I have never seen another North American city with as many strip malls — Mac’s Milk Plazas — as Ottawa. There are so many of them they become characteristic of the city.
It’s harder to notice something by its absence, but keep your eyes sharp when visiting other cities. Do you see as many strip malls? Sure, you see some, but not to the abundance we have here. Indeed, some Canadian cities severely restrict them or have no zoning provision for them at all.
What would happen if Ottawa rezoned every strip mall as a five storey building? Well, there would be intensification, as these plazas were redeveloped. The increase in developable land would reduce the pressure to develop high rises everywhere else. Our streets might become more attractive to walk instead of the exclusive focus on motorists. Demand for roadside shopping would become married to the provision of low-rise housing. If Swiss Chalet wanted a new resto, they would have to partner with a developer to build the four floors of housing above.
Those new generation strip malls freshly blighting Hunt Club at Riverside, Carling at Woodroofe, or Baseline at Clyde, would have genuine upper floor uses (the new stores built along Baseline at Clyde only appear to have a second floor, look closer and I don’t think those walls and windows are anything more than Potemkin urbanism, false facades of livable streets).
Here is an example of a strip mall, in one of those much-derrided-American-car-mania-cities) that has simply closed off its front parking lot. For most of the lot, they have done nothing with it, just closed it to parking and turned it over to pedestrians.
(Above: motorists are sent to the back of the mall)
And here’s another strip mall, that reduced the number of curb cuts and improved sidewalk friendliness by installing a large planted zone. Less traffic clutter, safer walk zone. The trade off: all pedestrian traffic along the street diverted along the storefronts. This struck me as a reasonable tradeoff for a more interesting and livable street. Remember, it’s not a question of what we would plan from scratch, but how to repair what we are stuck with.
The relocation of pedestrian curb-side traffic to storefront traffic enhances the street. The landscaping separating the pedestrian from the curb is a bonus. None of this hurts the motorist, it’s not a war on cars. This works where the stores are close to the street and the parking lot is narrow, as is characteristic for strip malls in Ottawa. It would be much harder to make it work on say, the Merivale strip, where the parking lots are so large. But I am willing to bet something could be done to connect up those strip mall storefronts.
Now, back to the first mini-mall pictured. I cheated a bit with those photos. The end unit in the mall is a restaurant, and they are spending big bucks to convert their entire front parking lot area into outdoor seating with water features, gas heating, etc. Now this is going to be a more livable street as a result: