Even as it fights residents at the Ontario Municipal Board, SmartCentres, the developer pushing Wal-Mart-sized plans in Leslieville, has launched a glossy high-stakes PR campaign to win over residents in the neighbourhood.
An army of mercenaries has been deployed in a blitz that includes reports, focus groups, polling, newspaper ads, flyer drops and even door-to-door canvassing and petitions.
The strategy, crafted by PR firm Media Profile, whose clients include Microsoft and 20th-Century Fox, is to convince Ward 30 residents that they will be getting a beautiful mixed-use urban resource, not a 700,000-square-foot retail mall anchored by box stores.
SmartCentres corporate affairs VP Sandra Kaiser enthuses, “People aren’t building internal malls any more.” No, they’re building “lifestyle centres,” the latest move by major U.S. retailers to repackage the box.
Image is everything to a company that feels the need to shout its name with an exclamation point (Smart!Centres) in its logo.
Kelly Carmichael, chair of the East Toronto Community Coalition (ETCC), isn’t buying it – even while other area residents are being enticed by vague promises of neighbourhood improvements and jobs.
“We have heard from several other communities that were also promised small urban-fitting SmartCentres,” says Carmichael skeptically.
Case in point, SmartCentres’ big-box mess on Laird, where California-themed stucco and red roof tiles slapped onto the fronts of boxes with fake second floors resemble hastily erected movie sets.
The promised “main street” is nowhere to be seen. The only signs of life are shoppers walking between stores and their vehicles. No one’s taking advantage of the tables at Starbucks or Subway facing a one-thousand car parking lot.
The mall’s back side is all faux windows, loading facilities and emergency exits, saddling Wickstead Avenue with a blank wall.
While he’s not proud of Leaside, SmartCentres’ VP of development Tom Smith is bullish on the Leslievile site, dubbed the Foundry District, which he says will be “totally different.”
Let’s take a closer look.
SmartCentres, which according to its website opens a new mall every three or four weeks, “usually anchored by a Wal-Mart,” proposes to bulldoze all structures presently on the site.
And rather than spend cash to remediate the polluted land, it plans to cap it with a thick concrete slab, meaning vegetation will be of the potted variety and parking above-ground.
Flyers boast that “the project has been carefully designed to integrate into the existing look and feel of the community.”
Yet renderings reveal a 2-metre-high wall right along Eastern that will insulate retailers from the surrounding neighbourhood. Pictures of a scale model deftly camouflage the low ceiling in the proposed parking garage.
Kaiser adds that “the scale [of the drawings] is not accurate. This is just a rendering.”
As in any good PR campaign, SmartCentres wants to demonstrate that the crowd is on its side – or at least divided.
The company has carpeted the area with flyers highlighting testimony from “community supporters” Nicholas Brooks of Greening of Eastern Avenue and Natasha Lemire-Blair of South of Eastern Avenue Renewal.
When I ask Brooks, a one-time fringe mayoral candidate, about SmartCentres flyers listing his group as supporters, he says, “That’s a bit of a misquote.” Turns out he’s just trying to “make the best of a bad proposal” because “the OMB rarely goes against a developer.”
I tried to speak with Blair about her comments to the National Post and the Star in support of the project, but she declined. Perhaps her shyness has to do with the fact that I contacted her where she works as assistant director of commercial relations for the Ontario Real Estate Agency, which licenses and lobbies on behalf of the development industry.
SmartCentres scored a major victory when its renderings led architect Jack Diamond to change his mind about the project some weeks back, saying retail windows and entrances would “animate public space and adjacent streets.”
Diamond hadn’t noticed the hidden wall in SmartCentres’ drawings, and finally told me he preferred not “to talk about any particular project.”
Rather than haggling over details like whether to go with brick or stucco, Carmichael sees the loss of high-paying jobs as the major issue. She’s also concerned about the traffic and pollution from more cars. Worse, rezoning could set a precedent for the entire area south of Eastern Avenue to go retail.
Montreal is currently facing a similar problem with Devimco’s Griffintown. Like the Foundry District, it will be located on former industrial land near downtown.
But the similarities end there. Public pressure has led to significant changes: only 18 per cent of the space will be retail, and it will be located below apartments and office towers. The developer will include affordable housing, reuse about a dozen historic buildings and include a tight grid of streets and no surface parking. Devimco will even provide cash for an electric trolley line so customers aren’t forced to get there by car.
SmartCentres’ Smith seems sincere when he says the proposed mall’s open spaces can be used for public events.
But before you take your peace march within shouting distance, remember that like any other shopping mall, the Foundry District would be private property.
Camouflaging big box
SmartCentres’ PR flyer paints an idyllic picture of its Foundry District plans in Leslieville. But look past the artful renderings and what you’re left with is big box.
1. Promising: A “new urban lifestyle centre.” Reality: Big box by any other name....
2. Promising: Pedestrian-friendly open spaces with lots of green. Reality: Soil on these old industrial lands too contaminated to plant in.
3. Promising: A “pedestrian avenue” along Eastern. Reality: Stores not actually accessible from the sidewalk.
4. Promising: “Heritage-style brick and rich facades.” Reality: SmartCentres promised a main street at the Laird mall, too.
5. Promising: New access to the Martin Goodman Trail. Reality: To avoid clogging Eastern, mall traffic will have to be funnelled onto Lakeshore, making the Martin Goodman more hazardous for cyclists and walkers.