No doubt you’ve heard much over the past 10 to 15 years about how retail shopping is dying, and online shopping is taking over big time. I don’t believe it.
Don’t get me wrong, I am an eBay person. I buy and sell on eBay all the time. I love it, but it’s more out of necessity than anything else. EBay can actually be an art form, but that’s a subject for another day.
The “online shopping is #1” mantra is nothing more than an urban legend, and I think I can make a pretty convincing case that “brick and mortar” retail shopping is rolling better than ever in Alberta and it is possibly causing some noticeable harm.
If, in fact, online retail is taking over the world, why are we seeing massive rural commercial developments popping up on both ends of the province?
Some years ago Albertans saw two gargantuan developments built outside Calgary and Edmonton.
CrossIron Mills shopping centre was opened in 2009 north of Calgary in the Balzac area. If you’ve never seen it, the development sort of looks like a freshly painted trailer park with overarching signs, dozens upon dozens of box-style stores and acres of pavement and concrete. The development is described as the largest single-level mall in Alberta, and one of the biggest in the country and includes 206 vendors. When built it gobbled up over 1.1 million square feet of farmland. Those of us who grew up in Alberta drove past that farmland many times. The mall was based upon an outlet mall formula popular in the United States.
At the other end of Highway #2 is what must certainly be one of the most confusing and baffling retail developments in Alberta, South Edmonton Common. This thing squats on the south fringe of the city and according to the mall’s website, “South Edmonton Common is Canada’s largest retail power centre and when fully developed it will spread over 320 acres (130 ha) and contain some 2,300,000 square feet (210,000 m2) of retail space, making it the largest open-air retail development in North America.” It’s a sprawling mass of boxes, confusing roads and badly designed intersections with lots and lots of parking stalls.
I’m not dumb, and the people who designed and built these developments aren’t dumb either. I guess they built these things because the market wanted them. What they don’t take into account though is the social and environmental costs of these monsters. People have to spend a lot of time behind the wheel to get to them, and get around in them. These things take up huge amounts of real estate, contributing to sprawl. Then there’s the runoff problem. Both Edmonton and Calgary endlessly whine about flash flooding, runoff problems and washouts. If approving authorities and developers want to continue to pave millions of square feet, expect flash floods. The water used to go into the ground. Now it’s got nothing to do but flow. Then there’s the aesthetic value of the malls. Old Alberta Main Streets, with their family-owned stores and quaint appearances, now have to compete with these monstrous commercial blobs that have the emotional appeal of a highway off-ramp.
Sadly, it seems this is just the beginning of the horrible U.S. style outlet mall mentality. CrossIron Mills won’t be alone for long. Horizon Mall, an Asian-themed outlet development that’s said to include room for 500 (!) vendors, broke ground last month right across the road from CrossIron Mills. It’s not clear how much land this thing will devour, but it will need at least twice as much as CrossIron used. Will most of that be farmland?
Then there’s Edmonton International Airport and its Premium Outlet Collection, an outlet mall currently under construction at the airport that’s said to include almost half a million square feet and about 100 vendors. The development was announced in 2013 and developers have boosted the size of the mall twice since then.
Is another outlet mall roughly 15 minutes from South Edmonton Common really needed? Is more farmland in the Leduc County area threatened by sprawling retail development? Does the area need more asphalt parking lots and concrete slabs?
All we can hope for, I guess, is that the municipalities we live in get decent tax revenue from these developments…enough to handle the flash flooding problem they’re contributing to.
Stu Salkeld is the editor of The Pipestone Flyer and writes a regular column for the paper.