Thirty years ago when I first settled in Vancouver permanently, I lived in the Plaza Towers at the north end of the Lions Gate First Narrows Bridge. In those days, there wasn’t much going on along Marine Drive going east from the Bridge. But turning west off Lions Gate brought you straightaway to the Park Royal Shopping Centre. When it was built in 1950, Park Royal was officially declared the first covered mall in Canada; and it was still a big deal in 1979. I’m sure someone told me it was the biggest shopping centre in the Commonwealth.
If Park Royal was the first mall in Canada in 1950, then Canada was a generation or more behind the United States in the development of automobile-based consumer paradises. The first official mall is said to be the 1931 Hugh Prather design for the Highland Park Village, Dallas TX, although both the County Club Plaza in Kansas City MO (1924) and Arthur Aldis’s Market Square in Chicago IL have their supporters. By 1951, multi-story malls were being built in the States and culminated in 1992’s Mall of America in Bloomington MI, still the largest in the county. (When I was working with a bunch of folks in Bismarck ND a few years ago, they used to joke that a good day in North Dakota was driving to the Mall of America.)
But Canada learned quickly, and the West Edmonton Mall — with its entertainment centres and submarines — has been the largest such centre in North America since it opened in 1981. In fact, it was the largest in the world until 2004. In my early days here, I had several colleagues who took honeymoons or vacations to West Edmonton. Much of downtown Vancouver has malls for several levels below each street, and we have easy transit access to suburban centres such as Metrotown.
Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, at least, the mall seemed to be the centre of youth culture, driven by and thereby helping to drive post-Vietnam consumer-capitalist retail marketing. And on the very few occasions that I visit malls — pre-Christmas mainly — these places generally still seem very busy. However, they don’t always work.
The UAE National has a fascinating article about the largest mall in the world — the South China Mall in Dongguan, China, with 7 million square feet of available space — which
is not just the world’s largest. With fewer than a dozen stores scattered through a space designed to house 1,500, it is also the world’s emptiest – a dusty, decrepit complex of buildings marked by peeling paint, dead light bulbs, and dismembered mannequins.
The few tenants are not required to pay rent any more. It wasn’t supposed to be this way:
Three years ago, just before the South China Mall opened, it was featured on the front page of The New York Times as part of China’s “astonishing” new consumer culture. As the Times put it, with perhaps a trace of hyperbole, the “Chinese have started to embrace America’s ‘shop till you drop’ ethos and are in the middle of a buy-at-the-mall frenzy.” A spokesman for the mall’s developer Hu Guirong, an instant-noodle billionaire, told the Times that Hu’s team had spent two years traveling the world – France, Italy, Nevada – in search of ideas. They expected the mall to average more than 70,000 visitors a day. “We wanted to do something groundbreaking,” the spokesman said. “We wanted to leave our mark on history” …
The big attraction of the South China Mall was supposed to be its “foreign” design. Learning from Las Vegas, where replicas of European monuments and New York landmarks draw throngs of tourists, the Dongguan mall modeled seven zones after various exotic world locations. Its rooftops reflect at least twenty different influences, from Czech town halls to Turkish mosques. As the mall was about to open, one of its design consultants, Ian Thomas of the Thomas Consulting Group in Vancouver, told the trade publication Shopping Centers Today that the zones were “done with such authenticity, with such great attention to detail, that you really think you’re in the real thing.”
But for all the hype, the mall has failed because the shoppers never came. The article suggests that the mass middle class with disposable income has not yet arrived in most of China. This, plus faulty financing and leasing plans condemned the South China Mall to its present fate. I assume that different reasons are behind the hundreds of thousands of square feet of empty space in the US featured on http://www.deadmalls.com. And here at home, what explains the failure of the International Centre in Chinatown when other malls succeed in the Lower Mainland?
The shopping centre is a key component of 20th century economic, retail, marketing and social history. If you are interested in going further, you should visit here, here, and here.