Who killed the friendly neighbourhood mall?

Capilano area blades remain dull because no one at the local mall sharpens knives anymore. The coffee shop is long gone, so is the hobby store, plus the shoe store. The funky little curio shoppe run by the guy with the messed up face is a distant memory.

Capilano Mall is the saddest mall in Edmonton.

Yet in its last days before major renovations starting in June, the old-timers still gather in the food court for chit chat, rubbing elbows with high school students during peak hours, and there’s a cool little farmer’s market every Saturday. Not too crowded. The mall Santa over the last Christmas holidays was so convincing he may actually be the real Santa. No line up.

All of this is going away. Plans are set to tear down the heart of the community mall that has stood since 1967, a gathering place of the sort that had previously replaced the village square. A sparkling new $11 million Power Centre will emerge in the summer of 2014, filled with new-fangled outward-facing stores like Petland, Reitmans, Ardene, Dollarama, Extreme Pita, Sally Beauty, Oodle Noodle, Mucho Burrito and Five Guys Burgers & Fries (that’s the full list of new tenants). The abutting shops will be like modern human neighbours, keeping to their own business, barely knowing one another, and the whole place will look like every other strip mall sprawl around Edmonton.

Walmart isn’t going anywhere, needless to say.

Say goodbye to the friendly neighbourhood mall and the friendly independent businesses therein. Say goodbye to the farmer’s market. And say goodbye to another public community space.

An indoors kind of town

Vendors in the Capilano farmer’s market voted on March 9 against an offer by the owners – power centre sprawl specialist SmartCentres – to move outdoors. “Most of our vendors prefer an indoor venue,” says Robert Nagtegaal (right), manager of the Capilano farmer’s market (which will soon be a not-for-profit society) – “and they want to be there year round.”

On the plan, he adds, “It’s big business coming in, and they’re not worried about the little guy.”

Some outdoors farmer’s markets do very well in Edmonton, of course, like the 104th Street location, drawing up to 20,000 customers on a good day – but only for five months a year, tops.

When are developers working in Edmonton going to get it through their heads that Edmonton weather is inhospitable half of the damned year and barely tolerable for the other half?! We don’t need a beach at Hawrelak Park, we don’t need an outdoor arts mart downtown, and we don’t need any more retail sprawl opening onto parking lots. We need more indoor spaces where folks can gather freely year round, a warm place where it’s legal to loiter. Edmontonians have quite enough of the outdoors already. Consarnit.

It’s old age talking. Capilano Mall regulars, recently accosted, revealed strong emotions about the impending closure of their favourite hangout. One gent who gives his age as 71 and his name as “John Doe” calls the place a “shithole,” blames SmartCentres specifically for choking the last bit of life out of it. He wonders, “If they do what they say they’re going to do, there’ll be no place for old farts like us to sit.”

Area resident Shirley Kunert remembers, “You should’ve seen it in ‘71 when I moved here. I’d come here at least three to five times a week. There was every major store you could name in the city. I’m really going to miss this place.”

Her friend Audrey adds, “What I’m worried about is where people are going to catch the bus.”

Something had to be done. Capilano Mall was dying long before SmartCentres bought the place in 2007.

“This mall was suffering greatly,” says SmartCentres spokesperson Sandra Kaiser, “We were losing tenants. We couldn’t keep the tenants we had and couldn’t attract new tenants.”

Some stores are staying under the new deal. Only the space between Winners and Safeway will be demolished, leaving the library, banks and Albert’s restaurant intact, also Winners and Safeway. The remainder of that interior space will also be renovated. Most of the stores will be unconnected and face towards the parking lot, additionally saving money in utilities and maintenance because the stores will be responsible for their own. There will be a smaller seating area “in the existing office building,” Kaiser says, but no food court.

Asked about the loss of public space, Kaiser replies, “You do realize that this is a business?”

Of course we get it. Change happens and business is business. The old-timers will find somewhere else to hang out. The high school kids will find another mall in which to loiter. Bonnie Doon, probably (the second saddest mall in Edmonton, but hopefully not for long. Renos underway there, too). And farmer’s market vendors are portable. They can move. This one is in talks to go to Mill Woods.

