Christmas break brought me back to Montreal visiting family, and family took me out to the post-holiday sales in the constellation of big-box stores along Montreal's southern beltway, highway 30. Having all but grown up in the area, I've been witness to the transformations that the commercial space along the highway has experienced. There are some hard lessons to learn from the silly congestion of Christmas shopping and the impact of random growth in the context of the severely zoned outer suburbs.
It all started, as these things do, with a shopping mall. Les Promenades St-Bruno was built, most probably before I was born, in an empty forest at a highway cloverleaf. It has had the most interesting history, largely due to the fact that it has existed in the longest time frame. It was originally conceived as a monolithic, all-purpose two-story cross pedestrian mall, but has had to adapt to the chaos of economic life in highly contrasted patterns. On the inside, at least two of its branded anchor stores, the supermarket Steinberg and the department store Eaton, have outright shut down without warning due to bankruptcy. This would have likely killed off any other mall, but they survived by going as far as removing anchors entirely on one wing. It is noteworthy that the pedestrian environment on the inside is top-notch, crowded by the proliferation of kiosks and coffee shops in the center aisle, but not so crowded that it felt crowded even in the madness of Christmas sales, and lit in such a way that one does not feel pressured to consume. I like to think that this is the kind of quality Austrian émigré Victor Gruen was looking for when he built the first mall in Minnesota.
On the outside, the mall has become the black hole around which a galaxy of random big box stores orbits. It seemed innocent enough when the first of them, a Toys 'R' Us, opened when I was still a child (the memories!). That store is well beyond the main parking lot of the mall, so you must inevitably drive out from the mall to get there. This is exactly the kind of junk Gruen wanted to be rid of with his shopping mall. Over the years the growth in boxes, big and small, has been accelerating. Brands like Wal-Mart and Best Buy, which were nowhere on the economic horizon at the mall's inauguration, now have stores there, and so does the usual supply of home renovation megasurfaces, home decoration, electronics, furniture, and so on. Gruen's idea of recreating a European shopping street in an air-conditioned environment had merit, but it's obvious at this mall that it ran into the problem with all monolithic constructions; the future is unpredictable, and the unpredictable has to be built somewhere. One could have argued that big box stores could not be connected to the pedestrian space in the mall due to their size and the necessity of having giant parking lots. On the other hand, a lot of the new buildings, standing alone in the middle of their individualized parking spaces, are outrageously small and disconnected. Their affectations, a fast-food, a coffee shop, a bank, an electronics shop, would be much better served if directly accessible by foot from the mall. That is not the case. Instead, a mess of traffic strangles the area a little bit more each year.
In the face of such competition, the discount outlet stores a few kilometres east, anchored by the astonishingly popular IKEA store, decided not to bother with a mall at all. The commercial spaces on both sides of highway 20 going into Montreal island are awful in every conceivable way. It appears that their very cheapness in design may be part of the design intent. In terms of connectivity it is a disaster. It is simply not possible to go from a store to a coffee shop without walking across a huge parking lot. You must drive from shop to shop even while inside the property. Snowy conditions push the inhospitality to intolerable heights. Somehow, the presence of a hotel in a dreary, industrial-wasteland environment makes this "urban". I did find some great deals there, however.
There may be some hope to reconcile suburban shopping with chaos if the new commercial project a few kilometres west of the mall takes off upon being completed. Following the trend of building lifestyle centers that has swept the U.S., the Quartier Dix30 (it sits at the cloverleaf of highways 10 and 30) has managed to integrate boutique shopping, regular-sized stores and big box shopping in the same space, adding the lifestyle center essentials of high-end restaurants and a theatre for entertainment (a real theatre, not a movie theatre, although it also has one of those). It has its own magazine.
The plan is as simple as you could imagine it. In the center there is the "main street" along which all of the high-end boutiques, restaurants and activities are accessible, with token parallel parking spaces that must supply roughly 1% of the actual parking needs of the center. (Underground parking garage available in order to service high-end theatre and restaurant patrons, although there is no shortage of parking anywhere.) Behind those buildings (all stand-alone) is a medium-sized parking ring and medium-sized stores. Beyond those are the huge parking lots and the huge stores. The plan does have an advantage over a regular mall, in that the street can easily be extended outwards as the invention of new businesses necessitates it. In that sense it does fit the criteria for being urbanism, which a mall does not. The stores for now are low-rise, low-cost boxes but since they are all individual buildings they can easily be swapped for something else when their lifespan runs out.
The biggest shock to my perception of the place was the overwhelmingly positive reaction of my family, all suburban or exurban dwellers, to the quality of the design. They feel that they finally have a "town" in their corner of the metropolis. Given that a subdivision simply cannot be defined as urban by its disconnected nature, this lifestyle center does qualify as being the only thing that can act as a town in a 5 km radius. I think it, unlike a mall or a discount outlet zone, has the potential to grow into something over the coming years. It challenges the suburban myth that people somehow desire to live in a disconnected, auto-dependent environment. Affordable housing is what motivated their residential choices. They did not want the suburban model beyond having their own house.
This brings us to an important question, which is to ask how a purely commercial space can be a town. Historically it was not unusual for merchants to set up markets outside cities that were mostly temporary in nature, and the short-term construction quality of outer-beltway markets expresses a similarly nomadic future. These places simply do it at a bigger scale, in large part because people buy a lot more stuff today than they did historically. The outcome is that the marketplace has grown to such a size that it has become a city in itself. The other important factor is the existence of a large amount of diverse activities in closely-connected proximity. I know you're thinking that shopping and shopping is not diversity, but the fact that there is so much that is unexpected is what draws people to these commercial cities for the simple pleasure of it. People do not go to hypermarkets to hang out, so the malls and lifestyle centers must be doing something more than commercialism. Regular trips to marketplace cities have become the suburban equivalent of a trip to town, and the only remaining difference between the two is that people live in the towns.
This difference may not exist for much longer.
Reference: Les boîtes, les grandes surfaces dans la ville, René Péron