Tuesday, August 1, 2017

In praise of the lowly strip mall

In praise of the lowly strip mall


Actor Mike Myers once described his Scarborough birthplace as having either a doughnut shop or a factory carpet outlet on every corner. Provided they were part of a strip mall, he was probably right.

On a recent drive along Lawrence Avenue from Markham Road to Victoria Park Avenue, I found almost every intersection had at least one, if not two or three strip malls.

An architectural pariah for decades, urban-design critics usually attribute suburbia's ills to the humble strip mall. Not only are they rundown and ugly, they say, their vast asphalt moats swallow pedestrians alive while encouraging an unhealthy dependence on the automobile. Worst of all, the low-rent businesses don't contribute enough in property taxes.

In essence, critics say, the strip mall should be ashamed of itself.

But I'll bet that doesn't bother new homeowners on Mike Myers Drive near Lawrence and Kennedy Road one iota.

Lack of design panache at local strip malls will be the last thing on people's minds. The malls offer far greater choice than the homogeneous indoor versions -- everything from tailors, hair stylists, Jamaican roti places, houses of worship, bakeries, Asian groceries, drug stores, dollar stores (our modern-day "five and dimes"), travel agents and a few bowling alleys.

Even with peeling paint and dated fa├žades, these are bustling, thriving places. And isn't there a certain beauty in an architectural form doing exactly what it was designed to do?

Apparently not, since calls for the "beautification" of Scarborough's retail strip plazas appear with alarming regularity in mainstream media or via grassroots organizations such as SEAM (Scarborough Eglinton Avenue Modernization project). They claim that the key to rejuvenation is to make them less accessible to cars and more accessible to people. A sheltering canopy of foliage should line the outer edges of thoroughfares so that, until such time as the storefronts are modernized, the malls are less offensive to the eyes.

A noble gesture, perhaps, but it'll sound the death-knell for the hundreds of small businesses that depend on mobile customers who want speedy, in-and-out access. You can kiss goodbye the variety made possible by the reasonable rent, too. When leases go up, "mom and pops" and ethnic startups go away, says Randal O'Toole, senior economist of the Thoreau Institute and author of the essay "In Defense of Strip Developments."

"Aesthetics?" asks Mr. O'Toole. "They're nice [but]they're not the highest priority that a typical suburbanite has in choosing the location they're living in. If you look at the cities in the United States that are adopting design codes [for retailers]and smart-growth planning -- they're the least affordable. What's the most smart-growth city in Canada? A lot of people would argue it's Vancouver, but [they]have the least affordable housing market by far."

Besides, beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and I find the visual hodgepodge of strip malls a delight. There's the jumble of signage rendered in a dozen languages, and the elegance of quick post-and-beam construction speaks of the post-war era. ("Let's get this puppy up, Bob, and nothin' fancy 'cause all these new mommies gotta get their pablum somewhere!") Flourishes that the designers did include after all -- like some glazed brick here and a tile mosaic there -- provide a study in frugal ornamentation.

Like the little plaza on Brimley Road, south of Lawrence, with its tapering baby-blue fins on the window wall: For owners of townhouses currently under construction across the road, the Greek social club, Filipino variety and video rental store, sports bar and tiny eight-lane, five-pin Comet Lanes (in business since 1961) will become part of their lives.

Alley owner Eric Gutteridge, 39, bowled there as a kid and knew the original owner. Home of 17 leagues, it's a successful business that depends on both automobile and foot traffic. One of his regulars, a 92-year-old who passed away recently, would "walk here from Warden and Lawrence," he exclaims. "Come rain or shine . . . all the way along Lawrence, over that big hump between Kennedy and Midland."

Nasr Foods, at Lawrence and Warden, shows how successful some of these "lower rent" businesses can become. Starting with a 1,200-square-foot section in 1975, the specialized Mediterranean and Middle Eastern supermarket is now ten times its original size and has engulfed the rest of the mall. Partners Henry and Keysar Nasr know that success comes not from aesthetics but from offering a unique product at a good location.

"We have customers that drive from Kitchener, Hamilton, Mississauga, Belleville and, in the summertime, as far as Sudbury," Henry says. "It's not just the neighbourhood; we rely on the driving customers."

I wonder how many ask Mr. Nasr for more trees in the parking lot?

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