Despite fears of record crowd crushes, the parking lots were not completely full as Tsawwassen Mills, the 1.2 million square foot mall built on Class 1 agricultural land on the floodplain went live on Wednesday at 10:00 a.m. As reported in the Vancouver Sun by Pete McMartin “The mall is alarmingly big, and its construction on what used to be prime farm land between Ladner and Tsawwassen was greeted by both loathing and eager anticipation by locals — of which I am one. Some saw it as a welcome addition to the retail landscape, which was limited, or an abomination that would forever destroy the cozy feel of their communities.”
And another article in the Vancouver Sun by Susan Lazaruk notes that the Chief of the 470 member Tsawwassen First Nation Chief Bryce Williams “called the mall reconciliation in action referring to the federal government’s initiative to acknowledge and move past a dysfunctional relationship with Canada’s indigenous people through the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.”
There is no doubt that this partnership between the Tsawwassen First Nation and developer Ivanhoe Cambridge is innovative, and will create a revenue stream for the band members supportive of social programs and further economic development. Because of the unique partnership I had expected a higher level of finishing and adaptive use of First Nations design and practices. There is some, but not what I had anticipated. After the outstanding art and design in Vancouver Airport arrivals hall I had thought there would be more inherent reference and education about the remarkable First Nations culture in this mall.
Starting from the exterior, the sidewalks next to the mall are hard on the curb with no continuous grass boulevard. The crosswalks are adorned with First Nations design markings, but there are no bike lanes, only share alls. This was a surprise as there certainly was an opportunity to create separated bike lanes that could also be used for disabled mobility devices.
The entrances are organized around long curving suburban interior mall streets, with no bisecting “lanes” to make it easier to get from one end of the mall to the other. To break up the very long interior mall streets, the developer has created living rooms full of husband chairs to bring the eye down to scale, and to provide respite. These are framed with little white planters full of plastic replicas of boxwood shrubbery. The long suburban streets are organized into “neighbourhoods”as an orienting reference. And be prepared-the background music in this mall is LOUD. Studies show that loud background music makes people more impulsive and more likely to spend more. It also means that you will not be chatting too long with a friend or hearing your cell phone ring during your shopping “experience”.
There is some wonderful First Nations art incorporated in the mall but not to the thematic level that would have given the mall the “wow” factor. Instead there are pieces throughout the mall and some imaginative incorporation within light fixtures. There are also three First Nations shops carrying local crafts.
For tiny tykes in strollers, the mall provides a baby stroller with an interactive video screen. And that food court? It is just a very big open communal eating space, with food stalls lined up against the walls. Its intent as a celebratory space indicative of a longhouse is not yet apparent.
One of the big regional draws is the Bass Pro Shop that proudly sees itself as the flagship for hunting and fishing. From the interior of the mall you enter through a log cabin entrance and encounter a number of stuffed animals. There are tons of eager staff, and there is stuff that you really don’t want to see-like a score of electronic zapping collars for hunting dogs, walls of knives, cross bows, and a breathlessly long rack of rifles. There are also plastic decoy ducks, a camouflage massage chair, and a lot of things in forest colours.
A quick run through the mall racked up about 2.5 miles/4 kilometers on my pedometer. What I particularly enjoyed was the range and diversity of people who were in the mall, which was much more reflective of metro Vancouver in the age and languages. Whether that diversity will be sustained after the initial shopping opening remains to be seen. I did hear several people inquiring from mall personnel how to take transit from the location, and finding that no one knew. Many stores staffed up today with employees from other locations, and most staff I spoke to had driven their own cars to the mall. While it was an interesting one-off experience, it remains to be seen if there is enough level of detail or diversity in product to make this mall more attractive than a cross-border trip.