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Retail Therapy

Jun 1, 2009

After ushering in the era of the modern Alberta mall more than 50 years ago, Edmonton’s Westmount Centre is showing its age. But, after a series of ill-conceived reinventions, is it past its prime or just older and wiser?

by Jennifer Cockrall-King

The morning of Aug. 18, 1955, thousands of Edmontonians gathered as Mayor William Hawrelak, Vancouver-based department store baron W.C. Woodward and Detroit-based retail magnate Stanley Kresge presided over the ribbon cutting and grand opening of Westmount Shoppers’ Park. Chiefly designed by Edmonton architect Alfred A. Minsos, with Vancouver architect J.C. Page in charge of the Woodward’s units, the building’s long, sleek lines were of-the-moment, mid-century modern and the flat roof mimicked the then-uncluttered Edmonton horizon. Built at a cost of $5 million by an American developer, it was the kind of price tag that made headlines, in very large type.

The Edmonton Journal, in fact, ran a 28-page special section the day before the grand opening. No ink was spared trumpeting Westmount Shoppers’ Park’s novel concepts (Escalators! Parcel pick-up for groceries and other bulky items! Free parking!). “The centre is designed for the convenience of the Edmonton housewife and features outlets for almost every type of merchandise available in the city,” rang the caption below a photo of the expansive parking lot and floor plan drawings on the front page of the section. Meanwhile, on local television, a black-and-white ad showed a typical Edmonton housewife (identified by the dress and high heels) driving to Westmount Shoppers’ Park, picking up the dry cleaning, buying a greeting card, browsing for shoes, purchasing bread and filling a prescription. A ticking clock on the screen showed that these errands took a mere 17 minutes.

Woodward’s department stores and “food floor” anchored the north and south ends while the S.S. Kresge Co. store ballasted the mall’s middle. With 40 other retail shops and services, a mammoth asphalt parking pad to accommodate 3,000 drivers in a catchment area that, thanks to emerging car culture, easily included 127,000 Edmontonians, this 30-acre marvel was a testament to the city’s post-war prosperity and a vanguard of the future of retail that would sweep across North America. Westmount Shoppers’ Park was not only Edmonton’s first shopping mall, it was Alberta’s.

Fast forward 54 years and Westmount Centre, as it is now called, appears to be at a crossroads. The years, not to mention several ownership changes and almost as many facelifts, have not been kind to this retail pioneer. By the early 2000s, it had become a dollar-store mall known for its curious mix of parsimonious mall-goers: retirees gathering for coffee at Smitty’s and McDonald’s, and high school kids from adjacent Ross Sheppard High School hanging around in the food court. But there’s hope once again for Westmount Centre. In 2007, First Capital Realty Inc. (TSX:FCR), a subsidiary of Gazit-Globe Ltd., an Israel-based, worldwide real estate investment company, paid $70 million in cash for the property. Experienced owners and property managers of more than 170 neighbourhood and community shopping centres in Canada, First Capital promptly began $21 million in upgrades and changes.

But as other Alberta malls are currently splashing out sums of hundreds of millions, is a mere $21-million spruce-up for Westmount enough? Can First Capital succeed where other owners and management companies, intent on restoring the venerable mall to its former glory, have repeatedly failed?

Westmount Shoppers’ Park was the retail prototype that started it all, but the mall in Alberta has undergone rapid evolution since then, as shown by the time-line below. Clicking on the arrows will take you to the next slide or the one previous.

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