‘Dead malls’ in Toronto get new life as tours tap into nostalgia: ‘It adds to the experience’

Once a month, Aryeh Bookbinder leads a school bus full of people on a tour of malls in and around the Greater Toronto Area. But the intention of these tours isn’t for the usual reason one might visit a mall — to shop.

Rather, the tourists will experience the ambient relics from another time: “Dead malls,” as Bookbinder calls them, shopping centres with outdated or declining infrastructure, where there are more vacant storefronts than spaces occupied by businesses. Some of the malls that have been explored on past tours include Chinatown Centre in downtown Toronto, Woodbine Centre in Rexdale and High Point Mall in Mississauga.

“There are areas in it that are alive but there are areas in it that are shockingly dead,” Bookbinder tells Yahoo Canada.

Bookbinder’s tours are called “Liminal Assembly” and are inspired by his interest in anemoia, a concept in which people have feelings of nostalgia for something they haven’t experienced directly.

“I wanted to create something that engulfed anemoia … but take it offline,” he says.

While visiting these nearly abandoned spaces can often evoke a sense of wistfulness for a different time, it also presents the questions: How long can they be sustained, and what can we expect from them in the future?

A tour of “dead malls” is seeing renewed interest in the old spaces due to nostalgia. Pictured: Chinatown Centre in downtown Toronto. (@artcarnage.ca)

From huge mall to something else … eventually

In the post-pandemic recovery, changes in shopping habits and the rise of e-commerce, has led to the decline in large retailers. In the last year alone, Nordstrom shuttered all its outlets in Canada. Hudson’s Bay has closed several stores across the country, including in Alberta, B.C., Quebec and Ontario. Many of these stores occupied massive spaces. One such shuttered location in Toronto occupied five floors in a prime downtown location, not exactly an easy and accessible space for just any organization to take up.

The opening-up of these spaces and others is prompting developers to re-imagine how they can be used. Currently there are plans for the land in and around several malls in Toronto to be reimagined as mixed-use developments that combine residential and commercial units, with other amenities.

But these projects take years, sometimes decades, to get off the ground. It requires planning, approval and consultation with the municipal government and, depending on the proposals, might involve rezoning.

While rebuilding plans for Toronto’s Yorkdale mall have yet to break ground, they’ve been in place since before the COVID-19 pandemic. Although the shopping centre is far from dead, it sits on a massive parking lot. Proposals suggest plans to rebuild the lots underground and make way for a neighbourhood that could house 1,500 units within the next 20 years.

Meanwhile, Cumberland Terrace is a three-floor stretch of shops in the core of Toronto, stuck in another time. Although located in ritzy Yorkville, which is considered prime real estate, the mall has been overwhelmingly vacant for close to a decade. The site is slated for redevelopment, which would turn the mall into three high rises, though the plan has yet to be approved.

A new lease … on a mall’s life

Shauna Brail is an associate professor and director at University of Toronto’s Institute for Management & Innovation. She says there’s increasing attention to the notion of adaptive reuse — which is the building of a space for one purpose, but using it for a different purpose than intended — particularly with shopping malls.

“It creates opportunities for potential uses of malls that are no longer desirable spaces,” she says.

And those uses can be out-of-the-box.

In 2022, Citi Plaza, a multi-purpose shopping plaza in London, Ont., allowed its near-empty space to be used as a giant roller rink for several nights. The sold-out events attracted 400 people, who got to cruise around the mall on roller skates or blades. 

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The Cineplex theatres across from Toronto’s Eaton Centre, which were once bustling with moviegoers, have since died down. They are currently being used as lecture halls by nearby Toronto Metropolitan University during the day, and to screen films at night.

Nostalgia adds to the shopping experience

A niche interest for these vacant spaces appears to be growing, since they provide a different feeling from traditional malls, not to mention a deal on rent.

Bookbinder says there’s a renaissance from younger generations to go out of their way to visit and set up shop in deserted spaces because of their unique look and feel.

In Toronto’s Chinatown Centre, a mall that has been nearly empty for decades, Dog Park Shop, a high-end consignment store, is surrounded by empty storefronts. That appears to be part of its appeal. On the store’s Instagram page, they post photos of people modelling clothes in different parts of the eerily empty mall.

“Some entrepreneurs actually want to open shops in these spaces because they have a novelty of being nostalgic, of being of a past era of architecture and aesthetics,” Bookbinder says. “It adds to the experience of shopping there.”

The next Liminal Assembly tour explores Toronto’s PATH system, a long and mostly deserted stretch of underground shops in the downtown core. The sold out event takes place on Dec. 14.

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