Shiny Happy People

PROJECT Shops at Don Mills, Toronto, Ontario
ARCHITECT Pellow + Associates Architects Inc.
DESIGN Rudy Adlaf for the Cadillac Fairview Corporation Ltd. in collaboration with Giannone Petricone Associates Inc. Architects and Pellow + Associates Architects Inc.
TEXT John Bentley Mays

In the 200 years since the great shopping gallerias and arcades of Europe started to appear, the designers of consumerism have been on a quest for utopia. They first banished the haggling and jostle of the souk and market square. They invented the fixed-price department store, the strip mall, then the covered mall, all in pursuit of a shopping context that promised safety, comfort and predictability to consumers in the new civil society. But even the North American enclosed mall, that commercial marvel of the postwar era, has recently proven an inadequate vessel for the ideal of shopping perfection. Enter, circa 1990 in the US, the lifestyle centre, of which Toronto’s recently opened $225-million Shops at Don Mills is one of only two Canadian examples: a mall with the protective roof lifted away, the interior streets exposed to the Canadian elements, and with some 100 mid- to high-end shops on streetscapes that mimic the popular shopping avenues of the Model-T era.

There is considerable cynicism in architectural circles about such newfangled retail development in the midst of a well-established community: “part Disney, part Distillery District” (a reference to a disappointing pedestrian shopping enclave in downtown Toronto), one commentator has called the Shops at Don Mills. I do not share this view. If still incomplete, and marked by a new-suit shine that will probably be soon rubbed away by use, the Shops is a serious instance of place-making in old suburbia, and a thoughtful retail scheme whose architects have discarded historicizing doodadery–the curse of many a lifestyle centre in the US–in favour of a muted, serene Modernism that belongs to our time and place.

The architecture of the Shops at Don Mills, which is owned by the Toronto-based Cadillac Fairview real-estate empire, was crafted by Rudy Adlaf, the corporation’s senior vice president for architecture and design, in concert with Ralph Giannone, principal in Giannone Petricone Associates, and with Harry Pellow, principal in pellow + associates architects. Steered by highly detailed urban design principles assembled several years ago by Giannone, Adlaf and Pellow, this team has been responsible for the open-air, lifestyle-centre configuration of the plaza’s 11 large, low buildings (one of which, the Metro store, has survived from the mall’s former incarnations), arrayed along an internal system of meandering streets cut into the 41.1-acre site. The other pre-existing buildings include an office tower slated for overhaul into a residential block, a Royal Bank office building and a city-operated hockey rink that will eventually be acquired by Cadillac Fairview and moved elsewhere.

These streets are furnished intensively–almost to the point of clutter–with stainless steel rings for bicycle parking, benches, permanent and portable planters, trees, light standards, bollards that emphasize intersections and pedestrian crosswalks, and other features. The street naming, which recalls local notables, is clearly legible, and large maps posted on yet-to-be-leased storefronts afford instant orientation. Some faades have been fitted out with canopies, though not enough of them to protect pedestrians from Toronto weather at its foulest.

That defence against the elements is one valuable thing that covered malls provide and lifestyle centres do not. But in the opinion of designer Harry Pellow, the tradeoffs involved in creating a Main Street condition have made the exercise worthwhile. “The key features of [the scheme] were to create scaleable streets, higher-quality street character, storefronts that were different from what you would do in a regional mall,” Pellow said. “To take advantage of the light and sun and the outdoor climate, and ensure that it is enjoyable not only in the summertime when it’s at its best, but also in the three other seasons. The argument there, of course, is that we are Canadians, most of us shop out of doors, most of us dress for the weather, and as long as we can protect our shoppers from serious downpours of rain and keep our streets clean, we shouldn’t have a problem.”

If human use during a long, clear summer evening is anything to go on, the public square called for by the design guidelines is a great success. Children played on the lawn and in the interactive fountain, adults sat round and socialized at the tables distributed across the site, and everyone, as far as I could tell, was employing the open space as it had been envisioned. At times, this square becomes a venue for musical performances, plays and similar entertainments programmed by Cadillac Fairview. A clock tower by Vancouver artist and author Douglas Coupland–a tall sunburst sculpture with miniature bungalows modelled after typical 1950s house plans and attached to each metal ray–spells out the time in large illuminated numerals. “We are trying to make the Shops at Don Mills a focal point for the community,” Rudy Adlaf said. “We’re not out in the middle of a field somewhere, trying to create a new project. Don Mills was already established. We didn’t want a thematic centre, a little Victorian village or whatever. Don Mills was quite a contemporary community when it was planned. Our core commitment is creating places for people.”

Much effort has been expended by the team on making the avenues and faades closely resemble Main Street shopping districts. Streets in the complex offer front-of-store parking spaces for cars. More parking is available in the surface lots that ring the site, and in a new multi-storey garage. Commercial space has been added atop some buildings, and it has been successfully leased to dentists, doctors, real-estate agents, lawyers and so on–the usual gamut of professionals whose services are useful in a community such as Don Mills. But the architectural team’s suggestion that office space be included above the stores, the better to reinforce the Main Street ethos, was met with some resistance inside Cadillac Fairview. “When we first approached our office group, they said it wasn’t very good office space,” Adlaf said. “We argued that the more mixed use you do, the more it helps the office tenants. It’s like your old downtowns, with a little bit of everything. It’s worked out well. We probably could have used three times the [office] space we’ve got.”

