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Kensington Market’s Business, Soon to be Improved

Kensington Market will soon be designated a BIA (that is, a business improvement area), pending near-certain approval by City Council this winter, according to a city staff report, released on Monday. A few area business owners have mixed feelings about the impending designation, but many see it as the best way of ensuring the future of the chaotic little neighbourhood in the heart of Toronto.
Stewart Scriver, whose vintage clothing and accessories store, Courage My Love, has been in business on Kensington Avenue since 1979 (though it was founded elsewhere in 1975), falls roughly into the “mixed feelings” category. Actually, he’s not really that mixed.
“It’s just gonna cost me money and not improve my business,” he said, from behind the curio-laden glass counter in his dimly-lit store. A hat tree of luchador masks near the rear of the room eavesdropped on our conversation, while shop assistants busied themselves amongst the baskets of beads, the ancient plastic necklaces, the bakelite costume jewelry. Like Kensington itself, Courage My Love is full of gorgeous clutter.
Scriver expressed concern that the BIA’s politics would put strictures on Kensington Market’s famously anti-authoritarian way of life. “I was attracted to this place because of the chaotic nature of the Market,” he said. “I like chaos. It works for me.”
For others, the BIA represents a chance at a better, cleaner, more engaged future for the Market.

A Pedestrian Sunday performer, at Augusta Avenue and Baldwin Street.

“There are a lot of advantages to a BIA,” said Mika Bareket, owner of Good Egg, a kitchen tools and cookbook shop, that opened on Augusta Avenue last year. Bareket was the originator of the push to create a BIA in Kensington Market (she worked in consultation with area city councillor Adam Vaughan, who supports the BIA), though she eventually removed herself from the steering committee, she said, to allow others to share control. Her shop is orderly, well-lit, and stocked with brand-new, beautiful objects. The floors are gleaming tile, and the chairs have floral-patterned cushions. Like Kensington itself, Good Egg is on the rise.
“We now have access to all sorts of city programs, city funding, and the assistance of many experts, who can save us a lot of legwork on sourcing things like more bike racks,” said Bareket.
If you’ve ever tried to lock up a bike in Kensington Market on a busy afternoon, you probably did some serious nodding and approving while reading the last few words of that last paragraph. Even those who love Kensington and its chaos acknowledge that there are certain things about the neighbourhood that could use sprucing up. A BIA is one way of making that happen.
Plus, it’s a homegrown concept. The world’s first BIA was established in 1970, in Bloor West Village (Kensington Market will be the seventieth in Toronto). John Kiru, executive director of the Toronto Association of Business Improvement Areas (TABIA), traces the origins of the idea to the emergence of malls in west Toronto.
“Those merchants at the mall contribute to a merchant’s fee, and that fee is basically used to promote and market that mall,” said Kiru. “Effectively what the people in Bloor West Village in the 1970s did was say: ‘Well, let’s replicate that.’” Establishing a BIA, in other words, is a way for small business owners to benefit from the single best aspect of a mall’s business plan, without actually having to set up shop in one.
BIAs collect their merchant’s fee by levying small surcharges on the property taxes of commercial and industrial landowners in their respective neighbourhoods. They can use the proceeds from these levies for neighbourhood publicity, or to make repairs and improvements to public spaces. BIAs are highly organized, fairly democratic bodies, with elected boards of directors and voting procedures―and, to reiterate, Kensington Market, better known for its punks than its politicians, is about to have one.
BIAs are never imposed on neighbourhoods. They come about only at the request of business owners, and only after a series of stakeholder meetings, to gauge interest. The only quirk of the BIA approval process is that it requires stakeholders to opt-out, rather than -in. For a designation not to succeed, a third of tax-paying tenants and landlords must object in writing within sixty days of receiving notice of its existence. The city clerk didn’t receive any objections to Kensington Market’s BIA. The motion had broad support in the neighbourhood, but whatever dissenting voices there were evidently didn’t bother registering themselves.

Another Pedestrian Sunday crowd, on Augusta Avenue.

