A Dying Mall
Galleria London’s (now Citi Plaza) long and troubled history offers an excellent example of a retail centre that has been successfully repurposed into alternative uses. The centre was first opened in 1960 as Wellington Square with 400,000 sq. ft. of leasable area and Eaton’s and Woolworths department stores as anchors. In 1986, the now defunct Campeau (developer of Scotia Plaza in Toronto) announced the transformation and expansion of Wellington Square into Galleria London. The development's 1,000,000 sq. ft. of leasable area made it the largest mall in southwestern Ontario. The mall was anchored by The Bay and Eaton’s department stores, and was supported by 200 inline tenants comprised of notable brands such as Harry Rosen, Eddie Bauer, the Gap, and Laura Ashley. The project was controversial from the outset and was accused of drawing existing retailers off London’s downtown streets and into the internally oriented mall.
Almost immediately after opening in 1989, the mall was put up as collateral in a bailout of Campeau. The optimistic foot traffic forecasts of 75,000 people per day were never met and retailers found their sales turnover to be below expectations. The early 90s recession started soon after and by 1993 the mall’s inline stores were 35% vacant. In 1996 the mall was sold for $51 million, a fraction of the $175 million spent in the 1986 redevelopment. The first conversion away from traditional retail space was the development of a 70,000 square foot GoodLife Fitness centre in the basement in 1997. Unfortunately for Galleria, this did little to offset the closure of Eaton’s in 1999. By the time it vacated, Eaton’s was averaging a miserable $35 per sq. ft. in sales annually. Shortly after, The Bay closed its store and relocated to the suburbs. In 2001, only 20 stores remained open in Galleria.
A Fresh Start
It never worked. So what are you going to do? Use bulldozers to take down the building? No. You adaptively reuse the building Lucas Blois of Arcturus Realty
Realizing that retail alone was never going to be successful, Galleria London began to seek out non-traditional tenants. The first big accomplishment was converting the Eaton’s into a call centre. Following this, Western University’s leased a large block of space for their continuing studies program and Rainbow Cinemas took over the vacated cinema formerly occupied by an Odeon Cineplex. The key defining turnaround moment for Galleria, however, was the conversion of the 180,000 sq. ft. vacant Bay department store into London’s Central Library. Large windows were cut into the building’s exterior façade and glass clerestories were dropped on the roof to bring in natural light.
The conversion of Galleria’s former retail space continued in earnest with Fanahawe College leasing space for their theatre arts program in 2004 (space for an additional 1,000 students is currently under conversion). Citi Cards Canada leased 114,000 sq. ft. of space to turn into offices in 2006, spurring a $25 million investment in Galleria including a new food court. In 2009, Galleria was rebranded as Citi Plaza, carrying the brand name of their flagship tenant.
A Complete Transformation
Retail plazas that are named after office tenants generally indicate that retail is ancillary in nature rather than the core business. Overall, this is an accurate depiction of Citi Plaza as the existing retail uses have been shrunken down to a small fraction of their initial size. A handful of key brands like Ardene, Suzy Shier, The Source, and Dollarama that seem to thrive in similar downtown malls help Citi Plaza maintain a retail presence, but most tenants have oriented themselves into interesting and unique niche markets that serve the on-site and nearby daytime population. On a daily basis, Citi Plaza is home to 3,500 office workers, 500 students (soon to increase), and 3,500 library visitors.
Food & Beverage Cluster: Eating out is typically a major component of daytime population geared retail centres and Citi Plaza is no exception with Druxy's, Fox & Fiddle, and 9 grab-n-go outlets.
Education: Citi Plaza might be a record holder in terms of the number of education-related tenants in a mall, including Collège Boréal (French language college), Everest College, Fanashawe College, Continuing Studies at Western, YMCA LINC, London Public Library and several other smaller educational related tenants.
Health & Wellness: Possibly driven by Goodlife Fitness’s presence, Citi Plaza has an inordinate number of health tenants including a walk-in health clinic, a prostate cancer clinic, a massage therapy centre, a sports health clinic, a dental centre, a mental health resource centre, a spa, and a health foods store.
Perhaps most interesting is that the presence of some unique independent retailers that are rarely found in shopping centres, including a store the sells nothing but rubber stamps, a specialized “Library Store” that is linked to the London Public Library, and a prominently located art gallery selling work created by local artists.
Although Galleria arguably had a negative impact for street retail on opening, the rebranded Citi Plaza is significantly increasing downtown’s daytime population. In recent years, Dundas Street has seen noticeable improvements and a decrease in vacancies. While certainly not the flashiest of mall conversions, Galleria is an interesting example of retail centre being forced to reconceive itself over an arduously slow two decades. When we look at similar failed downtown malls such as Hamilton City Centre, the situation may appear so bleak that demolition and redevelopment seem to be the most viable solution. Instead, incremental steps to backfill vacant space with office, education, and institutional uses, while scaling back retail into clearly defined market niches, may prove to be a more sustainable solution. Ultimately, a strong central location means that even a certified ‘dead mall’ can still be brought back to life by repositioning the property and exploring non-retail uses.