How quirky Kingsgate Mall achieved celebrity

Both mocked and beloved, it's become an unlikely star thanks to Michelle Hanley's tongue-in-cheek Twitter account

Kingsgate Mall has been called wonderful, but also weird. Charming, but also creepy. It’s been advertised as “Vancouver’s secret retail jewel,” but also, by one Yelp reviewer, “1990s depression recast as a mall.”

Kingsgate has become a Vancouver landmark over the years. Some bus drivers of the 99 B-Line even like to announce its presence to riders. Local artists and musicians have used it in their works.

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If you’re new to the city, you might wonder why a humble mall — with a Buy-Low Foods, a Shoppers Drug Mart, a Payless Shoes, a barber and a florist — attained local stardom.

Perhaps it’s surprises like the Bitcoin machine or the kiosk that sells lobster products. Perhaps it’s the nostalgic retro trappings, like the Noah’s Ark you can ride for a dollar or the hand-painted mural of hill country by the washrooms.

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If you are ever in need of some Bitcoin, fear not — Kingsgate Mall inexplicably has its own Bitcoin machine. Photo Dan Toulgoet

“And I thought West Edmonton Mall was amazing,” wrote one reviewer on Facebook. “This place has defied physics and made time stand still.”

It’s not completely inaccurate. The neighbourhood of Mount Pleasant is ever changing, with rising rents and longtime businesses closing. A sleek tower, the Independent, is going up across the street. Kingsgate, built in 1974, is living testament of an older Vancouver.

Amid the change, an unofficial Twitter account popped up in 2013 to archive mall happenings and deals. Tongue-in-cheek, @kingsgatemall tweeted urgent calls to buy velour tracksuits, expiring ground beef and giant $200 ceramic Santa heads.

The account was amusing to many — with about 8,000 followers — but the young woman behind it takes gentrification in Mount Pleasant personally. Because while many insist that time stands still at Kingsgate, its days may be numbered if development has its way.

Cheap and easy

Michelle Hanley and Asha Wozny were hung over when they decided to get some pho for remedy. Across the street was Kingsgate Mall.

They wondered if it had a social media presence. After all, it was a local institution.

“It’s amazing that it’s still around,” said Hanley, whose grandmother used to take her there every weekend for groceries. “It’s so bizarre, but it fits the neighbourhood so well.”

So Hanley and Wozny created their own Twitter account for the mall and began tweeting away:

“There are no hotdogs today only sadness.”

“COME DOWN TO KINGSGATE MALL AND BUY YOURSELF WHAT YOU REALLY WANTED FOR CHRISTMAS. A VELOUR TRACKSUIT!”

“TGIF drown your work week sorrows in some room temperature beers from our government liquor store.”

They racked up fans by the thousands. Canadian pop stars Tegan and Sara even followed the account. Hanley and Wozny then mocked malls with fewer followers, like Metrotown and Pacific Centre. @pacificcentre has since blocked @kingsgatemall.

The attention reminded Hanley of why people love Kingsgate. “Everything’s a cheap deal, but also everyone is welcome there,” she said. Young hipsters and seniors alike.

Another neighbourhood spot with a diverse crowd was Reno’s Restaurant, said Hanley. It has since closed. Other mainstays are also bidding Mount Pleasant goodbye. RX Comics, vegetarian eatery Foundation and Hot Art Wet City are also closing — owners have said it’s too expensive to stay.

“I grew up in Mount Pleasant, and now I’m watching everything I’ve ever loved turn into minimalist, cold-press juiceries,” said Hanley half-joking.

But the mall wasn’t always a friendly place to be. While Hanley helped boost the mall’s popularity, another woman worked hard to shine it up.

Mall of the wild

In 1999, Leyda Molnar was asked by the owners of Kingsgate Mall to manage it. She told them no.

“I can’t tell you exactly what I said to them because you’ll print it!” said Molnar.

Kingsgate had a reputation. Loiterers often smoked and drank at entrances. It even attracted crime: Vancouver Sun and Province stories from the 1980s and 1990s mention some theft and violence.

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Kingsgate Mall’s manager Leyda Molnar talks to a shopper. “We’re a community shopping centre so you gotta involve the community.” Photo Dan Toulgoet.

While Molnar refused to manage the mall, she did help with promotions and security. Then in 2006, when the Beedie Group took over ownership, Molnar decided to give managing a shot.

She brought in choice tenants and tightened security. But Molnar had a vision for something more.

“We’re a community shopping centre,” said Molnar, “so you gotta involve the community.”

Community meant dragon dancers for Chinese New Year, Irish dancers for St. Patrick’s Day, and pumpkin carving at Halloween. It meant seniors days with guests speakers, tea and coffee. It meant partnerships with the local neighbourhood house and Lions Club.

She even brought in unconventional tenants. A congregation whose Kingsway church caught on fire made the mall their home. An Emily Carr student who made puppets from bicycle parts and even brought in a band. Even an oil painter: 79-year-old Julio Mariano Llanera Jr.

“This mall is like my office,” said Llanera.

He does oil paintings, mostly portraits and wildlife. His latest work combines a bit of both: a chef prodding a giant hunk of camel meat, commissioned for a book called How to Cook a Camel.

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“This mall is like my office,” says 79-year-old oil painter Julio Mariano Llanera Jr. Llanera. Photo Dan Toulgoet.

Even Molnar is occasionally surprised by prospective tenants. Recently, a tailor insisted on setting up shop under the stairs and someone wanted to put in a Bitcoin machine. “I don’t quite understand it,” said Molnar, “but apparently it’s doing quite well.”

A curious mix, but it works, and everyone at the mall speaks highly of Molnar for making it home.

“It’s not Metrotown, but it’s family,” said Nadia Dominguez, 27, who works at her parents’ store, Lely’s Books. At Lely’s, like many other businesses in the mall, it’s all first names.

Uncertain future

The Vancouver School Board owns Kingsgate’s land. One of their schools, Mount Pleasant, stood where the mall is from 1892 to 1972.

The land is appraised for about $79 million. Beedie pays the board an annual lease of about $750,000. Since purchasing Kingsgate, Beedie has expressed interest in redeveloping it, an opportunity the city’s Mount Pleasant Community Plan also mentions.

Last summer, BC Education Minister Mike Bernier had hoped the school board would sell the mall to help with its budget shortfall. The board refused. However, the entire board was fired last October by the minister and a new trustee was appointed to the school district.

Once again, Kingsgate’s future is up in the air, though Molnar says it might be a while.

“I’d hate to see it go,” she said, “but I also realize that you’ve got to move on. Changes are inevitable for this year.”

Meanwhile, Hanley works across the street from Kingsgate at a burrito shop. She visits the mall often, collecting points at Shoppers, looking for dollar store deals and sitting with seniors playing keno.

“It’s going to break my heart if it goes,” she said, “but it’s a beautiful miracle that it’s still standing.”

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