Strip Mall loses its parking lot

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:






16 thoughts on “Strip Mall loses its parking lot

  1. You’ve got to get to more US Cities. Roughly Ottawa-size cities with way more strip malls than Ottawa, off the top of my head, from west to east, restricting to those on Interstate 80:
    Reno, SLC, Omaha, Des Moines, Davenport, Gary.

    These are typical US Cities. They are a pedestrian nightmare.

    Good idea about re-purposing strip malls parking lots, though.

  2. And closer to home try visiting my home town of Oshawa. Couldn’t agree with you more about re-purposing all those parking lots.

  3. So where do the customers park? The problem I have with this idea is that along many strip mall areas there is no pedestrian traffic to speak of and if you removed the strip mall parking those stores would go bust as their customers would go somewhere more convenient. It’s the eternal chicken and egg problem of making a walkable community. If they just got rid of the requirement that any store provide parking spots perhaps the streetscape in locations where it is most favourable could evolve in that direction.

    Also they could put up the property taxes on parking spots so that stores that provide free parking have a disadvantage to those stores that rely on walk-in traffic.

  4. Well, we are about to get the big test with the recently approved Bank Street Community Design plan (Riverside to Walkley) where they are envisaging gradually eliminating strip malls and replacing them with more intensive development, particularly around Walkley, Heron, and Billings. The goal will be to continue the “Main Street” character that Bank possess in Centretown/the Glebe/Old Ottawa South (however, even in the Glebe there are huge gaps, such as the former KFC and current LCBO, or the Beer Store, all of which put ample parking on Bank Street, rather than in behind)

  5. The main point of the story was that mini malls can be improved, examples provided. I will have to cut out the witty observations since they simply distracted everyone. Bank St south redevelopment will take decades, maybe more than a century. It’s an awfully slow process. And throughout the transition century neither peds nor motorists will have what they want. Receipe for discontent. Finding a way to re-position some of the existing malls would have been a useful task, that could deliver results faster with less risk to the landlords or the business tennants.

    1. I always though that if one simply took out the parking lots of the strip malls along St. Laurent Blvd., made wide sidewalks and an attractive median, St. Laurent could truly be a Blvd. Ditto for Merivale. I think realistically, not many of the properties on these streets are going to readily be redeveloped to be street-level, pedestrian-oriented buildings, so why not bring the pedestrian precinct right to the buildings?

      1. It’s an interesting observation. I wonder if roads like St. Laurent or Merivale could be reconfigured to be wider, but with the extra width going to angled parking. Brainstorming a bit more, maybe the road could be split up like they do in some European cities where there is one lane in each direction for through traffic then separated lanes on each side for local traffic/parking. Maybe some hybrid of the two would be interesting.

      2. With Merivale anyway, the distance across the street between storefronts varies considerably: in some places it is well over 100 m, but in others (e.g. around Rossland Ave) it is no more than 40 m. It’s one thing to link together a bunch of discontinuous fire access lanes in front of buildings of more-or-less uniform setback from the street to create a continuous street and sidewalk… quite another though to have to weave around buildings and still have it work. That requires a whole extra level of skill.

        On a related note, Merivale is seeing a number of these retail pads placed in the parking lot next to Merivale itself (often for restaurants of one sort or another). I hope these don’t end up compromising the ability to run some kind of semi-exclusive transit service down Merivale in the future.

  6. I think they should do this at City Centre. The thing that makes it ugly is how hostile it is to pedestrians. If they got rid of the parking in front, and turned that into some sort of square and place to eat, the garage fronts and stores might even look cool – in an ugly sort of way. Thanks for the posts! Such great ideas and inspiration from other places!

    1. Alex: until I retired my business was located at the City Centre, ground floor. I had 3 bays. We had about 8-10 trucks per day at our loading dock, plus couriers in cars. At least some of the businesses in these industrial bays are industries, and need their loading docks. Beckta is still welcome … but I think that there are better choices for bending sidewalks to run along storefronts.

