The retail ecosystem is one that’s ever-evolving and expanding to include more touchpoints and opportunities for engagement between brands and consumers. Facilitated most recently by an accelerated digitization of the industry and world around us, it’s an ecosystem that today features a number of maturing channels of communication, information sharing and commerce, as more are added to the mix with mindboggling regularity. It’s growth that is reflective of the innovation and ingenuity that continues to drive Canadian retail forward. Despite the current trajectory toward an increasingly more digitized world, however, shopping centres very much remain a powerful conduit for human interaction, still serving a critical role in providing a place for community and a platform for physical experiences. It’s a philosophy firmly held by Matthew Kingston, Executive Vice President, Development and Construction at H&R REIT, and is one that he says has been a driving force behind the redevelopment of one of Canada’s most beloved places of community – Toronto’s Dufferin Mall.
“For a very long time, malls have served a really important role in Canadian communities as a place of interaction and engagement, entertainment and escape,” he says. “They’ve provided many cities and neighbourhoods across the country with a centre, a hub of commercial and social activity, that often reflects the cultural and philosophical identity of the given area or region. And, given circumstances over the course of the past two years, a period of time that’s resulted in a pent-up demand for experiences within Canadians and a real desire for physical human connections, malls that can deliver on the experiences consumers are going to be looking for are set to play an even more important role in the communities they operate in. It’s one of the things that makes the Dufferin Mall redevelopment so exciting. The mall has always been recognized as an integral part of Toronto’s Brockton Village neighbourhood. It’s very much a part of its history and is beloved by residents of the area. It’s one of the reasons that we decided, even before the project began, to avoid altering the existing mall in any way, and instead expand on it and everything that makes Dufferin Mall such a great place to visit.”
Expanded retail presence
Kingston notes that the decision that was made by Primaris REIT (the owner and manager of Dufferin Mall which was spun off from H&R REIT on December 31, 2021, and is now operating as a standalone, independent, publicly-traded REIT) to expand on the existing structure, rather than to demolish and rebuild it from the ground up, differentiates this project from others that are in development across the country. It involves a redevelopment of the northern part of the 21-acre site with a focus on extending the existing mall. The plans allow Primaris to introduce new uses to the current site, including the construction of 1,300 purpose-built residential rental units, 120 of which are affordable housing units. In addition, the redevelopment will also involve the provision of new park space to complement Dufferin Grove and the creation of improved streetscaping and an enhanced pedestrian experience. Making way for all of it is the relocation of the existing surface parking lot, which currently spans the majority of the site, with a new three-level below-grade facility. And, serving to enhance the entire offering, says Kingston, is the addition of 130,000 square feet of new retail space.
“The addition that we’re making to Dufferin Mall’s retail presence adds to the current 588,000 square feet, and will bring the total commercial space at the mall to over 700,000 square feet,” he asserts. “It’s a mall that, prior to the pandemic, was already welcoming more than 12 million visitors every year. With respect to shoppers per square foot, there aren’t too many malls in North America that are busier. It’s incredibly well-travelled. And, despite the tumultuous times that retailers have been experiencing of late, the mall has next to no vacancies. With respect to the new retail space that’s going to be opening up as part of the expansion, we have a number of potential tenants currently involved in very productive discussions with us. We’ve never doubted our ability to fill the spaces that are going to be added. Our focus, since the start of the project, has been on arriving at the right retail mix that’s going to complement the mall’s existing offering while enhancing the experience for shoppers.”
Augmenting and enhancing
He goes on to explain that Dufferin Mall is fortunate to have impressive anchor tenants, including Walmart, No Frills and Toys R Us, which generate a lot of traffic to the mall. Though, he adds, the Taco Bell, The Beer Store and LCBO locations will need to be removed from the site in order to execute the vision of the redevelopment, explaining that they are certainly tenants that the mall would like to see come back once the redevelopment of the mall is complete. In addition, Primaris and its partners have been mindful during the planning process to ensure that, during construction, aside from the aforementioned locations, none of the mall’s retailers will need to close for any period of time. And, although the start of construction is still about a year out, with the activation of new retail tenants a further three years from the time that ground breaks on the site, Kingston says that the excitement around the project is palpable.
“Dufferin Mall is such a unique shopping destination that serves an equally unique community surrounding it. Everyone that’s involved in the project is really proud to be delivering this retail expansion and the other additions to the site that will only serve to elevate the mall’s offering and enhance the experience that its visitors enjoy. And we’re hoping that, in approaching the redevelopment in the way that we are, it will also serve as one that people look to when embarking on similar projects in the future to understand the value inherent in existing properties. We’ve been able to arrive at a strategy that leverages the character and history that Dufferin Mall has already developed through the years, while augmenting and enhancing it with commercial, residential and public spaces that will benefit the community immensely. It’s a great project to be a part of and an honour to be involved in something that will show others what’s really possible when it comes to property redevelopment.”