News

'De-malling' Mississauga

Phinjo Gombu, Urban Affairs Reporter
http://www.thestar.com/article/529943

The transformation of Mississauga may just begin with the central artifact of suburban sprawl: the mall.

"De-malling," a hot trend in urbanism, involves transforming ailing, aging malls – of which Mississauga has its share – into something completely different: denser, mixed-use, pedestrian-friendly hubs with buildings where people "will linger, live, work and play," according to one consultant.

Planners in Mississauga presented their dream of reinventing these traditionally car-oriented destinations – while leaving surrounding traditional neighbourhoods intact – in a plan presented to city council yesterday.

Containing growth projections for the next two decades and beyond, the plan is predicated on provincial goals of curtailing sprawl and spending large sums on improving public transit across GTA. It's also prompted by the reality that Mississauga has no agricultural land left to build on, with the last several hundred hectares in the city's west end expected to be built over by next year, and that intensification is the only option left to grow.

There's no question tens of thousands of people are going to move into the so-called Urban Growth Centre that extends around the massive Square One Shopping Centre at the city's heart, all the way down Hurontario St. to the QEW.

That's the focus of a visioning exercise called Downtown 21 that wants to reinvigorate the core area, including building smaller city blocks and doing away with surface parking – another staple suburban convenience.

But what's generating excitement among planners is the idea of "community nodes" anchored by smaller, often tired shopping centres such as Meadowvale, Erin Mills, South Common and Sheridan, and at major intersections such as Dundas St. and Dixie Rd., that can become real "places" – just like Port Credit and Streetsville, established communities with their own vibrant street life. In place of vast hectares of surface parking around the mall, these nodes would sprout six- to 12-storey buildings and a commercial presence at street level to encourage walking and use of transit. Surface parking would be mostly eliminated.

Two major community nodes around central Erin Mills and the "uptown" area around Hurontario St. and Eglinton Ave. could have buildings as high as 25 storeys.

Mississauga planners Angela Dietrich and Paulina Mikicich acknowledge that the private sector still has to buy into the idea. But they think there is one ready-made market that could easily help populate these so-called "community nodes." That would be aging homeowners who have lived for decades in the sprawling residential subdivisions around the malls, but want to downsize as they get older without having to move out of the neighbourhood. What better place, they say, than to be near transit and in a setting less isolating than a single-detached home.

Younger families moving into the traditional homes nearby would also benefit from being close to transit- and pedestrian-friendly community nodes where they can take care of daily shopping and other needs. "We think it's a great option for (developers) to make more intensive use of their properties, as well as create a very desirable urban form," said Dietrich.

Planning is already underway to develop the street-level "look" of the new communities they envision. Planning commissioner Ed Sajecki said new planning realities are inevitable as the city transforms itself from suburban to urban.

"If we are going to spend billions of dollars on transit, we want to make sure that our land use and density policies are designed in such a way that it is transit-supportive," said Sajecki.

"A lot of Mississauga has been built on single-use development (residential areas for living, shopping centres for shopping) ... This is about mixed use along nodes and corridors."

Mississauga's growth plan projects an injection of about 100,000 more people into the city in the next 20 years, under provincial population targets.

Officials say the city can easily accommodate double that number, even triple, if the market demand develops and the province revisits its forecasts in the near future.

The kind of community they want to offer in these areas could be an attractive alternative to traditional suburban development, which may have been pioneered in places like Mississauga but today is acknowledged as unsustainable and a recipe for gridlock. The "de-malling" plan is an acknowledgement that what's been done can be undone, as Mississauga enters its second phase of development.

"You have to dispel the notion that Mississauga is built out," planning policy director John Calvert told councillors. "We're far from that."