The question is WHY Capilano Mall started to die. What was the toxic agent responsible?
Walmart moves in

It’s easy to blame Walmart and its ilk for the erosion of small business and labour unions in North America – and it’s no secret that wherever a Walmart appears, independent business mysteriously starts to dry up. Walmart undercuts everybody else on every single consumer good they can, and not a single one of the people interviewed at Capilano Mall recently could claim they never shopped at Walmart, even the farmer’s market dude. “There are those times” he says.

The methods are subtle. When the discount chain took over Woolco’s anchor position at the East end of Capilano Mall in 1995, there was a public egress into the mall, but it was sealed up when the Winners discount clothing store came in about ten years later – effectively cutting off foot traffic at one end. It isn’t clear who made this strange decision, but it was a crucial one. Winners opens to the mall. Walmart doesn’t. So if, after enjoying everyday low prices, you still want to go to the Capilano Mall proper, you have to walk outside, into the terrible weather, down all the way past the Joey’s Only fish ‘n’ chips shop (staying), and around to the nearest mall entrance 100 yards away. It’s just too much trouble – even if you have a walker.

The downward spiral accelerated.

Elzbita Stachura, who has run a jewellery repair shop called Timepiece with her husband for the last 24 years in Capilano Mall, recalls an almost instant loss of business after Walmart was walled off.

“There was less and less traffic, then Rexall Drugs moved, then the eyeglasses moved, and it just went down from there,” says Stachura. Timepiece found new space in Bonnie Doon Mall, she says, but “it feels sad, you know, because you build here and you work here and you have lots of customers. But they’re loyal. They’ll come to Bonnie Doon.”

There are odd little details in this tale, rumours, changing stories and all sorts of conspiracy theories – at least if you talk to the old timers. Rexall Drugs (owned by 11th wealthiest Canadian Daryl Katz) saw the writing on the wall about five years ago, and built a new stand-alone store across the street from Capilano Mall, which killed mall traffic even more. The Edmonton Sun reported that SmartCentres bought Capilano Mall “on behalf” of Walmart, which rumour has it wanted to take over the entire place, but Kaiser insists that SmartCentres is the landlord, Walmart the tenant. It was still strange that a query to Walmart’s dedicated “journalist’s email” on whose decision it was to seal up the entrance was quickly directed back to Kaiser, who said she didn’t know about events that took place prior to 2007. (Also, GigCity is now on the Walmart spam list.) Calgary realtor John Torode of Torode Realty, who Kaiser said managed the mall prior to 2007, did not return calls to talk about this story.

There are other factors in the decline of Capilano Mall other than Walmart, which is only part, if not the leading model of a system of big box retail chains that tend to drive small, independent businesses away. The senior citizens who’ve been coming to Capilano Mall for 40 years – and are complaining the most bitterly – no longer have families to feed and clothe; in short, John Doe and his pals are not that good for mall business. The entire Capilano neighbourhood is aging, and starting to “turn around,” as in filling up with young families – who will shop at Walmart and all the other box stores to come.

The mood is a bit grim around the old mall lately. “The Poutine Place” is still doing well, catering to the retirees and students in the food court – but this is one tenant that won’t be staying. Asked what happens now, owner Ali Yousofi (above) replies, “I don’t know. We’re just going out of business.” He adds, “I don’t feel good about it. What can you do? It’s the nature of business. That’s how it works.”

Not all the old-timers are broken up about this. Dennis Salahub, 59, who’s been coming to Capilano Mall for decades, has this to say, “It’s kind of bad to see a little bit of the history of Edmonton going, but at the same time I think the mall is thinking of revitalizing it, so in the end, short term loss for long term gain.”

Whatever caused the decline and fall of the community mall in a district of Edmonton that still feels like its own small town, it’s just a sign of the times. Now if SmartCentres really were smart, they’d rethink the retail sprawl idea to include some INDOOR public space especially for Edmonton, because real Edmontonians complain about the weather all year round.

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