  7. I live at College Square, and ever since reading this post I can’t stop thinking about how different it would be if all the stores there had a few floors of apartments up top. Structural issues aside (for the moment) It seems like it would be easy… guaranteed tenants because of the proximity to Algonquin College, across the street from a major transit station, great grocery store, and decent shopping. Most students won’t mind not being able to park (since they don’t generally have cars), but the parking lot there is never full as it is. Reserve a small chunk of the parking lot for those tenants who do have vehicles and you’re set! I wish it had been designed that way from the start.

    1. As we all should know by now, “intensification” is not really a policy about using land in the city more sanely. It is really just a complex greenwashing rationale to justify building tall condo buildings in existing inner city areas and neighbourhoods or wherever else happens to catch the fancy of a developer.

      If intensification were a policy for actual city-wide application, then we would indeed see a more intense use of land in places like College Square / Centrepointe. At College Square they could probably have built height well into the high teens or into the twenties before anyone would start to complain. Similarly at places like Fairlawn Plaza opposite Carlingwood. It has just seen a whole slew of single storey retail added to the Carling Avenue frontage rather than the 4-8 storeys this site could easily accommodate: this on a street which, in the OP & TMP, is destined to get a secondary LRT line and may even get the primary. It’ll likely be decades now before that has another opportunity to get fixed.

      We would get far more value-for-money out of our city planners if, instead of finding ways to contort various planning documents to serve the interests of condo tower developers, they would lean on any developer proposing single-storey box stores near major transit routes to come up with something more urban.

  8. David: it isn’t just greenwashing for the benefit of developers. It is catering to the basest community assoc squeaking that opposes anything but lowrise development. If a CA works hard to ensure everything is zoned low rise, then it puts enormous pressure on the remaining space to be over-developed. The result is miles of low rise punctuated by small pockets of very high rise. Personally, I think this is dumb. We could start reducing high rise pressure by blanket rezoning huge swaths of the city for more density (note this does not mean high rise). There are many small builders that can do low rise (wood) but fewer who can do high rise (concrete).

    1. How does intensification, either the concept or the City policy, cater “to the basest community assoc squeaking that opposes anything but lowrise development”?

      I’m not sure there is too much of this “squeeze on a balloon” phenomenon when it comes to condo tower development. Condo tower developers seem to be particularly picky when it comes to site selection. Basically, it has to be downtown, in centretown, in the Byward Market, in the Glebe, in Little Italy, or in Hintonburg-Westboro, preferably on Wellington/Richmond (because Scott Street is so déclassé right now). In other words, they want to build in places that have already long established themselves as walkable. There are plenty of locations in the city where condo tower developers could go wild and run free, building virtually as high as they please, but they won’t because these areas are not pre-established walkable urban environments. The City could zone College Square or some other site in Centrepointe for 50 storeys and chances are no developer would move on it.

      To put it bluntly, there is no kind of pioneering ethos amongst our developers. The concept of creating a walkable urban environment either from scratch or from greyfield suburbia is completely beyond them. Need an example? Just look at Charlesfort’s The Continental on Richmond Rd. This is about as adventuresome as we get in Ottawa: it’s safely on Richmond Rd not far from Westboro with great views of the Ottawa River and access to the ORP. The site is next to a strip mall (!), the area is relatively densely populated already and it might even end up next to an LRT station… but the ground floor is devoid of any retail. The ‘townhouses’ attached to this development look like the entrance to a bunker given the amount of concrete shielding along the sidewalk. This development could have kick-started urban renewal along this part of Richmond (as called for in the CDP! shocking!) but… no.

      This is the dichotomy at the centre of the intensification policy: it is in no small part justified on the basis of making places more walkable, but the on-the-ground realization of the policy is that it occurs in places that are already walkable. We’re intensifying the areas that need it least. The intensification policy also only seems to get applied when developers want to build something tall and big; it never gets applied to “force up” developments in greenfields or suburban greyfields. That’s why I say the policy is greenwashing.

Comments are closed.