Citifying a Suburban Shopping Centre

Brent Toderian's picture

In a past post, I wrote on the plan to urbanize Vancouver's Oakridge Centre, our first car-oriented "suburban" shopping centre (see past post here for information, report-links and images). Some have asked how the downturn has affected the plans to proceed - as we were only anticipating going through the next steps of planning and design (rezoning) in the next year or so, with some time before the owners were planning on initiating the physical transformation of the mall, I believe they remain in "wait-and-see" mode regarding possible timing of first phases, relative to the market. In the meantime, we're anxiously awaiting the grand opening of the Canada Line subway route later this year, and its new station at Oakridge. As well, we're doing the planning and design work with the community and multiple owners on the adjacent lands along the main arterials, essentially extending the thinking around transit-oriented densification across and along the streets.

This, and other questions, were asked of me by my colleague Philip Langdon at New Urban News, for an article in their March 2009 issue. Since the result isn't available in their web edition, below is the article from the print edition.

Citifying Vancouver's First Suburban Shopping Centre

New Urban News, March 2009 

Oakridge Centre, which in 1959 became the first automobile-oriented shopping centre in Vancouver, British Columbia, is expected to be reshaped in the next few years into a high density transit-oriented development mixing retail, employment, housing and public amenities. 

Since 2004, city planners have been working with the Oakridge's owners, Ivanhoe Cambridge, and with residents of the surrounding area to chart the future growth of the mall and its 28 acres.  "As Vancouver urbanized over the years, the centre has remained a piece of suburban thinking with great urban potential,"  Vancouver Planning Director, Brent Toderian wrote in a commentary for Planetizen last October about the project, situated midway between downtown and Vancouver International Airport. 

One of the factors making more intensive development almost inevitable is construction of Canada Line rapid transit service, which will run for 11.8 miles from downtown to the airport and will have a station at Oakridge Centre.  The rail line, which will be underground in nearly all of the city, is to open in late November in advance of Vancouver's hosting of the 2010 Winter Olympics. 

In March 2007 the City Council approved a policy framework that Toderian says "facilitates the retrofitting and redevelopment" of the mall into "a vibrant, sustainable, innovative urban centre." "The next step is detailed zoning," Toderian said. The owners are expected to submit their rezoning application around mid-2009.  "My message to developers is, ‘Now's the time to do the work to get the zoning in place, so you're ready for the next turn in the market.'" 

Mall still successful

Unlike shopping centres that failed and only later were redeveloped as mixed-use centres, Oakridge is an "extremely successful mall", Toderian says.  "In fact, on a sales-per-square-foot basis, it's the second most successful mall in western Canada".  It evolved from an open-air centre to an enclosed mall with some structured parking and some housing nearby in 1983. Toderian expects Ivanhoe Cambridge to go through the next stage of the government process – obtaining the needed zoning – this year, but he is unsure when they will start the expansion. 

Subway connection

The city's 54-page policy framework – essentially a master plan – says the government will consider letting this owners add 330,500 sq. ft. of retail, 200,000 sq. ft. of offices, and 1.2 million sq. ft. of housing, all of it within a five minute walk of the subway station that will be built along Cambie Street, a major bus route. 

Capital harder to come by

The worldwide economic crisis has made it harder for projects this large to obtain financing, but Toderian says, "I anticipate that the Vancouver market will change sooner than the rest of North American cities."  Vancouver is still seeing developers construct four-storey mixed-use projects – a mainstay of commercial arteries in some sections of the city.  Bigger undertakings are being postponed for lack of financing.   Among the goals and techniques laid out in the policy framework: 

  • "Provide on-street retail and service uses that meet the daily/weekly needs of local residents."  The local retail precinct will focus on Cambie and on a new, pedestrian-oriented "high street" (main street) that is to be built through the middle of the site.
  • Housing for a varied populace, including people with limited incomes, should include low-rise, mid-rise and high-rise.  Some housing should be above commercial or community uses, but the developer should consider configuring some of the units to "wrap otherwise blank edges of internally oriented commercial space."
  • Create "an active, urban edge" on important streets, with "urban-scaled street-wall buildings in the range of 4 to 8 stories."
  • "Employ terracing and building setbacks on upper levels of taller street-wall buildings (over 4 stories) to create interest, improve access to light and views, and to reduce apparent bulk."
  • Create a range of high-quality outdoor public and semi public space at grade and on rooftops.
Toderian says the subway station, scheduled to open late this year, will have a "very urban setting at a key intersection" on Cambie even if the expansion of the shopping centre has not begun by that time.   


Brent Toderian is an international consultant on advanced urbanism with TODERIAN UrbanWORKS, Vancouver’s former Director of City Planning, and the President of the Council for Canadian Urbanism. Follow him on Twitter @BrentToderian


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