It’s a question that’s been asked oh so many times: “WTF happened to Westmount Mall?”
A one-time thriving and bustling, burgeoning centre of commerce located in the heart of a community that loved it more than their own homes. On an average day, thousands of people came from near and far to shop in the exciting variety of stores, indulge themselves at the food court eateries, or to simply stroll the halls and become part of the culture of the mall itself.
However, today, and during the past decade for that matter, many Londoners have been—confused—shall we say, about what exactly happened to the place.
Envisioning the vision…
The mall itself opened in 1973 and was the crown jewel of Mowbray Sifton’s subdivision development named “Westmount,” which broke ground in 1952. At its outset, the mall was home to 37 stores. It even included one of the largest Dominion (A&P) Stores in Southwestern Ontario.
The mall was a success, and it was predicted to keep growing. As things snowballed and London swan dove into the age of the shopping mall, the 1980’s approached and the city experienced a “retail boom,” which saw expansions to White Oaks Mall, The Galleria (today’s Citi Plaza), the construction of Masonville, and even a second-floor addition to Westmount itself.
Into the 1990’s, London was a retail developer’s dream, and Westmount definitely reaped the benefits. It wasn’t just a centre for shopping, it was a gathering space, a workout destination (mall walkers…still love ‘em), a study group location, a teenage and adolescent hangout, and so much more.
No way but up, right? In a sense, but that never negates unexpected changes.
The winds of change start to blow.
Somewhere back in early 2000s, the retail winds began to shift and Westmount stores downsized, relocated, or left altogether. Confusion arose quickly and has, for the most part, remained strong regarding just what happened to the place.
Luckily, Fuse got the chance to speak with Rhonda Hanley, Westmount’s Marketing Director, in order to address some of the common questions.
It appears that what most don’t understand is the fact that when trends in retail start to shift, businesses, and in this case, largely malls, need to “change their vision.” We currently reside in the age of the Big Box, and this is where the issues that plagued Westmount began.
Hanley told us “retail is constantly changing – and as retailers go through changes of their own, good or bad, it then filters down to the centres they occupy. Many stores have expanded to a big box concept leaving vacancies in malls they once occupied. New retail opportunities have developed within our trade area that has increased competition for our current and potential new retailers.”
Regarding Westmount’s changing vision, Hanley said “Westmount recently went through a redevelopment that embraced the changes/trends that our industry is currently forced to endure. Westmount repurposed itself and created a mixed-use centre offering many medical and financial services on the upper level along with other offices/services, food offerings on pad sites filling a void in the south-west end of London complemented by retail on the main level. We have a bit of everything at one location to serve the community.”
Therefore, what many Londoners regard as the downfall of the mall – in actuality – was an intelligent response to the changes in business needs externally forced upon Westmount from within.
Those fond memories…
But still, when retail was the design for the location from the outset, it’s hard to separate what once was from what is currently—let alone, openly accept it. When asked if she often encounters people recalling Westmount’s past, Hanley replied “we’ve encountered people reminiscing about the mall, even going back to the pre-1989 opening of the two-storey layout. Stores are obviously a big part of what is remembered, but people also remember events and the great staff that once walked the hallways of Westmount.”
Westmount, in its glory days, was a big part of so many people’s lives, especially those growing up in the area. So, let’s a have a remembrance interlude, shall we?
Remember Cool Toys? Remember Living Things and Tucan Candy? Remember Mario and Jaggz? Remember Japan (Sailor Moon fanatics, our heaven)? Remember Rain Forest and its strange geographical turn into British Isles (the first appearance of Terry’s Chocolate Oranges in London)? Remember San Diego? Remember buying hacky sacks at Spectra? Remember how the first American Eagle Outfitters in Canada came to Westmount? Remember when Fairweather was high end? OMG REMEMBER EATONS?
Remember the external, underground movie theatre, Westmount Twin? Then it moved inside, becoming Westmount Six, and you’d burn a whole fiver to see a flick? But, of course, you and your tween clan would first head to Bootlegger, ogle over the Brody khakis you wanted with a fiery passion, hit the photo booth, and buy a Jones Soda (probably in Fufu Berry flavour). Then you’d trot back through that painted corridor to see the latest Freddie Prinze Jr. gem.
Remember the 347 different kinds of muffins offered by Mmmmuffins? They looked way better than they tasted but you always went back. Remember how the food court turned into literal pandemonium every weekday at 11 am (Saunders kids, you sure do)?
Remember that underground grocery conveyor from A&P to the parking lot pick up? I rode the thing out on a dare when I was 4. Serious rights of passage went down at Westmount, literally.
This list could go on and everyone would have some different memory to contribute with its significance twofold. First, the immense volley of most memorable aspects communicates the strong attachment community members of all ages associated with the place. After decades of familiarity, that alone explains the reluctance to accept the mall’s current situation. And second, remembering what once constituted a thriving retail centre doesn’t necessarily translate to the circumstances of the present.
Westmount’s new (re)purpose.
According to Hanley, “Westmount was experiencing big changes and rather than sit back and hope things would work themselves out… a new vision was found and we were able to fill voids in community services while still offering retail with the amazing feature of free indoor parking.”
Thus, the vision for “a mixed-use centre” has undoubtedly been the most positive improvement in Westmount’s sustainability in recent years. This “recent repurposing…has the upper level fully leased with offices and services important to our community” while making “leasing opportunities available on the lower level [that allow] for more unique shops to join our current mix of retailers” such as independent stores like La Tika or local organization For the Love of Art’s gallery art centre.
It can be said with certainty that not all Londoners will embrace the new vision for Westmount on account of previously mentioned memories as well as the closure of Target Canada. However, it’s imperative to understand why such adjustments have occurred and also accept that changes (… albeit big changes) are inevitable.
Still, though, the mall, in its mammoth size, and (often disregarded but stunning) architecture, stands as a testament to the retail boom of yore and the ever-changing business needs of the present.
It may seem unpopulated when held up against an image of its past. But one could do the same to Dundas Street or Richmond Row in the 1960’s, laying blame to the shopping mall in the same way we now do to big boxes. Thus, the cycle is unending and re-visualizing is essential.
The bottom line is, there’s hope for Westmount and many feel positive about it. There are a number of people working to strengthen the mall and its veterans are still going strong (Zally’s, Sears, The Cineplex, and of course Timmies to name a few, we love ya). To the mall’s many (very vocal) critics, its fate may be dwindling, but it’s more than likely they haven’t considered that when services change, so does the audience.
Note: This article was originally published on LondonFuse’s old website, dated March 30, 2015. We recognize that information (i.e. existing stores) may no longer be accurate but have kept the article as is for historical value.
Feature photo by Rima Sater