Then there are the large, picture-frame faades of the shops themselves, which present to the pedestrian a variety of textures, earthen colours, roofline heights and decorative treatments in imitation of the street walls of yesteryear. Giannone was largely responsible for the development, detailing, and execution of this strategy. Each owner has been encouraged by Cadillac Fairview to create a distinctive symbolic storefront, and some have done so: one striking and strikingly un-Modernist example is the rustic log entryway to the rough-country apparel store Eddie Bauer.

The tone and tenor of the Shops’ prevailing Modernism was established in the 1950s, when financier and industrialist E.P. Taylor laid out the garden suburb of Don Mills on green fields north of Toronto. In addition to ordaining the contemporary styling, curving streets, low-profile streetscapes and earth-toned colouration of the houses and apartment blocks of Don Mills, urban planner Macklin Hancock–Taylor’s design mastermind–also saw to it that the whole subdivision was anchored by a complex of shops at its centre. The private car was enjoying the dawn of its immense postwar popularity when Don Mills was young, but Hancock believed that the development’s residential districts, as well as its shopping centre, should be easily walkable. And so it was that centralized shopping at Don Mills became some
thing conducted in the open air, a communal place for strolling and browsing and socializing and relaxing.

In 1988, the shops were enclosed. Covered malls were flourishing, and the owners of Don Mills Centre (now Cadillac Fairview) were feeling the pinch of competition from nearby Fairview Mall and other regional centres. “We wanted Don Mills to be something different,” Adlaf said. “Don Mills was the first suburban department store location in Canada, with Eaton’s. Fairview Mall had the Bay and Simpson’s. We enclosed Don Mills, struggled along for a few more years until we lost Eaton’s, when it started going slightly downhill. The demographic we wanted wasn’t being attracted by the old Don Mills.”

As the mall declined in the quality of shops and consumer attractiveness, Adlaf added, the owners were approached by big-box retailers eager to see Don Mills become a setting for their oversized stores. “We’re not in the big-box business,” Adlaf said. “One of our models is to be best in class. Sherway Gardens, Toronto Eaton Centre, the Toronto Dominion Centre–they’re all owned by Cadillac Fairview. We wanted to focus on the lifestyle kind of shopper.”

This emphasis is evident in the content of the Shops at Don Mills. In former days, the stores were mostly one-off enterprises operated by local entrepreneurs–a hardware store, a bakery, a drugstore, a Birks jewelry shop and so forth. At its zenith in the late 1970s, the centre contained 105 stores of this kind. Today, almost all the outlets are franchises for upmarket Canadian and multi-national chains. Starbucks has replaced Diana Sweets; Anthropologie, Coach and Banana Republic have supplanted the middle-brow Eaton’s, Sears and other enterprises that once served the Don Mills community.

A walk around the plaza today suggests that the target demographic is now composed of buffed urban professionals aged 18 to 40–people, in other words, with the disposable income (and trim figures) to buy chic dresses at Aritzia and Hugo Boss suits at Barbuti, guacamole and olive oil at the ultra-deluxe McEwan food store, and fine wines at the well-stocked LCBO store. The Top o’ the Mall family restaurant is no more, but its place as a local dining magnet has been taken by Glow, a reasonably priced ground-floor eatery that overlooks the Shops’ central square and fountain.

So far, some services are conspicuously missing in the contemporary mix: a toy store, a Baby Gap, an outlet for cutting-edge designer clothing, a newsstand. There is no place here for the consumers of Chanel, Gucci and Prada, nor for customers who shop at Wal-Mart or Costco. Rather, the plaza caters to financially secure shoppers who have most things they need (furniture, art, tableware) and go shopping mainly for what they want–consumers within the broad upper-middle echelon of fashion consciousness, and into prt-a-porter lifestyles.

Nor is there a sheltered place here for the pensioner–that standard character in anti-lifestyle centre mythology–who brings his own coffee into the mall and nurses it all day long. But even this legendary foe of high-speed retailing will eventually have his spot. Over the next several years, the second phase of Cadillac Fairview’s scheme for the site will roll out–in the form of a community recreation centre to be located at the south-east corner of the site, as well as seven new residential towers and a conversion of an office block into a condo stack. This development will be accomplished through a joint venture between Cadillac Fairview and the Mississauga-based FRAM Building Group.

Cadillac Fairview’s vision for the Shops at Don Mills will not be realized until these condominium towers are fully occupied, and the moneyed young and style-savvy downsizers who will live there settle upon the Shops as their neighbourhood centre. The existing population of historic Don Mills, which is more well-off but also older than the Toronto average, probably cannot sustain all the youthful lifestyle shops in the complex indefinitely–though this problem will lessen in time, as well-rooted residents move on and their places are taken by young families.

Meanwhile, the sound design principles built into the Shops at Don Mills appear to be working to the advantage of Cadillac Fairview, the individual shop-owners in the complex, and the consumers of goods and services that this plaza is intended to serve. According to Harry Pellow, “The urban design was scale-driven, in the width of the street, the configuration of the streets, the concept of the park and public square being wrapped by the streets so they could open up into a public forum. Public space is an important element, to replace the communal space in the old mall. Don Mills was to be an integrated community where you lived, worked–and played. We are not changing that concept.” CA

Client The Cadillac Fairview Corporation Ltd.
Structural Read Jones Christoffersen Consulting Engineers
Mechanical The Mitchell Partnership Inc. Consulting Engineers
Electrical Hammerschlag & Joffe Inc.
Landscape Quinn Design Associates Inc.
Contractor Ellisdon Corporation
Planning Bousfields Inc.
Area 500,000 ft2
Budget $225 M (capital cost)
Completion April 2009

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