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With Loblaws a Possibility, Kensington Market Gets Anxious

No stranger to development strife, Kensington is getting riled up over a new neighbour's plans.

It’s an awkward situation. In October, city council, with the support of Councillor Adam Vaughan (Ward 20, Trinity-Spadina), approved a 15-storey condo at 297 College Street, to be developed by a company called Tribute Communities. Now, months after the fact, some residents and businesspeople in Kensington Market, just south of the site, are suddenly up in arms over the building, which they believe will include a neighbourhood-destroying element: a Loblaws supermarket, lodged in a planned 20,000 square foot second-floor retail space.

Sylvia Lassam, a seven-year Kensington resident who owns a home on Bellevue Avenue, is one of the people leading the fight against Loblaws. She believes that a supermarket would steal business away from the many green grocers and dry-goods merchants that line Kensington’s streets. “The raw food sales have been the constant that keeps it a real, honest-to-god market,” she said. “And if you get a Loblaws two blocks away, what’s going to happen?”

Lassam, an archivist by profession, believes that a supermarket would leave Kensington unrecognizable, erasing its century of history as a scrappy, eclectic immigrant district. There’s some reason to believe things could unfold this way. Ever since a Loblaws opened at Queen and Portland streets, about half a kilometre from the Market, neighbourhood merchants have complained of reduced sales. Fueling suspicion in Kensington is the fact that the Portland Street Loblaws is located in a condo building developed by none other than Tribute Communities, in partnership with RioCan.

“I just can’t see how that could be good for [Kensington's small grocers],” Lassam continued. “And I think what would probably happen is that they would eventually close up, and that those storefronts would turn into more of the entertainment kind of things.” In other words, bars.

Nothing incites fear in a neighbourhood quite like the prospect of rowdy drunks desecrating its heritage, and so naturally the anti-Loblaws movement has been becoming quite a thing. A group called Friends of Kensington Market has already staged two street protests, both specifically against Loblaws.

But despite the urgent tone of the protests, even neighbourhood advocates like Lassam acknowledge that there’s no hard evidence that Loblaws wants to put a store at 297 College.

That’s right: Loblaws is no sure thing, though one gets the sense that Tribute would be perfectly happy to have the blue-chip grocer as a tenant. “We don’t have a signed lease with Loblaws, but we have been talking with Loblaws,” said Steve Deveaux, Tribute’s vice president of land development. “We’ve been talking with a number of other retailers as well.”

Apart from all that, another thing that could potentially give pause to protestors is the fact that there likely isn’t any legal way for anyone to prevent the condo from being built. Tribute went through community consultation and won zoning approval from the City. The whole process was apparently fair and transparent. Neighbourhood residents could have raised objections in 2011, and yet it wasn’t until earlier this year that Lassam and Martin Zimmerman—proprietor of Freshmart, a small grocery store in Kensington that happens to buy its goods from Loblaws—tried to challenge Tribute at the Ontario Municipal Board. Their case was weak, and they dropped it last week after the developer agreed to meet with a group of residents.

“We are absolutely stunned that this flew below the radar,” said Venetia Butler, chairperson of the Kensington Market Action Committee. “We realize that the horse has left the barn, we totally realize that.” KMAC’s attentions, she added, were focused elsewhere, on a proposal for a RioCan shopping centre on Bathurst Street, which recently had a major setback.

Even so, she believes the protest movement—with which she is deeply involved—can be effective. “Now is the ideal time to put the heat on, because presumably the landowners will have some choice in who they rent to,” she said.

Deveaux, the Tribute vice president, has been paying attention to the outcry, but he doesn’t believe in the doomsday scenario. “People are entitled to their opinion and it sounds like there would be concern over [a supermarket] going in,” he said. “There are lots of examples of chain retailers going into an area while traditional independent retailers continue to thrive. St. Lawrence Market is one example.” It’s true: there’s a Metro supermarket across the street, and yet people still flock to St. Lawrence for fresh food and old-world charm.

Deveaux couldn’t say when Tribute might be ready to reveal the identity of 297 College’s second-floor retail tenant. He expects the building to be completed, at earliest, in 2015.

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