By Craig Patterson
An experiential shipping container marketplace opens to the public on Wednesday, April 10 on the edge of downtown Toronto, featuring a collection of retailers and activations on a valuable 2.4-acre site. Called ‘stackt’ (spelled with a small ’s’), the activation will be open until the end of September, 2020, and possibly beyond that time if the founder can extend the lease on the property.
The site, located at the northwest corner of Bathurst Street and Front Street, has remained vacant for years, and was formerly a large parking lot owned by the City of Toronto. The surrounding area is densifying rapidly as condominium developments rise in one of the hottest areas in the city.
A total of 120 shipping containers, all painted in a dark grey colour, feature more than 30 retail operators that range from independents to some bigger, well-known brands. Each of the shipping container units are less than 300 square feet, and some are combined to provide brands larger spaces.
The containers ‘thread in and out’ to create a network of detached buildings with single and double-height interiors. The containers were retrofitted to provide heating and cooling (necessary with Toronto’s unpredictable weather) as well as necessary power and water to support the tenants. Ramps provide accessibility for strollers and those with mobility issues.
The overall layout creates an enhanced pedestrian experience, with a series of courtyards that are “ideal for cultural programming’. The zig-zag design encourages meandering throughout the space with a visual diversity from the typical network of grid streets in the area. A basketball court, skate park and viewing platform to watch trains pass by are among the other attractions.
Storefronts were designed “to reduce visual clutter” as well as to “level the playing field” between the independent tenants and some of the bigger brand names. Some spaces are for pop-ups while other brands will remain throughout stackt’s run in the area.
Some of the brands at stackt might not be familiar to some. Toronto-based Dresden Vision, which features value-priced glasses in a variety of colours made from recycled and recyclable materials, joins other local brands such as women’s fashion brand Ellie Mae, and unique and colourful footwear brand House of Hayla which is known for its monochromatic designs. Carmel Floral, COFO Design (furniture), JL Design gallery, Poco Mono (eco-friendly children’s clothing), makeup brand Richface, and various other unique tenants will be a draw for visitors. Inkbox Tattoos, which features both temporary and permanent tattoo options, is another local tenant with goals to expand globally.
Some bigger brands have also popped up at stackt. Toronto-based mattress-in-a-box brand Endy will have its official showroom in a space facing onto Bathurst Street, encouraging visitors to try out the brand’s wares in a well-designed space that plays on its Canadian branding. Called the ‘Endy Lodge’, the space features a ‘Relaxing Lounge’ with a ceiling-suspended fireplace, Canadian-inspired finishes and upholstered seating with live-edge wood panels creating the illusion of being in an immersive forest. Two ‘napping nooks’ feature LED-lit ceilings inspired by a starry night in the woods, with mired walls for photo-ops. Canadian furniture retailer Urban Barn outfitted part of the space.
Canadian water brand Flow Alkaline Spring Water also has its own experiential showroom that features a colourful wall of product overlooking a park area, Flow will feature both indoor and outdoor activations.
The outdoor park areas at stackt will have green grass year round, given that they are actually covered in astroturf. The effect works — the greenness of the ‘grass’ contrasts with the darker surroundings, creating a unique experience that will transform throughout the year.
The stackt marketplace is being referred to as a ‘cultural space’ according to design firm LGA, which helped conceptualize stackt as what it describes as “providing Torontonians and their visitors with a lively cultural destination and community hub with anchor and pop-up shops, food and beverage vendors and an onsite brewery, woven with courtyards, pedestrian paths, and open spaces for community programming and events.” The 6,500 square foot Belgian Moon Brewery is one of several gathering places at stackt, offering immersive experiences including tours and beer tastings.
The property is owned by the City of Toronto and could, in the future, become a public park. Founder Matt Rubinoff says that he would like to extend the lease beyond September 2020 and if successful, may replicate the concept elsewhere.
It’s not the first shipping container marketplace in the city — The Market 707, which opened in 2010, was the first and features colourful array of brands at 707 Dundas Street West near Bathurst Street. The new stackt market is considerably larger.
LGA explained how the shipping containers at stackt “pay homage to the industrial nature of the site, while creating a retail setting with a unique personality.” The physical structure “can be picked up and deployed elsewhere – even in a different configuration – at a future date.”
The new stackt is a decidedly physical experience that offers visitors something they can’t get online. According to Janna Levitt, Partner at LGA Architectural Partners, “As our world becomes more digital, retailers are looking for unique physical spaces and experiential opportunities for their customers. Shipping containers suggest an unusual and immersive retail experience while also offering a practical and sustainable building solution. Their inherent modularity means that the project can be disassembled and deployed elsewhere to create future stackt developments, while leaving the site unscathed.
In order to make it possible, stackt’s owner and LGA worked with Graig Uens, Senior Planner at the City of Toronto to work within local by-laws while minimizing barriers so that the project could proceed. It could set a precedent for future temporary developments in the city, which is good news as developers find it challenging to secure building permits amid considerable backlogs during the city’s latest building boom.
The stackt market provides much needed park space (though still private) to the area which is exploding in population as condo towers rise in the area. Other public amenities in the area include Underpass Park and ‘The Bentway’, both located under the Gardiner expressway to the south of stackt market.
Some are comparing stackt market to London’s Boxpark, (London UK) which launched in 2011 with some big international brands as well as plenty of independent brands. Boxpark has expanded to several locations in the London area, and stackt could utilize a similar model within Toronto and possibly even other Canadian markets, provided the right plots of land become available. At the same time in many Canadian cities, urban land is scarce as developers look to capitalize on land assets.
Now located in Toronto, Craig is a retail analyst and consultant at the Retail Council of Canada. He's also the Director of Applied Research at the University of Alberta School of Retailing in Edmonton. He has studied the Canadian retail landscape for the past 25 years and he holds Bachelor of Commerce and Bachelor of Laws Degrees. He is also President & CEO of Vancouver-based Retail Insider Media Ltd. Email Craig: firstname.lastname@example.org