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Could re-imagining malls help solve the Toronto-area housing crunch? Some developers are betting on it

Experts say mixed-use developments in and around existing malls are taking off in the GTA and are leading a trend as the region faces housing crunch with demand outpacing supply. 

Dozens of plans are in the works for mixed-use developments in and around malls.

A developer's rendering shows large buildings with green space in front.

From Yorkdale to Fairview Mall to Square One to Sherway Gardens, you don’t have to look far in the Greater Toronto Area to find a mall with big redevelopment plans in the works.

Experts say mixed-use developments in and around existing malls are taking off in the GTA and are leading a trend as the region faces housing crunch with demand outpacing supply.

Rob Spanier’s real estate development advisory firm, the Spanier Group, focuses on large-scale mixed-use developments.

“What’s happening with the continued demand and the stress for new housing is there’s a lot of development going vertically, and it’s going up instead of out. And certainly the malls present a really unique opportunity,” Spanier said.

When malls are “high performing”, the land around them is prime real estate for new housing and mixed-use developments, said Spanier, particularly because of existing transit and highway connections. In those cases, developments typically involve building up around a mall, often on existing parking lots, and moving parking underground.

Close up photo of Rob Spanier, who leans against a wall and looks at the camera.

In other cases, he said, parts of a mall — or the entire building — could be converted into a new use.

“In certain instances, the malls are doing great. In other instances, it’s time for them to take on their new life,” he said. “It may be that a mall actually needs to be 50 per cent the size that it is today. It may be that the mall is done.”

Plans in various stages of development

While many of the projects could take many years or even decades to complete, work on some is already underway.

One example is the site where the Galleria Mall once stood at Dufferin and Dupont streets. Developers there envision a re-imagined mixed-use community space.

Cadillac Fairview aims to kick off construction at Fairview Mall in the next two years as well. It plans to build a mix of residential and commercial buildings along with open spaces on the parking lots surrounding the mall.

While such developments may be born out of necessity, Spanier believes they also present an opportunity to create new neighbourhoods or add to the fabric of existing ones.

Perhaps the largest such development is centred around Square One Shopping Centre in Mississauga.

Veronica Maggisano is vice president of development with Oxford Properties, which co-owns Square One. She said the multi-decade plan is in the early stages but is forecasted to include 18,000 residential units. The plan would create a new neighbourhood including green space, while keeping the mall intact.

A map shows Square One and the surrounding area of Mississauga, with a purple block indicating where the new Square One District development would be.

“I think as humans we want social spaces and I think all of that is the foundation of strong community,” Maggisano said.

“People want to shop, live, work, play, learn — all of it within close proximity. And that’s how we really thought about the Square One district.”

Provincial push for more housing

Richard Joy, the executive director of the Toronto chapter of the Urban Land Institute, a non-profit real estate and land development organization, said he was hearing conversations about the potential of malls as key lands for redevelopment when he started in his role close to a decade ago. But he said he projects are taking off at a greater scale than he ever expected.

Large scale projects aren’t without detractors, however.

From concerns over the size of developments to fears of major traffic congestion, Joy said pushback “will always be a factor.

“But I think politically that force is being overridden by forces higher even than the city,” he said.

Joy said large-scale urban intensification projects fit into the province’s push to build new housing.

“Whether it’s a sea change of community opinion or a sea change or political power, we are seeing that level of intensification now move forward in ways that you would not see south of the border,” Joy said.

Joy acknowledges many of the projects will largely add to the supply of market-rent housing rather than primarily affordable housing. “But I think quite critically they’re part of the overall supply mix,” he said.

Beyond responding to an acute need for housing, Spanier said the mix of residential, commercial, community services, and amenities will create highly livable communities.

“What we’re seeing with these larger scale developments is these are almost new neighbourhoods that are coming to fruition,” Spanier said.

“And my hope is that those projects will fit into the fabric of Toronto and become part of the community, but also have their own identity.”

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