Will recent shooting slow Yorkdale plans?


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Rendering of the shopping centre’s planned expansion, which includes Nordstrom

When Michael Nguyen’s bullet-riddled body hit the asphalt of a Yorkdale Shopping Centre parking lot on Easter weekend, he became the third person to be shot to death at a Toronto mall in under a year.

Coming just 10 months after the Eaton Centre shootings, the shock that violence had returned to a shopping mall so soon was widely felt. TV news showed scenes of police scouring the parking lot trying to piece together what took place around 8 p.m. on a busy Saturday night; it was described as a gang-related “execution-style” killing. Meanwhile, shoppers told reporters of their horror that young men with guns could have been near the mall.

When Yorkdale reopened the following Monday, the message was clear: business as usual. Reporters were turned away from the premises, but not before they’d had time to film undeterred shoppers heading into the stores. One particularly unruffled young man told a news crew, “It’s a mall; these things happen.”

A week later, the death of the 23-year-old Nguyen was far enough removed in the news cycle for the mall to feel confident in announcing yet another expansion plan. A new Nordstrom store is set to anchor a $331 million, 300,000-square-foot extension that will include a host of new retailers and food outlets, making the already huge mall into a two-million-square-foot retail behemoth.

The speed with which focus shifted from news of a bloody slaying to news of a shiny new retail toy highlights what some people see as Torontonians’ inconsistent attitude to gun violence in our city. On the one hand, we’re horrified a shooting could happen in an upscale mall; on the other hand, we’re not really willing to talk about the serious issues that give rise to gun crime and gang violence. Toronto remains one of North America’s safest large cities, but last year, there were 213 shootings on our streets, resulting in 32 deaths. When he died, Nguyen was the 15th homicide of 2013; at the time of writing, we’re up to 18.

Councillor Josh Colle, whose ward includes Yorkdale Shopping Centre, said that the city can no longer turn a blind eye to gun violence as it did when such violence was confined to certain neighbourhoods.

“These two incidents at Eaton Centre and Yorkdale show you that the jerks — in lieu of another word — don’t care where their behaviour spills out into,” he said.

Colle is calling for the city to come up with a strategy to tackle both gun violence and the economic and social reasons behind it, and he says it should be a priority for anyone thinking of standing as mayor. 

Toronto police allege that Nguyen, who was shot up to eight times, and an unnamed 24-year-old man who was with him and also injured in the shooting, were part of a gang called the Asian Assassinz. Police believe the assailants knew the men would be at the shopping centre and waited to ambush them in the parking lot.

The incident is not the first time shots have been fired at Yorkdale Shopping Centre. In 2009, a security guard was shot while attempting to arrest two armed robbery suspects and escaped death only thanks to the safety vest he was wearing. But it is the first time Yorkdale has seen serious violence as the apparent result of gang rivalry.

Since Yorkdale started expanding rapidly in the mid-2000s, it has become a draw for people not just in north Toronto, but in the GTA as a whole — Nguyen himself lived downtown near the Spadina Avenue Chinatown  — and crime experts say these types of places are more likely to see incidents of violence because they attract large numbers of people from many walks of life. Whether the expansion will have any impact on the future risk of violent crime largely depends on the form that it takes and the type of people it attracts. 

Sara Thompson, an assistant professor in criminology at Ryerson University, said Yorkdale probably attracts a low-risk crowd of “yummy mommies” during the day, but it’s a different story in the evenings: “At night, the movie theatres, restaurants, shopping tend to draw younger crowds. And more young people (especially young males who, statistically speaking, are at a greater likelihood of criminal victimization and offending) equals a greater chance that violence will occur.” 

However, Anthony Casalanguida, general manager at Yorkdale, insists security will be built into the design of the expansion and that the mall wants to fill it with stores that will appeal to fashion-forward young women. Hardly the most gun-toting crowd out there.

According to Casalanguida, Yorkdale, which boasts an 80-strong security force, has been working closely with Toronto Police to step up security following the shooting.

“We don’t want to reflect a military site, but we want to give comfort that there is a presence,” he said.

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