Montreal real estate: Shopping malls could be the key to suburban densification

Many cities are redeveloping suburban malls to create mixed residential-commercial complexes, then building train stations nearby.

“Shopping malls are sprouting towers and becoming urban places,” says urbanist Brent Toderian, here with his family. “It’s a national trend, but in most places it’s still in the early stages.” Postmedia News

The problem with so many suburbs is that there’s just no there there.

That’s how Vancouver urbanist Brent Toderian, who has worked extensively on transit-oriented development projects in cities across Canada and around the world, described the central problem with ill-considered densification projects in the suburbs.

As I mentioned in last week’s column, Montreal’s regional plan has identified densification in suburban areas near métro stations, bus loops and future REM lines as a way to limit urban sprawl and encourage people to drive less.

Many Montrealers, especially those living in the outer suburbs, are leery of yet more condo development.

But although Montreal’s Plan métropolitain d’aménagement et de développement (PMAD) has identified 155 transit-oriented development zones in both urban and suburban areas that are earmarked for densification, proximity to transit alone isn’t enough to trigger a significant change in people’s transportation habits.

In Toderian’s experience, a critical, and often overlooked, factor in successful suburban densification projects is attention to “placemaking.” Building towers near transit isn’t enough if everything feels far away and the streets are designed to make driving easy and walking hard.

“There’s no place. There’s nothing special. There’s no gathering places. The streets are just spaces,” said Toderian. “There’s no joy. There’s no enjoyment if you’re a walker, biker or transit rider, so you might as well just drive in a car.”

But failing to envision the wants and needs of the pedestrians who are intended to walk to and from transit nodes is just one of the many common ways suburban densification can go awry.

Toderian said another common pitfall is when municipalities compromise on density targets to placate residents who voice concerns about the potential increase in traffic from new condo projects.

“What you can end up with is what I like to call ‘the sweet spot of failure,’” said Toderian. “They lower the density because of local car traffic concerns, just low enough to have all those car concerns but without enough density to facilitate the mode shift we need. It’s a very easy thing to have happen.”

Because one of the key success factors for creating successful walkable places in the suburbs is building homes near shops, restaurants and services, many cities and developers are eyeing what Toderian calls the low-hanging fruit: redevelopment of suburban shopping centres and strip-malls located near transit nodes.

“That’s why they started putting stations near shopping malls. In the short term, it increases ridership to the mall, but the real reason is it’s the biggest opportunity for suburban transformation into urban places,” said Toderian. “It’s a national trend, but in most places it’s still in the early stages. Shopping malls are sprouting towers and becoming urban places.”

In Vancouver, for example, most suburban malls near SkyTrain stations are being redeveloped to create mixed residential-commercial complexes. Densifying residential construction near these established commercial centres brings more local foot traffic to the stores, and allows more of those trips to be via walking or cycling. Increasing the number of people living within a comfortable 15-minute walk of the station also increases the likelihood residents will choose transit, which justifies increasing service frequency (making transit even more appealing).

The strategy works in reverse, too. One recent tower project in suburban New Westminster was built right overtop of the SkyTrain station. Residents of those condos could go grocery shopping, to the cinema, eat out at any of several restaurants or catch the train downtown without ever stepping

You can take advantage of this by purchasing a small strip plaza in these areas (West Island, South Shore, Laval, etc). Although banks are hesitant to lend on commercial properties and can take up to six months for an approval, a Mortgage Lender doing private loans are quicker. One of the most experience Mortgage Lenders in this field in Montreal is TempBridge Inc. Visit them at