Aside from allowing neighbourhood businesses to save funds collectively and spend funds collectively, establishing a BIA also gives business owners a way of negotiating and communicating collectively with the city. The city occasionally splits the costs of certain kinds of streetscape improvements with BIAs, and all BIAs are required to include at least one member of City Council on each of their boards of directors.
All this money and influence enables BIAs to tackle issues of concern to their members. Kensington Market has issues.
“We have major problems in the Market,” said Bareket, “and those are drug trafficking and garbage. The garbage situation has just worsened. They’ve now cut us back to pickup only once a week. And this is a very high-yielding garbage zone. It’s bad for business.”
Ike Geist, the proprietor of the AAA Army Surplus, on Baldwin Street, agrees. “I think it’ll bring more people,” he said, when asked about the BIA. “We need lights, and garbage bins, and painting. It’s dingy outside at night.”
Aviva Geist, Ike’s wife and business partner, gestured towards the grey brick around the store’s entranceway, where someone had left their signature in black spray paint. “I wish they didn’t do this graffiti,” she said. “It just ruins people’s property.” BIAs are empowered to spend their budgets on graffiti removal, if they choose.
A BIA could also fund more infrastructure for street life in Kensington. “I think we need to have more public space for artists,” said Bareket. “There’s not a single museum, not a single gallery in the Market. There’s no stage for a musician to play.”
“There are lots of fun things we can do without cornucopias and banners,” added Bareket, alluding to the cutesy neighbourhood branding efforts of other Toronto BIAs.
“Personally, I think it’s long overdue,” said Grey Coyote, owner of music store Paradise Bound and president of the Kensington Market Action Committee, when asked about the BIA.
Shamez Amlani, owner of the restaurant La Palette and co-organizer of PS Kensington (which orchestrates the neighbourhood’s popular Pedestrian Sundays), was more measured in his praise. In an email, he wrote that he is “intrigued by the idea of an organization that gets so many previously inert community members to come to the same table,” and that he’d be glad to see Kensington gain clout at City Hall.
But, he wondered: “Who stands to gain if Kensington gets a facelift? How will that affect the edgy, rag-tag gypsy flavour of Toronto’s favourite neighbourhood?”
It’s a question to which the only possible answer is the ever-unsatisfying cop-out: let’s all wait and see.
All photos by Nick Kozak/Torontoist.

CORRECTION: NOVEMBER 26, 2009 This article originally misidentified Grey Coyote as the director of the Kensington Market Action Committee; his actual title is “president.” The article also stated, incorrectly, that Coyote’s store was called “Paradise Lost.” It is “Paradise Bound.” We apologize for the mistakes.


  • http://undefined wesshepherd

    As long as the improvements don’t mean an inrush of franchise stores, Starbucks and McDonalds.
    Bloor West Village has, over the years, deteriorated to the point where Blueberry Hill, an independant burger joint with some of the best burgers I’ve ever tasted was replaced by a Pizza Pizza. McDonalds moved in down the block a few years ago. The Cheese Boutique opted not to renew their lease and moved out to Mississauga I believe, taking a huge chunk of character with them.
    There’s a Second Cup at the west end of the village, and a Starbucks at the east end.
    Business improvement or character dilution?

  • http://undefined mark.

    The bike rack thing is a total ‘red herring.’ It’s pretty easy to request post and rings be installed – anyone can do it:

  • Mark Ostler

    As much as the franchises have moved into Bloor West Village and as unfortunate as it is that some great businesses have left, there are still plenty of refreshingly independent shops. The Coffee Tree has been in business for decades, despite Second Cup, Starbucks and Timothy’s moving in. Book City survives despite the Runnymede Theatre being turned into a Chapters. The fruit and veg markets, butchers and bakeries persist, as does Falafel World (amazing falafels!), Queen’s Pasta and plenty of other independent businesses.
    And just to correct some stuff in your post, the McDonald’s has been there for probably about 20 years. If not that long, then at least a dozen. Hardly “a few”. And Cheese Boutique isn’t far. It’s on Ripley Ave, near the South Kingsway-Queensway intersection. Nowhere near Mississauga. I’m sure they still have loyal BWV-ers stopping by on a regular basis.

  • http://undefined mika b

    Requesting bike racks is easy, true. Getting them is another story: the waiting list is looooong. A BIA can expedite delivery in a variety of ways, ways in which an individual can not. Also, we are forming an association to collectively keep chains such as Starbucks out, and to help attract creative, independent businesses. It appears as though the current business owners are very like-minded in this regard!

