Building the West Edmonton Mall

July 23, 2020

The shopping mall may be a staple of the 21st century but they haven’t really been around that long. The very first enclosed shopping mall in America was the Southdale Center in Edina, Minnesota in 1956. Today, malls are not looked at purely as a shopping area but as a place to socialize, to visit and to “experience”. With experience and tourism in mind, the megamall was born. 

What Is A Megamall?

A megamall is defined as an exceptionally large shopping area that contains malls, shops and boutiques along with restaurants, cinemas, and other tourist attractions. One of the most noteworthy megamalls in the world is the West Edmonton Mall.

The West Edmonton Mall

Located in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada, the West Edmonton Mall was the largest mall in the world until 2004. It is still the largest shopping mall in North America. Sized at over 5.3 million square feet, the mall houses over 800 stores, two hotels, 100 dining venues and 9 tourist attractions.

These tourist attractions include an ice-hockey rink, water park, rollercoaster, and themed streets. The ice rink is used by the NHL team the Edmonton Oilers as a practice rink, adding to the appeal of the mall for visitors.

The Ghermezian Brothers and the Triple Five Group

The mall was founded by the Ghermezian brothers – a Persian Jewish family who also developed the Mall of America. The brothers emigrated from Iran to Canada with their father in 1959. They grew their Persian rug business into a corporation called the Triple Five Group.

The Ghermezian brothers pictured in 1985. Image from the Toronto Public Library Archives

The story goes that the family was inspired by the traditional bazaars that existed in Persian cultures. They dreamed of creating the “Disney World of shopping malls” where people should shop and be entertained. Eventually, the Triple Five Group became a real-estate empire in North America. 

The Triple Five Group is responsible for both the Mall of America and the West Edmonton Mall, as well as work within a number of truck, engineering, technology, biotechnology, and nuclear energy engineering industries – just to name a few.

When building the West Edmonton Mall, it is said that Nader Ghermezian said the mall will be the “ninth wonder of the world”. 

Edmonton Before the Mall

Edmonton became the capital of the province of Alberta in 1905 when the province joined the Confederation and officially joined Canada. Following this incorporation, the Canadian Northern Railway arrived in the town which helped to grow the city and surrounding area. 

A construction boom took place until 1914. The population started growing as the Hudson Bay Co started trading and trapping in the area – establishing it as an important area for one of the country’s largest companies. The First World War had a big impact on the population in this part of Canada and over 20,000 residents of Edmonton left the city and either died at war or never returned.

Until the 1980s, the city of Edmonton saw growth and construction at a rate as you would expect from a western Canadian city. Colleges, churches and museums were built. In 1971 they got their national hockey team, gaining the city further recognition. But nothing brought fame to this Canadian city quite like the megamall. 

Building the West Edmonton Mall

It took four stages to complete the basic foundation of the mall. In total, all four stages took place from 1981 – 1999. The first stage focused on just retail stores and service providers. The doors to the mall opened in September 1981. Phase 2 was completed two years later. More shops, an amusement park and an ice rink were completed in this phase. 

The amusement park was first called Fantasyland but the mall was actually sued by Disney in 1993 over the name. The court did rule in the favour of Disney but the mall appealed the decision. It wasn’t until this appeal was thrown away in 1994 that the mall actually had to change the name. Fantasyland was renamed Galaxyland and has been that way ever since. 

Phase 3 took place over the next two years and finished in September 1985. This construction phase added two waterparks among other expansion projects. It was this phase that pushed the mall to a size of over 5 million square feet. The current shape of the mall that we know today is the result of the final phase that was completed in 1999. 

This final phase of construction added a hotel across the street for additional guest accommodation. 

Building one of the waterparks in West Edmonton Mall. Image borrowed from Canada Pool Coating

But There’s More!

In 2002, the city of Edmonton agreed to another expansion, adding another 300,000 square feet to the megamall. This expansion would include – you guessed it – more stores. It also included an office building, convention center, and even an apartment building. 

They are constantly doing updates and renovations on the mall. In 2017, the mall even redid the ice rink, as pictured below. 

Image borrowed from West Edmonton Mall Twitter.

Modern Day West Edmonton

The West Edmonton Mall is now home to a marine park, waterpark, Toyota Ice Palace, a bowling alley and themed shopping streets. The website breaks down the West Edmonton Mall experience into, “Play, Shop and Dine” – the true manifestation of the Disneyworld of shopping centers.

The Cost of West Edmonton Mall

In January 2007, the mall was valued at just under $1 billion – $926 million to be exact. In 2016, that value had gone up to $1.3 billion. Over 30 million people visit the mall every year, making it more of a tourist attraction than a mall.

For those looking to take in the mall in its entirety, it would take about three 24-hour days of constant shopping to visit everything in the mall at least once. It would be the literal case of shopping until you drop.

The Future of Megamalls

There are two things that could threaten the future of the megamall. The first is that the next generation is wearier of capitalism and consumerism. The second is that while shopping online has become more common and practical. That being said, the additional attractions and vacation-esque feel to the malls may ensure that these tourist traps last longer than the typical shopping mall. As one Forbes article said, “malls are still considered a destination, but it’s because they now offer amenities, experiences and entertainment to enhance the shopping experience.”

Whatever the future of megamalls are, the construction of the West Edmonton Mall acts as a symbol of how a small city can be transformed by a dream. The growth of the mall over a period of time and multiple construction phases is really astounding when you think about it. The capital of Alberta becoming a tourist destination for travellers from all over the world is pretty cool. If nothing more, this mall helped to put Edmonton on the map. 

DirtStories

DirtStories dig up the hidden gems in the industry to share untold stories with the world. From large companies and independent contractors to individual interviews and event coverage, DirtStories is challenging the way the world views construction by sharing the stories of the people who build and feed our world.

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