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Doing Business : The Edmonton Mall: Shoppers' Paradise on the Prairie


EDMONTON, Canada — In Xanadu did Kubla Khan

A stately pleasure-dome decree:

Where Alph, the sacred river, ran

Through caverns measureless to man

Down to a sunless sea. . . .

-- Samuel Coleridge

Xanadu this isn't.

Nearly three-fourths of all Canadians live within 90 miles of the U.S. border. Of those who do not, some 785,000 live here in Edmonton, an improbably sited city on the wind-swept Alberta prairie, 54 degrees north latitude.

Montreal novelist Mordecai Richler once visited Edmonton and wrote that if Canada were a house, Montreal would be the salon, Vancouver would be the solarium and Edmonton would be the boiler room. British travel writer Jan Morris likewise arrived one bitter winter week, slithered on the icy sidewalks, got stuck in an elevator and wrote, "My spirit failed, and I crept away ashamed."

No, it isn't Xanadu. Yet Edmonton does manage to sustain a "pleasure-dome"--something no other city in modern times can boast. It's the West Edmonton Mall, biggest in the world. And therein lies a mystery.

The West Edmonton Mall has more than 800 shops and smaller concessions, 19 movie theaters and more than 100 eateries. It has made the Guinness Book of World Records for 11 assorted superlatives. Walking from one end to the other is the equivalent of hoofing it eight city blocks.

The huge mall has the world's largest indoor amusement park--complete with a 14-story roller coaster--the world's largest indoor lake and the world's largest indoor wave-pool, where the six-foot surf crashes hygienically on a sand-colored vinyl shore.

Not only is the West Edmonton Mall gigantic--it is also thought, by those who study such things, to represent a breakthrough in the annals of consumerism, one of 24 discrete new retail phenomena to have appeared in the selling industry's modern history. (Other retailing quantum leaps include the franchise store, the fast-food chain and the shopping mall itself, which was born in Kansas City, Mo., in the 1920s.) The West Edmonton Mall is considered a breakthrough because it is the first to have combined, on a massive scale, the hypnosis of a mall with the fantasy of an amusement park.

"It's a summation of 20th-Century (North) American culture," said Brian Allsopp, an architect and the founder of the Edmonton Society for Architecture and Urban Studies. "It's the automobile. It's glitz. It's lacking in any sort of artistic, cultural component at all."

The West Edmonton Mall's effects on the social and cultural fabric of this far-flung city have been the stuff that doctoral dissertations are made of. But at an economic level, there remains an unanswered question: How can the gigantic mall be turning a profit in Edmonton, which is not only smallish, as North American commercial and political centers go, but which also has the highest retail-space-to-population ratio in all Canada?

"In terms of straight performance, it doesn't make sense," said Allsopp, leaning over a brass-railed balcony in the mall's west wing and gazing pensively into the coral-studded waters of the artificial lake.

The mall industry's conventional wisdom, after all, has it that a so-called "super-regional mall" can work only near a city of 3 million or more. (Officially, malls range from the "super-regional" leviathans, with three or more full-fledged department stores, down to the humble "neighborhood malls," little huddles of shops built alongside supermarkets. These various shopping centers are further categorized by what developers refer to as "GLA," or gross leasable area; a super-regional mall might have 850,000 square feet of GLA.)

With its 3.8 million square feet of GLA, the West Edmonton Mall was nearly twice as big as the next largest mall on Earth (Woodfield Mall, near Chicago) at the time it was built. And that doesn't include the rides, lakes, fountains, tropical-fish tanks and other non-leasable frills which occupy another 1.4 million square feet.

One study thus found that by all logic, Edmonton would have to have 12 million people for the West Edmonton Mall to return a profit to its developers, the Triple Five Corp.

So what is the secret?

The question looms large in the minds of mall developers and urban development specialists worldwide who have recessions to cope with and who are, often enough, watching their own local malls go into decline. Planners from afar have heard Triple Five boast that the West Edmonton Mall ripples with 15,000 employees and attracts 9 million tourists a year to the ranchlands and oil fields of central Alberta. And they wonder whether a massive, West Edmonton-Mall-style development would work its peculiar magic in their own recessed corners of the globe as well.

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