Monday, February 07, 2011

Is Waterloo Square in Trouble?

Waterloo Square, lately known as "the Shoppes at Waterloo Town Square," is not flourishing. Nearly half the shops are empty or about to be (the good shoe store and Gizmos are both having closing sales). The remaining clothing stores are not the sort of boutiques that were envisioned as attractions; they're no different from an average mall-type store. The chocolate shop can't be doing well (I never see anyone in there). The "art gallery" and barely-open condo showroom are filler.

What's going wrong?

Some of the retailers believe that business never recovered after the front parking lot was turned into the Public Square. I like the public square and I like the policy to hide parking lots, but it may well be that visible parking attracts shoppers; after all, people flock to malls, where many people walk a long distance across the huge parking lots.

Another problem could be that the mall is just too small. After all, how many malls have barely 20 establishments, including restaurants? But we just spent a pile of money reducing it to a fraction of its previous size (it was not only cut in half, but the tower and basement areas were removed).

Perhaps the stores could be the problem - too expensive and not high enough quality. The vision for Uptown was independently owned boutique stores and gift shops. We haven't had many stores as high quality as Fudge's (which closed due to retirement).

I also wonder if First Gulf, the owner of the mall, isn't setting the rents too high. I wrote a business plan a few years ago for someone who was thinking of renting the coffee shop space, and when I crunched the numbers I saw how difficult it would be to survive with the rent that First Gulf wanted. (They may have lowered it after the space was empty for some time.)

An even more troubling thought is that perhaps Waterloo Square is a bellwether for the Uptown. Uptown has its share of failed or failing stores. Other than Words Worth Books, The Old Goat, Ontario Seed and Lily White, I'm not sure there's anything worth going to Uptown for these days.

Is anyone monitoring the situation, or doing anything about this?



Michael D said...

There's some discussion of this over at Wonderful Waterloo.

I think Uptown is as lively as ever, but the mall is not terribly good as a destination mall for small shops. Valu Mart and Shoppers - the neighbourhood amenities, shall we say - are plenty busy, however.

The kind of shop you might go out of your way to get to needs to be in a high-profile or high-visibility location, I think. None of that is true for the inside of the mall - for boutique shops, it's a better bet to open on King Street. The Denim Bar and Bon Mot are two examples from the past several months.

Yappa said...

Hi Michael,

Thanks for the link. I'm not so optimistic though. The denim bar may be a good store, but so was Magic Mountain. There's been too much churn in that part of the block.

The core of uptown is moving more and more to offices for financial firms. That's good for restaurants that serve lunch, but not so good for retail and night life.

As for Waterloo Square, it's one thing to say that First Gulf may be biding its time till it can tear it down and build skyscrapers there. I'm not necessarily against that (although the mall is a nice place for uptown's large elderly population). But having a declining mall in the uptown is a terrible prospect - it would be in bad shape for years and years. I don't think we should accept that.

EdtheTed said...

I shop at the Valu Mart in there sometimes, it's almost the only useful store. I found the parking lot really useful and now that it's a big expanse of concrete, I don't see it being much better. It's nice when things are going on, but I have no reason to ever stop. Liquidation world was great, but they axed that. I visit downtown Kitchener all the time because I live there and it has a mixture of used book stores, sushi, cheap stuff and some mid-range. "Uptown" waterloo has mostly expesive stuff I have no interest in except: Starbucks (but awkward to park), Wordsworth (2 times a year) and Long and McQuade (lots!). What else counts?