Could Convention Centre’s need for space give second life to a dying mall?

As the ’50s ended and the ’60s began, architect Victor Gruen had an idea for revitalizing a failing American downtown: he would build a vast indoor shopping centre in the middle of Rochester, N.Y.

Several years earlier, in 1956, Gruen had been the mastermind behind the wildly successful Southdale Center. Located in a Minneapolis suburb, Southdale was the first fully enclosed shopping centre in the United States.*

When his latest creation, Midtown Plaza, opened in downtown Rochester, N.Y. in 1962, it was hoped that it would give new life to the struggling downtown core of a medium-sized city with an image problem.

At first, it seemed to work. A 1970 Time-Life Library of America report described Midtown Plaza as “a delightful, arcaded indoor shopping complex” which, along with other nearby developments, created an “atmosphere of bright, scrubbed commercial competence [that] is surprisingly reminiscent of Copenhagen.”

By the opening decade of the 21st century, any comparisons to tidy, efficient Scandinavia were sorely outdated.

“I was in downtown Rochester for [a conference] in the Rochester Riverside Convention Center right across the street,” a commentator wrote on DeadMalls.com in 2005, “when I came across this dead, rotting piece of retail” that the by-then half-empty Midtown Plaza had become.

“The first thing that bothered me about this place was its putrid smell. It smelled like moldy popcorn which I found emitted from a first floor kiosk called ‘Abbot’s Frozen Custard’, although it seemed like a cheap snack bar. The mall is all decked out with bright yellow floor tiles keeping it 1975 all year round.”

This “rotting piece of retail” is now history. Midtown Plaza ceased operations three years later in July 2008. Demolition began in September 2010 to make way for a commercial office development.

Other downtown shopping centres in secondary-market cities have faced similar fates.

Significant amounts of former retail space at Hamilton City Centre in Ontario have been “converted to office or other uses, or simply remain vacant” according to Labelscar: The Retail History Blog.

Across the border in Muskegon, Mich. “open fields of sand” marked much of what was left in 2009 of where the former downtown Muskegon Mall used to stand, according to the Muskegon Chronicle.

And in St. Louis, Mo., St. Louis Center, a mall opened in 1985 as part of a downtown revitalization initiative, closed in 2006 with much of the former retail space now being used as a parkade.

Could Winnipeg’s downtown shopping centres, plagued by rising vacancy rates and quiet stores even at the height of the Christmas shopping season, face a similar fate?

Cityplace’s high retail vacancy rate was offset by high occupancy rates in its upper-level office space according to a 2005 Dominion Bond Rating Service (DBRS) report. Portage Place, however, was looking much more vulnerable.

“DBRS expects it will be difficult for this property alone to cover its refinance debt obligation without some cash infusion from the borrower,” they wrote of Portage Place in a 2007 report.

“[T]he property’s cash flow has continued to be depressed and therefore it is likely that the value of the property no longer supports the loan amount.”

Not exactly a bright outlook for the shopping centre described on its opening day in 1987 by CBC news anchor Sandra Lewis as “the salvation of downtown Winnipeg”.

Portage Place’s day as a retail destination has come and gone and the world has moved on. Poor cash flow, limited customer feed, weak anchors and the debt concerns noted above effectively rule out revitalization, as does unrestricted competition from Polo Park, less than three miles away. Yet, demolition won’t be a politically acceptable solution unless accompanied by a plan for quickly filling Portage Place’s huge footprint — 150,000-plus square feet (give or take) of Portage Ave. between Vaughan and Carlton Sts. — with new development.

So what do you do with a dying mall?

Dying and dead malls and department stores are easiest to convert to spaces that require large amounts of open area but not much outside light. Examples identified by Julia Christensen in her 2008 book Big Box Re-Use include a Wisconsin Wal-Mart that was converted into a Senior Resource Centre, a former K-Mart in Buffalo, N.Y. that was converted into a school, and two more former K-Marts — one in Minnesota, the other in Missouri — that were converted into museums.