  • http://undefined wesshepherd

    Thanks Mark, no argument that there are still a lot of great independant shops there, but your reply just underlines my point that there are fewer than there used to be.
    I can’t argue the McDonalds dates—I don’t remember it there when I lived in the area, and then suddenly it was there when I went back.
    So whether it’s a few, a dozen, or two decades, whatever you think is the right wording for the space of time, that’s fine. But again, something with unique character was replaced by something that delivers the same “food” in thousands of locations around the world.
    Good news about the Cheese Boutique! When they moved, I was told by people who should have known that it was to Mississauga. You’ve brightened my day considerably by enlightening me as to their new location.

  • http://undefined wesshepherd

    Mika–this is good news.

  • smasharts

    Way to go Mika.

  • http://undefined kstop

    I own and live in the Market, though I don’t know if I fall into the category of people that could have registered a complaint, not running a business there. What I do know is that I never knew this was going on and I would have probably registered a complaint if I could.
    The character of the area isn’t defined by the fact that it doesn’t have a Starbucks, but by the fact that it’s a working neighbourhood. A BIA strikes me as another step towards squeezing out the more vulnerable vendors and replacing them with more yuppie-tchochke crap like Good Egg, Blue Banana, and that scooter store on Augusta. I don’t want to see my town turn into a mall.

  • http://undefined kstop

    I’ve just gone to the Good Egg site for the first time, they actually have a tchochke section – oh the hilarity. At least now I know where to go the next time I want to get a $50 egg-cup.

  • mccool

    “I think we need to have more public space for artists,” said Bareket. “There’s not a single museum, not a single gallery in the Market. There’s no stage for a musician to play.”
    umm, i’ve seen many a band play on stages at graffiti’s, supermarket, teranga and the boat as well as whatever the new venue is called that replaced adrift skate shop. also, didn’t a gallery just open at the bottom of augusta called ‘good blood, bad blood’?
    i’m tired of people trying to change kensington. sure, more garbage cans would be (finally) appreciated but i could definitely live without another blue banana. ugh, i shudder as i pass… every time.

  • http://undefined rek

    XPACE gallery used to be on Augusta; anyone know why it moved to Ossington?
    Larger issue though… why is the city withholding stuff like street lights and garbage cans from the market?

  • http://undefined Svend

    More garbage cans and bike racks for sure but that’s a city issue. Get on the councillor’s case.
    I can’t see why a BIA is needed though, all they accomplished in The Beaches is getting it renamed The Beach, put up some silly banners and installed some crappy planters.
    On the Danforth they’re the ones organizing against bike lanes.

  • http://undefined Dry Brain

    To reiterate Mccool–I agree that we don’t need another Blue Banana. In fact, if the whole neighbourhood turned into what Augusta currently looks like above Nassau, there’s no reason left for it to exist.
    I hope the BIA keeps chains out, but I also hope it doesn’t mean the whole Market turns into a boho shopping district akin to the Queen/Beaconsfield area. Kensington doesn’t need to be cleaned up. For the good of the city, for the preservation of one little culturally distinct oasis amidst the glut of over-priced tchotkes and boutiques that the inner city is turning into, please leave it alone.

  • http://undefined Urbavore

    The mention of graffiti removal worries me a little. While I’ve only lived in the market for 6 months or so, I’ve fallen in love with the various street art.
    The massive wall murals and colourful designs that cover every inch of the brick of some buildings is art, and the thought of them being painted over in a misguided effort to “clean up” the neighbourhood makes my blood boil.
    Mr. Scriver is right. The market is anarchic, but in a good way, and it’s this atmosphere that gives it it’s charm. I would hate to see it turn into an extension of Queen West.

  • http://undefined Solex

    I wish that the people complaining and initiating this BIA would get the frack out of the neighborhood and go live in Scarborough/North York?Etobicoke/East York/York where there’s a ton of old plazas/malls that they can set up their shops in that are as clean as a whistle and have ample security for them to feel safe and clean in.
    Even better, new Canadians have already set up shop there-they’ll be okay alongside them.

  • Jlee_420

    The BIA will kill all the attraction that the market has developed in the past 30 years.