Canada's Chinook Centre, a 1960s vintage mall that had seen better days, is emerging from the chaos of the country's largest redevelopment as a model for consumer comfort and a forum for unusual art.

The winds of change are blowing at Calgary, Alberta's Chinook Centre. The 40-year-old regional mall, named for the current of air that sweeps down Canada's Rocky Mountains to warm the city in the summer, is in the midst of a $C300 million renovation, expansion and repositioning.

Chinook, located on McLeod trail, Calgary's major highway, opened in 1960 with 45 stores. The open-air center's 55-acre site was previously home to a drive-in theater. In 1974, Chinook merged with an adjacent center, Southridge Mall, adding 33 stores and creating one of the city's first enclosed malls. Dubbed Chinook Ridge Shopping Centre, the new amalgamation prospered thanks to its proximity to the city's growing demographic of middle-to upper-income families.

With some 174,000 vehicles passing the site daily, Chinook quickly grew into the city's largest retail venue. In March 1998, the Calgary Planning Commission gave the go-ahead for ambitious expansion plans for the center, with $C210 million invested by the center's owners, a Canadian pension fund, and $C100 million chipped in by retailers.

The first phase of the redevelopment focused on the mall's north end. Construction included the rebuilding of half a million sq. ft. of GLA. Two new anchors - a 172,500 sq. ft. Sears concept store and an 118,000 sq. ft. prototype Zellers store - and 50 other retailer flagships were added.

Phase Two includes the addition of a new anchor - a 195,000 sq. ft. The Bay store, a 900-seat food court, a new 5,150-capacity parking scheme and revamped traffic configuration, and 65 new retailers. Phase Two was completed this spring. The total project will be completed in spring 2001, when Phase Three, a 120,000 sq. ft. entertainment wing featuring a 16-screen Famous Players Paramount cinema including an IMAX theater, an HMV music store and a Chapters book store, is finished.

The past meets the future The renovation has not been easy, according to Jan Cresswell, a partner in Toronto-based MMC International Canada Architects, designers of the project. The original structure featured a parking garage on top of the street level in the middle of the center, which in effect choked off circulation between the two unnaturally separated common areas on the same floor. When MMC International had the garage and most of the floor removed, circulation was restored, and revenue rushed through the opening.

Street level retailers shuffled off to other parts of the mall, making way for an atrium space at the mall's entrance, with a rotunda and a domed roof over the new food court. Obviously, there was some economy in salvaging structural parts of Chinook's existing structures, although Cresswell says, "We haven't tried to impose a predetermined design and aesthetic. This resulted in more varied and interesting solutions."

The center's new interior design is pleasant, inviting and different, Cresswell says. The food court, which is now the country's largest, boasts wide open spaces, moveable wicker chairs and an outdoor balcony. Cresswell also enthuses about the high-quality fabrics, leather upholstery and solid oak frames of the new couches and chairs, as well as the coffee tables and carpeting dispersed throughout the mall to create a residential ambience. Some of the floor coverings are even antique Persian rugs.

All three phases will bring Chinook to a total of 1.2 million sq. ft. The new design, which includes higher ceilings and a more effective use of space, will allow the tenant configuration to be whittled down from 300 shops to 220 larger, new or renovated ones, of which only five will remain unchanged.

Chinook's management, locally based 20 Vic Management Inc., is betting the changes will bring more shoppers to the center. 15 million people are expected per year beginning with 2001, up 1.5 million from this year's head count. According to center manager Terry Napp, the recently completed food court has added a booster thrust to Chinook's rising sales.

Though the renovation has ensured a bright future for the center, it has done its fair share to inhibit sales while in progress. In the past few years, sales figures had naturally dipped due to disruptive construction, bothersome dust, noise, and customers searching for stores departed to other parts of the mall. Nonetheless, sales hovered around $C500 per sq. ft., even with 100 stores temporarily closed. The typical Chinook Centre shopper currently spends 1.6 hours in the venue, spending $C99.03.

Much of Napp's optimism springs from the confidence of retailers putting Calgary flagships into Chinook - a 22,000 sq. ft. Gap, a 20,000 sq. ft. SportChek, a 10,000 sq. ft. Club Monaco and an 8,000 sq. ft. Banana Republic, for example. The current tenant lineup also includes Dockers, Braemer, Connect, Laura, Laura Petite, Roots, Roots Kids and RW & Co.

One of the center's most attention-grabbing new features its $C750,000 collection of public art exhibited near Chinook's main entrance off the food court. The centerpiece is a 20-foot-long, 27-foot high model of Albertosaurus, a Jurassic creature that roamed the prehistoric Canadian prairies, made from 600 pieces of farm, oil and auto industry machinery and other scrap pieces. The sculptured head extends over the second floor, and the motion-detector eyes following gawking visitors are its only moving part. A solar-powered vine with metallic leaves and insects moves animatedly in response to sunlight pouring in through a window. Seven whimsical flying machines created by Toronto and Calgary artists dangle from a moving monorail track above the food court.

The overhead dome is covered with a giant fiber optic-activated screen upon which is projected the position of the constellations over Calgary as of December 31, 1999. Directly underneath and buried six feet under the floor is a time capsule timed to be opened in 1,000 years, on December 31, 2999.

If Chinook Centre is still standing that day, it will be interesting to see what kinds of people are around for that ceremony, what they will buy, eat, drink, what entertainment they will seek out, and what they will pay, when the time capsule with last year's millennium newspaper specials are opened.