscape (sidewalks, landscaping, lighting etc.). The program also offers business development support for tenants as they re-launch.
The project morphed from a basic facelift to a new shopping concept – the Ritchie Four Corners – when BioWare co-founder Greg Zeschuk bought an empty lot at the same intersection. At the site of a former Texaco station, the Ritchie Market will contain a brew pub and restaurant (Enthusiasm Public House), coffee shop (a new location of Transcend Coffee), bike shop (Creek Side by Velocity Cycle) and Acme Meats (which will move from the strip mall across the street). Collectively, the amenities suit the up-and-coming neighbourhood, which is known for its transit-oriented, local-living crowd, says Cunningham-Shpeley. In fact, it’s the combination of demographic shifts (including the return of young families), changing attitudes towards car culture, and city funding have made it possible: “It’s a perfect storm.”
Other neighbourhoods in Edmonton are also seeing drastic changes to their strip malls. Via the Corner Store pilot program, Newton (east Edmonton) has seen the transformation of its strip mall from a near-derelict ’50s building to a modern-looking shopping area with a modern facade and streetscape. Long-time tenants, including a denture centre and bowling alley, report that business is up; several new businesses have moved in, including a daycare, donair shop and fitness centre. A third strip mall in west Edmonton’s Elmwood neighbourhood is also being upgraded as part of the program, which continues until 2018. This spring, City Council added five more sites to the roster: Calder, Patricia Heights, Forest Heights, Belvedere and Eastwood.
Elsewhere in the city, other strip malls in town are slowly transforming, too. In the south Edmonton neighbourhood of Greenfield, Petrolia Mall slipped quietly into urban decay when a Safeway store pulled out, but left a covenant restricting who could lease the old spot. Eventually most of the mall became practically derelict, with papered-over windows and a cracked, uneven asphalt parking lot desperately in need of repair.
“Aesthetically, it’s been an eyesore for a while,” says neighbourhood resident Ian Hicks. Poorly maintained and underused, the mall has attracted crime such as graffiti, vandalism, and parking lot drug deals. Frustrated, he joined an advocacy group started by Michael Walters (now a city councilor) to pressure the property owner and city to improve the site. But it wasn’t until the property was foreclosed and sold to new owners that the site has improved.
Improvements to the building facade have been made and new tenants have come on board, such as the grocery store No Frills, a pharmacy, and a walk-in clinic. But change has been slow and a handful of vacancies remain.
“It’s a chicken-and-egg thing: you almost need to have a critical mass of tenants to attract more tenants,” says Hicks, who now leads the advocacy group. The strip mall looked to be approaching a turning point this spring when a restaurateur expressed interest in opening a gastropub in the old mechanic shop on the property. A trendy new spot to eat sounded like the perfect addition to the strip, and like the Ritchie Four Corners, would likely be the beginning of a new hub for urbanists in the area. But, fine print in a lease with Loblaw (which owns No Frills) put the brakes on the project.
It may take time for Petrolia Mall to return to its former glory, but Hicks is pleased to see things moving in the right direction. The momentum now comes from the community’s shift away from car culture and towards local living, he says: “It’s great to be able to walk or bike somewhere, and not need to get in the car to drive somewhere like South Edmonton Common for absolutely everything.”
This article appears in the August 2016 issue of Avenue Edmonton. Subscribe here.