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.
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.