Those could be possibilities for parts of Portage Place.

But then again, isn’t there another group in Winnipeg in need of extra space?

As a matter of fact, there is: The Winnipeg Convention Centre.

“From 2000 to 2004 the Winnipeg Convention Centre lost an average of 48 bookings per annum due to scheduling conflicts or the lack of rentable space,” the Centre noted in an Expansion Plan written in 2008.

“Had the Winnipeg Convention Centre been larger, it is estimated that an additional 36 events per year could have been accommodated by an expanded facility.”

In its 2008 Expansion Plan, the Convention Centre expressed its wish to create an additional facility in the open lot south of their existing property — which, to their credit, would be the first remotely interesting thing in decades to be found on desolate York Avenue.

But might it make as much sense for the Winnipeg Convention Centre to create its much-desired second facility in part of the increasingly hollowed-out Portage Place, whose empty storefronts leave out-of-town conventioneers who wander there in search of supplies or souvenirs with the impression of a city whose best days are behind it?

Maybe there are perfectly good reasons for not turning part of Portage Place (or even Cityplace) into additional convention space — reasons the public haven’t yet heard.

With the Convention Centre seeking political support for its expansion plans, now would be a good time to make those reasons public.

* – Gruen, ironically, had envisaged suburban shopping centres as tools to contain, not promote, urban sprawl, and was horrified by the ’70s at the effects his Frankenstein and its clones were having on American downtowns. In a repentance shortly before his 1980 death, Gruen famously condemned suburban shopping malls as “those bastard developments”.

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About theviewfromseven
A lone wolf and a bit of a contrarian who sometimes has something to share.

8 Responses to Could Convention Centre’s need for space give second life to a dying mall?

  1. mrchristian says:

    I’m not exactly convinced that Portage Place is dying. Yes, it has some empty store areas but it’s not a huge part if you look over the square footage of the building, including the office space and third floor. That’s hundreds of tenants that you would be chucking out and I would guess most wouldn’t resettle in the downtown, mainly because there wouldn’t be enough high ped traffic, modern retail or office space to house a majority of them.

    From the street view it’s not very inviting but neither is the current convention centre.

    Was the mall a bad idea ? Yup. Could more be done with or to it ? Yup. BUT for right now the mall is high traffic and does have a lot of shops and services that people living or working downtown use. Changing it into an event-based venue, the majority of which would sit empty most of the time, would be a double whammy killer for downtown.

  2. John Dobbin says:

    Portage Place was able to have greater success when it started in part because it had the same owners as Polo Park did. If a retailer wanted to get a store in Polo Park, they had to place a store at Portage Place as part of the deal.

    Once that common ownership was ended, retailers didn’t have to put a store at Portage Place to one day gain a slot at Polo Park.

    As for the future of Portage Place, it helps to have a regional theatre group, IMAX and movie theatres. It is good that there is an office component. It is also good that there are apartments around the mall.

    What the mall needs to do is to find some exclusive retailing not normally found in Polo Park or something that is needed by the office crowd in the surrounding buildings. The Staples store was a big gain for the mall.

    The mall should make better use of the part that the building that faces Portage Avenue. Imagine what a few restaurants with sidewalk patios might do for the street.

    In terms of the Convention Centre, I believe it is high time that the provincial government return a casino to the downtown. They seem very interested in expanding their suburban casinos that add traffic to McPhillips and Regent but nothing for the downtown which has the road and transit as well as parking to handle a casino.

    My thinking is that a casino, hotel and a convention centre paid for by casino is the ticket. Add a paid parkade over a surface lot and now you are really talking.

  3. imagine says:

    It’s good to know that someone is exploring new ideas for the downtown malls — heaven knows they need some.

    Like mrchristian, I haven’t given up hope that Portage Place can survive as a mall. Some stores seem to be doing well, and at times its levels of customer traffic appear healthy enough. Zellers is attracting shoppers, and the Bay seems to have at least halted its decline. If a Target store were to move into the Bay building, it would provide a definite boost for Portage Place.

