The owner of Palasad in London is speaking out against the bid by a north-end shopping mall to convert part of it’s upper level into a multi-purpose entertainment facility.
The rezoning request from Masonville Place received unanimous approval from the Planning and Environment Committee on Monday, despite the opposition.
The business setting up shop in part of the former Target store has not been confirmed, but it’s believed to be a gaming, music, and entertainment venue called ‘The Rec Room.’
It’s owned by Cineplex, which has a theatre at the mall and has opened this type of venue in Edmonton and Calgary, with another coming to Toronto next year.
Using a Star Wars analogy, Palasad owner Rob Szabo compared the plan to a Death Star that will hurt the downtown and existing businesses.
“They aim their giant lasers at retail, the next thing they do once they can’t get any more retail, they aim it at the movie theatres, so I think the Planning Committee and Council had good intentions 30 years ago of limiting it to 10 per cent, but what happens is as the malls get bigger and bigger and bigger, 10 per cent becomes a lot, so we’re not talking about 10 per cent, we’re talking about hundreds of thousands of square feet,” said Szabo.
He’s worried the new facility will hurt small businesses in the core, as well as smaller concert venues.
“What Council and the Planning Committee is now doing, and staff, let’s focus all development in London in the super regional malls, and that’s what’s happening,” said Szabo. “If it’s not in the mall, it’s beside the mall, so right now, this decision focuses more of London’s future in the malls, you know, that’s why downtown is empty. That’s why you drive up and down Oxford Street, you drive up other main streets and you see all the ‘for rent’ signs in the stores.”
Looking to stay competitive, Cadillac Fairview, which owns Masonville Place, wants to renovate the upper level of the former Target store into a facility similar to Palasad, which offers food, bowling, pool, and arcade games.
Currently, a city by-law only allows shopping malls to dedicate 10 per cent of their floor space to entertainment use, to keep the focus downtown. This request would bring Masonville to 16 per cent.
However, a report from staff highlights how well the downtown is doing, as well as the challenges currently facing shopping malls.
Thanks to the growing popularity of online shopping and power centres like the one in Hyde Park, staff estimate 15 per cent of malls will fail or be converted into non-retail space within the next decade.
Several groups are also cited in the report as having no objection to the rezoning request, including the Upper Thames River Conservation Authority and London Hydro.
Councillor Phil Squire backed the findings of the report.
“One of the things that we continually hear is a little bit sentimental of what downtown used to be, but it’s not going to be that way again,” said Squire. “The world is changed, and I’m sure people in retail would say, ‘what about all the internet providers who are taking away all our retail businesses so we’ve got tons of empty stores in our shopping malls,’ so business is tough, and I get that, but that’s not an area that I would jump into, to try to tell people, ‘you operate this business here, you operate this business here, we want to protect these businesses.'”
Councillor Maureen Cassidy admitted she lives close to the mall and is excited to see business thriving both inside and outside the core. She also praised Cadillac Fairview, which owns Masonville Place, for investing millions of dollars into renovations inside the facility.
“They’ve currently undergone about $77 million in investment,” said Cassidy. “Once this old Target is rehabilitated, we’ll be matching those funds that the city invested in our downtown over a period of time, and this is a private company that has done it in one year’s time. As I said, it displays a significant amount of confidence in London and in the economy of London, and I think that’s a great thing for our city.”
The application now heads to full Council for a final vote.