Greyfields: Coming Soon to a Mall Near You

A couple of definitions before we start:

Greenfields: describes developments built in the suburbs over what used to be a farm field, a woodlot, or some other landuse that wasn't urban. Greenfield developments are at the centrepiece of urban sprawl.

Brownfields: unused urban land, usually formerly industrial, often contaminated with decades of chemicals. If the chemicals can be cleaned up and the landuse changed from industrial to residential, then this brings life to an inner city neighbourhood, and is a direct strike against urban sprawl. Usually, however, the cost of cleanup prevents anything from being built.

In general, we worry about businesses and residents relocating out of the centres of our cities and plunking themselves down in the greenfields at their edge, producing a donut-hole pattern of urban decay and the pressures of urban sprawl on the rural landscape. We are struggling to reverse this trend, however, revitalizing brownfields, and we are having some success.

Back in my heady, idealistic university days at the School of Urban and Regional Planning at the University of Waterloo, we talked a lot about the death of downtown cores. We generally blamed suburban malls, pulling shoppers out of the aging shopping areas of the old city with the promise of lots of parking, and large chain stores. We noted that suburban malls offered space, newness, a place to park your car, and some of us came to the conclusion that the downtowns couldn't compete with that. Experiments to bring malls into the downtown, or to turn downtowns into malls, usually proved to be spectacular failures.

But the downtowns still had their advantages. They were downtown, for one thing; they had the history behind them as well as the architecture and the transit infrastructure. They remained the heart of the city; the place people gravitated to when they wanted to do something associated with their community. The downtowns couldn't compete with the suburban malls by offering the same chain stores, but they could compete by offering something different, like specialized restaurants, live theatres, quaint boutiques, smaller scale stores which appealed to people at a more human level, coffee shops, etc. Downtowns were places where you could walk, sit, watch and be watched, without the everpresent glare of mall security, or a curfew hour rolling everything (including the sidewalks) behind locked doors.

Gradually, the downtowns started to come back by playing to these assets. Montreal will always have Old Montreal, and it will do all right. Toronto has its Chinatown, its Theatre District, its Skydome, its Union Station and Harbourfront, and it will do all right. Downtown Kitchener has halted the blight, put in theatres, government and insurance offices, encouraged the growth of small businesses, and it's risen from the dead. It should do all right.

But for the suburban malls, whose advantage has always been that they were bigger than the stores that could be found downtown, they would fall pray to the law of the jungle: however big you may be, there's always something bigger behind the next tree.

That was the prediction seven years ago. Now I read that a new field colour term has been coined to join the ranks of greenfield and brownfield: greyfield. The suburban malls are dying. Anchor tenants such as Eatons, Simpsons, JC Penney and Montgomery Ward are falling by the wayside, replaced by behemoth stores such as Walmart, Home Depot, Future Shop, Chapters/Indigo, Staples/Business Depot, which by and large shun suburban malls (with exceptions, of course). The shopping centres that were built in the fifties, sixties, seventies and even the eighties are starting to show their age. Their movie theatres aren't big enough. They're not new enough. They don't have enough bargains.

The new suburban shopping experience today is the Power Centre, with no enclosed common space, no small-scale stores, no food courts, just anchor tenants, lots of them, housed inside big pre-fabricated box-like structures, surrounding oodles, and oodles, and oodles of parking. Even the movie theatres have their power centre representatives, with Silver City and Galaxy Cinemas setting up their own big box theatres along with other American megaplexes. Mall megaplexes used to offer as many as eighteen screens in one place, even though some of those screens were no bigger than a big screen television set. Power centre megaplexes not only offer the same selection, but also the benefits of huge screens, stadium seating, and an arcade-like waiting area.

The result has been half-empty shopping centres; centres madly renovating themselves in a desperate drive to stay current, or taking on power centre characteristics themselves. Some survive. Across North America, however, vast, empty parking lots surround abandoned buildings, like a crazed commercial version of the industrial rust belt.

North America's downtown cores are coming back, thanks to community support and government assistance. The patch of urban decay that used to be the hole in the donut in most cities, is now a donut itself. Toronto's urban decay exists as a ring around the core, and the malls are crumbling here too as suburban shoppers look for deals on the fringe. Suburbanites rushing for the edge are fleeing a line of desolation that is following them -- perhaps to the ends of the earth.

Is this the time for me to say, 'I told you so'? As power centres crush the old shopping centres under the wheels of history, they should be aware that they are prone to the same laws of the jungle that felled the community shopping centre. At least our downtown cores have had the sense to step out of this evolutionary drama and concentrate on what they do best: being personal, tailored, specialized, aimed directly at the communities they serve. Power centres are proudly cheap, achieving their savings through conformity and bulk sales. They don't even have what little personality the shopping centres themselves had; they have no connection with the communities they serve. The best thing you can say about your power centre is that you can get some good deals, and when the time comes to tear them down and redevelop, the disassembly instructions came with the kit. The shopping centres can't even claim that.

Now, if you'll excuse me, I'm off to buy some paper at a power centre Business Depot and then head to a downtown coffee shop to write on it.

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