Why do big box retail malls look the way they do? Do they need to be that way? Can they become a neighbourhood hub instead of an endless sea of parking lots and shopping carts? Residents around Ottawa’s South Keys shopping centre think they can and should, and are working to make that happen.
Better South Keys Centre is advocating for the enhancement of the nearly 30-year-old strip mall, and with major development plans imminent, there seemed no better time to start. As the mall is practically in my backyard, I became involved with the group and wanted to share their story with Apt613 readers. Below is my conversation with Janet Mark Wallace, chair of the outreach committee, and Matt Pinder, the executive director.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
Apt613: Tell us a bit about how a blog post turned into a community group.
Janet Mark Wallace: Matt Pinder is a transportation engineer who wrote a blog about the development plans as well as his re-envisioning of what it could be, and it really captured the attention and imagination of the neighbourhood—so much so that he organized two virtual public meetings last fall to discuss how they could get involved and have a say. There was enough momentum and interest that a core group of a dozen or so people formed, and it’s just been growing ever since.
Apt613: What’s so important about redeveloping South Keys Centre?
Matt Pinder: In many ways, the mall is like any other big-box strip mall in the city (or elsewhere), but one thing that makes it unique and has huge potential is that it’s bookended by two major stations along the Transitway and is part of the O-Train extension further south to the airport and Barrhaven. The retail landscape is changing (even before the pandemic but maybe more so now) and the potential of empty retail lots is staggering. It lies in the centre of several residential neighbourhoods, giving it the potential to become a hub for this part of the city.
Apt613: So what is planned for the redevelopment?
Matt Pinder: The initial phase sees residential towers being added in the area next to the South Keys transit station between the Wal-Mart and the Cineplex. A big swath of land in front of the transit station would be turned over to the city to become a transit plaza—a public space—which has so many exciting possibilities. Eventually, the entire area will be redeveloped. The owners, SmartCentresREIT, have already started doing this with similar properties like the Vaughan Metropolitan Centre, but this is the first of its kind in Ottawa.
Apt613: Is this what we mean when we talk about intensification?
Janet Mark Wallace: Yes! There are no current residents in this area, so Better South Keys Centre can act as a de facto community association to advocate for future residents until that’s in place. We’re working closely with, and building relationships with, all sorts of stakeholders, including the surrounding existing community associations. We’re learning from them and drawing on their knowledge and history, and it helps us to come together as a single voice to advocate for this area.
There’s the potential to build a development that’s centred around active transportation and the transit that’s already right there. By better connecting it to the surrounding neighbourhoods, there’s potential to reduce car dependence and bring these communities closer together.
Apt613: What are some of the things that your group is advocating for in this development?
Matt Pinder: The area has the potential to be a vibrant and amenity-rich community that embraces active transportation and healthy living. It can be a regional hub for Ottawa South. We really want to see it be a neighbourhood where all life stages, income levels, and abilities are able to thrive. It should be an urban hub that prioritizes connections to nature, uses sustainable design, and incorporates a range of housing types.
Apt613: It’s only been a few months but you’ve been very active already. What sorts of things has the group undertaken?
Janet Mark Wallace: We’ve been able to do outreach with numerous community associations, stakeholders such as the Rideau Valley Conservation Authority (Sawmill Creek is a key feature in this area that needs to be considered), the architects, the developer, and various City departments, including OC Transpo. We also submitted a proposal to connect the nearby Greenboro multi-use pathway network to the mall as it currently ends about a kilometre away, but could make a huge difference for not only the existing neighbourhoods around the mall getting to retail and transit safely, but also for those future residents at South Keys Centre who will be sending their children to schools along these paths—so we felt it was important to start advocating for changes there now.
Apt613: Where can folks learn more about your work or get involved? Do they have to live nearby?
Janet Mark Wallace: There’s definitely no need to live nearby—this area is going to serve as a model for other mall developments across the city, so we know there’s interest from folks in areas like Lincoln Fields, Bayshore, and more. The more diverse voices that come together, the more positive influence we can generate.
The next best opportunity is at our first public event taking place on April 23. We’re holding a Spring Walk and Talk—a short walk around the property, beginning at South Keys transit station, where we’ll stop along the way to discuss various key points, plans, and potential for things like the public transit plaza, Sawmill Creek, retail, and the park and ride. We have guest speakers lined up for people to hear from experts in those areas. We already have quite a few who have RSVP’d but there’s always room for more!