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Retail Through the Ages: Yorkdale Shopping Centre
In a new series that uncovers the history of GTA shopping centres, Max Mosher looks at Canada's most profitable mall

 

The opening of Yorkdale Shopping Centre on February 26th 1964 was big news–it was the largest mall in Canada, consisting of 110 stores over 1.2 million sq. ft. In a period when people still headed downtown to shop, Yorkdale’s location beside the 401 asked you to stay in the suburbs. The subway eventually followed. The modernist design by architecture firm John Graham Consultants featured such space age innovations as an underground truck tunnel to deliver merchandise to stores. But the most noteworthy aspect of the Centre’s construction was the partnership that led to it. For the very first time, rival department stores Eaton’s and Simpson’s shared the same roof.

Today, neither company exists. Pretty soon people will associate two completely different stores with Yorkdale —Holt Renfrew and American retailer Nordstrom, set to open a gigantic addition in 2016. The Shopping Centre made $1 billion last year and, by the time Nordstorm opens, that figure may double, which would make it the most profitable shopping centre in North America. The history of how the original Yorkdale became the current one is also the story of the decline of the department store, the rise of fast fashion, the gradual acceptance of globalization, and changing habits of the Canadian consumer.

I needed a guide.

Fortunately, the Centre’s general manager Anthony Casalanguida offered to take me on a walking tour and discuss the Centre’s past and present. Even though I’ve gone to Yorkdale since I was a kid, I wasn’t familiar with last year’s expansion and didn’t know where to find the Microsoft store, Casalanguida’s chosen meeting place. I located it on one of those ‘You Are Here’ maps (it’s nice to know some traditions never change). I turned to go when a man in a houndstooth jacket with handsomely graying temples asked a woman also at the map if she needed directions. This, of course, was Anthony Casalanguida, described to me later as ‘Mr. Yorkdale.’ Who else could tell you that, on average, one in four visitors will visit the restroom? 

Before I could get my voice recorder out, he was off and talking, singing the praises of the original design. The high ceilings and wide walkways have allowed room for multiple renovations (five major ones since 1964) while keeping the mall’s cohesive feeling.

“One of the beauties of Yorkdale, which has allowed us to resist the wrinkles of aging, is the fact that we continue to reinvest, so one particular part of the shopping centre doesn’t look anything different from the rest of the shopping centre,” Casalanguida says. “In some other places, one area looks like, ‘Oh, that’s the old part of the shopping centre.’” Like Toronto, Yorkdale continues to renew itself with little evidence of what lay before.

The original Yorkdale, from the City of Toronto Archives[/caption]

The most whimsical element of the original layout was a series of rounded ‘tulip’ platforms that grew out of the second floor dining area. Although they’re long gone, in the last expansion the food court was moved back to its original location, reclaiming space from the former Eaton’s store. Real cutlery, plates, and glasses have been added. “Even if it’s called fast food, we wanted to give people the opportunity to wind down, to relax, to spend more time enjoying their culinary treat. And then go back and enjoy some more shopping.”

According to Casalanguida, every expansion of the Centre grew from the desires and demands of consumers. Despite the brand new Microsoft and Apple stores (one of the biggest in the world), it was fashion retailers that spurred Yorkdale’s growth. The Centre has introduced many foreign clothing companies to the Canadian market, from Kate Spade to Mango. Their success has encouraged other retailers to use the Centre as a launching pad.

Casalanguida visits shopping centres in New York, Chicago, and London to scout what companies would be successful here. Along with financial reports and customer demographics, “You realize it very simply by what bags people carry as they leave.”

“As Canadians we’ve been insolated from the big bad American companies. That has changed over the last ten years. More and more American companies are coming up.” But later he adds, “People have this perspective, ‘Oh, Yorkdale’s only getting international brands, there’s not a particular attention to Canadian brands.’ It’s not the case. We’re providing an opportunity for Canadian brands to get better.” Casalanguida lists Lululemon, Aldo, and Holt Renfrew as homegrown companies that have expanded at Yorkdale.

I ask him how he thinks the consumer has changed in the last few decades. In addition to being more strapped for time (hard to imagine that Yorkdale was once closed on Sundays), Casalanguida believes consumers have become more savvy and knowledgeable about their options. “They don’t go blindly. They have a voice, which they use on that soap box of social media. As opposed to believing experts, they now believe in each other. They put their hands up. ‘I have choice. I don’t need to come to you.’”

That goes a way towards explaining the decline of the department store–especially when it comes to clothing, consumers are happy to visit multiple stores rather than buy everything at one box outlet. If those stores are more expensive, they buy less items (or put them on credit). Stores like Sears, which will soon be closing their Yorkdale location, the spot that Simpson’s had originally, have been squeezed on the one end by more upscale retailers and on the other by chains like Wal-Mart, where everything’s cheaper.

But an abandoned Sears is another chance for Yorkdale to evolve. “That’s a great opportunity to expand again, to look at different options. Be it one reconfiguration of that one area, or taking it down and expanding to the west and to the south. The shopping centre is never static. We continue to grow.”

[caption]The Nordstorm expansion is set to open in 2016

Another way Yorkdale has kept up to date has been working with fashion bloggers like Nelia Belkova, a member of Yorkdale’s Style Council. The Council, a group of bloggers and stylists, promote the Centre online. Belkova says Yorkdale was ahead of the curve in recognizing the influence of social media and style blogs.

“I came to Toronto ten years ago,” Belkova tells me over the phone. “And the first couple of shopping centres I went to, I was not impressed. I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, this is it?’ And then someone took me to Yorkdale. I was impressed then, and ten years later they’ve improved so much more.” Having previously lived in Texas, she’s eagerly awaited the arrival of J.Crew and is proud Yorkdale is its Canadian point of entry.

If consumers have gotten more savvy, they’ve also gotten more diverse. In the last expansion, Yorkdale added family rooms partly for single fathers and gay male couples who couldn’t go into all-female nursing spaces. Yorkdale’s next incarnation may have multi-faith rooms for prayer. The Centre’s original managers would have been hardpressed to imagine gay dads and the religious diversity of 21st century Canada. “Back then society was more homogeneous,” Casalanguida understates.

When I ask him about accessibility, he says the Centre has no difficulties but unfortunately they have to keep working with the TTC. Yorkdale subway station has no elevator, and he hinted that the mall was trying to change this. Interesting that a private enterprise is waiting for a public service to move faster to better serve the needs of people with disabilities.

As we discuss this, a cart drives by. It carries a well-dressed woman and her toddler son. In the back sit a pile of magenta boxes from Holt Renfrew. Due to the store’s renovation, one half is cut off from the other, so carts are available to ferry shoppers back and forth.

Yorkdale is fortunate to be surrounded by space (the cause of those harsh winter winds in the parking lot during the holiday season), but it means it can continue to expand. The goal is to eventually bury all the parking, giving Yorkdale a ton of land to work with.

“Then it becomes a reality, what is the best use of the site. Do we sprinkle a hotel? Do we sprinkle residential? Do we put office towers? We’d like to create an urbanification of the site. We’d love to create almost like a Liberty Village, in that you have a community within a community. You have a great shopping destination, but maybe there’s a specific amount of residential that can reside beside it.”

Casalanguida says it’s like playing Monopoly.

Next in the series, Max travels to the heart of downtown at the Eaton Centre.

____

Max Mosher writes about style for Toronto Standard. You can follow him on Twitter at @max_mosher_

For more, follow us on Twitter @TorontoStandard or subscribe to our newsletter.

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