    Part of the mall’s problem is that it is too large for its current market. They should stop trying to lease space over the streets in the skywalks — just eliminate those storefronts and allow the widened walking area of the skywalk to become a better vantage point for views of downtown. Move the displaced retailers into the mall proper.

    CityPlace is in worse shape, I think. Parts of it look healthy, but large stretches appear forlorn and abandoned, and there doesn’t appear to be any sense of urgency about changing that. It is somewhat close to the Convention Centre and connected to it by skywalk, but could those pieces really be tied together and marketed successfully? It’s not a complete failure as a retail venue, but something needs to be done about the empty-space problem. If a large retailer wanted space downtown, CityPlace could be reconfigured to accommodate it.

  4. mrchristian says:

    I really agree with the skywalks (I’d love to see them gone all together !). Still, get the retail out of them and maybe take part of the mall and subdivide into really small spaces so that micro retailers can go into them.

  5. W. Krawec says:

    I’m with Mr.C in relation to Portage Place’s future as a mall. Whether the landlord can still make a go of it as a mall is one thing, but if they can then I hope they do. As lame as it has turned out relative to the initial vision, it is still a hub for downtown and a real convenience for those living and working in the area. Turning it into convention space would make it a real dead zone (the WCC is not exactly a beehive most weekdays) downtown, and besides, it is probably too far from the WCC (and the MTS Centre) to really build off of that. PP as a convention hall would probably just further fragment the convention market downtown.

    If PP had to be turned into something else, I would sooner see it become office space. These days, massive floor plates (where daylight doesn’t reach the inner portions) are all the rage and the local office market is reasonably healthy. And at least it would fill up with people during the daytime and support the businesses remaining in the area. (Apartments, condos or hotel uses would be better, but would be a much more difficult sell.)

    Anyway, interesting post. Thanks for the links to the research – that was quite enlightening.

  6. theviewfromseven says:

    Thanks to all for the comments!

    We might have to agree to disagree on the “dying mall” issue. The DBRS report certainly seems to describe a mall that, if not dying, is then experiencing something akin to cardiac arrest. I’m not sure what else to make of observations such as:

    “The property’s cash flow has continued to be depressed”;

    “It is likely that the value of the property no longer supports the loan amount”;

    “It will be difficult for this property alone to cover its refinance debt obligation without some cash infusion from the borrower”, and;

    “At origination, average contractual rental rates were approximately $21 psf and have steadily declined to approximately $13 psf”;

    Keep in mind, too, that some leases run for long periods of time: Staples is locked in until 2017, Shoppers until 2022. These can conceal retailers’ long-term intentions.

    It’s not necessary to convert the entire mall to other uses to make more productive use of the space. Converting just the quietest parts of the mall to other uses could resolve the problem of too many square feet of retail space chasing after too few retail dollars, and generate additional revenue from spaces that are currently generating $0.00 psf rent.

    As with The Bay, compression of Portage Place’s retail area could give what remains a “busier” appearance. (There’s nothing like a crowd to attract a crowd.)

  7. W. Krawec says:

    A look into the One Man Committee crystal ball tells me that the landlords will continue with the status quo until the mall’s interior becomes so hopelessly dated and dingy that no tenants will want to remain there. (At the current rate of progress, that is about 10-15 years away.) At that point, the landlord will line up a major public sector tenant and begin the process of converting much of the mall into office space to accommodate it. In other words, a slightly more accelerated version of Cityplace’s transition over the past decade.

  8. theviewfromseven says:

    Speaking of “hopelessly dated and dingy”, I wonder if Cityplace’s mid-’90s makeover only compounded their problems. Cityplace was already struggling with decline by then, but at least the interior was bright.

    Then they made everything beige — made it the beigeist thing this side of 1979. Ever since, Cityplace has been downright gloomy to visit.

    (Then again, there’s someone on Cityplace’s Facebook page commenting on how beautiful Cityplace is, so beauty really must be in the eye of the beholder.)

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