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A reprint of my Business in Vancouver column from October 2013:

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Building better Metro Vancouver transit is the key to revitalizing the region’s major malls

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Like any fast-growing community, Surrey has choices when shaping its future. And you can see a pretty good indicator behind which door that future will unfold at 104th Avenue and 152nd Street.

The intersection is home to Guildford Town Centre with its almost-finished $280 million redevelopment. Part of the redesign included the entrance – the architectural statement that says, “Here we are, come on in” – and that door faces the parking lots off 152nd Street.

This six-lane arterial leads directly to an upgraded interchange on Highway 1 just east of the Port Mann Bridge, allowing Guildford to more easily reel in all those consumers south of the Fraser. So naturally, there’s lots of free parking out front, with additional space added on the roof of Wal-Mart and in multi-level garages – a necessity given that anchor tenants insist there be five spaces for every thousand square feet.

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You’d suppose that the owners of the mall, Ivanhoé Cambridge, would be just fine with this. Shopping malls, after all, are a product of the automobile age: the “downtowns” of post-war suburbia. But, in fact, what mall owners see on those acres of asphalt is lost opportunity. They would like nothing better than to convince their retailers that no, you don’t need all that parking; we have a much better idea – namely denser development – and it doesn’t include accommodating the peak demand just before Christmas, especially when structured parking costs $60,000 a space.

But to do that, they first need one key thing: transit – especially on rail lines leading right to their door. In this case, a door facing 104th Avenue.

Graeme Silvera, Ivanhoé Cambridge’s western VP for retail development, knows what a difference transit can make: his portfolio includes the redevelopment of both Guildford and Oakridge shopping centres, the latter also going through redevelopment.

The Canada Line is doing for Oakridge what Highway 1 did for Guildford, but it allows for a very different kind of redevelopment: the creation of a truly mixed, truly urban town centre.

Silvera’s job is to get the parking ratio down to the lowest realistic number he can – ideally 3.5 spaces per thousand square feet.

If that piece of the puzzle can be achieved, the company can then more than double commercial and office space at Oakridge, and, better yet, increase residential development to 2.7 million square feet from 50,000 – also without having to develop an excess amount of parking.

Silvera notes that owners, retailers and developers are not doing this because of a close reading of the vision statements in regional plans; it’s because they’ve seen the numbers.

After the Canada Line started to deliver customers to Oakridge, Ivanhoé was amazed to see a significant drop in car traffic even as retail sales stayed buoyant at one of the best-performing properties in Canada – a high-fashion mall whose customers, one might think, would not be choosing to come by transit. But one would be wrong.

The most convincing case for transit was empty asphalt without empty cash registers.

“Malls are living organisms,” said Silvera, and they need to be refreshed or they die. Oakridge is being rebuilt because of transit, Guildford because of roads. But, according to Silvera, if light-rail transit was built down 104th Avenue, “we would start replanning the mall the next day.”

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Ideally, the train would be integrated right into the fabric of the centre, meaning a new entrance – and that door would be facing 104th.

Brentwood, Lougheed and Metrotown are also being rebuilt into more transit-oriented centres, becoming the high streets of new residential communities, with new public spaces connecting to the transit lines which feed them. But without the prospect of transit south of the Fraser, its future will be car-dependent.

Malls are the indicator species of the communities that surround them.

They too can be refreshed by transit to handle growth – or we can build bigger roads, vaster parking lots and more sprawling suburbs. That’s the choice of futures facing the region with the upcoming referendum on transit funding.

We can face 152nd or we can face 104th. •