Kensington Market residents turned out in droves to decry plans to build a Walmart on the neighbourhood's western edge.
There’s no doubt the City was expecting a fight at Thursday’s community consultation on a developer’s plan to build a three-storey shopping centre near Kensington Market’s western border. Even so, the size of the crowd was beyond anyone’s expectations. Inside the College Street United Church, people spilled out around the pews, into the lobby, and out onto the patio.
The occasion for the meeting was developer RioCan’s proposal to demolish several properties near Bathurst and Nassau streets, including the now-empty Kromer Radio building, and construct a new three-storey commercial building that will include Walmart as an anchor tenant. The new building, if approved, would have about 12,000 square metres of retail space. The plans call for this to be broken up into eight to 10 commercial units along the ground floor, with Walmart on the upper floors. There will also be a below-ground parking lot built to accommodate approximately 300 cars.
Although the crowd appeared to be overwhelmingly opposed to this development, the meeting started on a respectful note.
After introductions from the City Planning folks, who gave an overview of the location (410 to 446 Bathurst), and an update on what’s being proposed (though, notably, they didn’t mention the name Walmart even once), the floor was given to a RioCan consultant, Mark Noskiewicz. While some other RioCan representatives were in the building, they largely stayed silent, letting Noskiewicz, and often the City Planners, speak on their behalf.
RioCan’s big message was that it’s confident the development will fit into the City’s plans, and that it will be a good thing for the community (the latter point drew jeers from the audience). Noskiewicz said the company has sent studies to the City that found that neighbourhood retailers will not be adversely affected, and that the shopping centre won’t create gridlock. Again, the crowd did not react favourably.
Walmart wasn’t present at the meeting, and said in a news release that “out of respect for the city planning process and to allow the details of the developer’s overall proposal to be fully reviewed, Walmart Canada will not attend tonight’s meeting regarding the proposed RioCan development for the Kromer Radio site at Bathurst and College.” This likely made for a more productive discussion.
After Noskiewicz had wrapped up, Councillors Mike Layton (Ward 19, Trinity-Spadina) and Adam Vaughan (Ward 20, Trinity-Spadina) spoke. Both drew thunderous applause. Layton, who said he has been working on this issue for a year and eight months, was clear that both men are opposed to the development, because it seems like it could hurt the area’s small businesses.
Vaughan was even more explicit, stating that “this project must be stopped.”
Both councillors believe that a big-box store would be detrimental to local businesses, and disruptive to the local community. In a letter handed out at the meeting, they cite concerns about traffic flow in the area, as well as decreased walkability.
“People don’t walk to stores in a walkable city, they walk through neighbourhoods with stores,” said Vaughan while at the podium. “Big box is the antithesis of a walkable city.”
Vaughan didn’t mince words when addressing RioCan.
“If Kensington Market bleeds one drop of blood, it will be on your good name,” he stated, to thunderous applause.
The remainder of the meeting was handed over to community members for questions and comments. The line to speak ran right out the door of the church. Virtually every speaker—even one brave enough to admit that she’d shopped at a Walmart just that day—was opposed to the development.
Concerns were mainly focused on how the development would change the face of the neighbourhood, how a big-box store would impact locals, increased traffic and gridlock, and the health of local small businesses. There were also specific concerns about bringing Walmart to the community, and a number of speakers raised questions about the potential for environmental damage and higher rates of crime. Others, including the church’s minister, raised Walmart’s poor record as an employer.
Here were a few comments that really got the crowd on their feet:
- One resident pointed out that Toronto has a long history of activism. Downtown residents have worked to stop the Spadina Expressway, rallied to protect women’s rights, protested war, and, more recently, opposed the G20 and the OLG’s proposed Toronto casino. “You’re messing with the wrong neighbourhood,” she said. “Good luck, hope it’s a fair fight.”
- A 30-year Kensington Market resident reminded the crowd that the development will cause ripples beyond the local community. As he put it, “If you have flesh-eating disease in the thumb, it is not just the thumb that is affected.”
- Louis, who said he lives nearby, reminded the crowd that they do have a voice. As he pointed out, 60 communities have fought back against Walmart and won.
As for the last point, a slide in the City’s presentation said that planners will look at a number of factors when deciding whether to green-light this project. They’ll consider the shopping centre’s relationship with nearby properties, its effects on nearby shops and businesses, its impact on traffic, and how it supports specialty retailers.
Lynda Macdonald, a manager in the City’s planning division, told Torontoist after the event that the City will be taking public input into account. She said that while planners have been reviewing an online petition that now has more than 70,000 signatures, it’s not as meaningful to the City as discussions at community events.
“We are taking it into account, but because it’s an online petition it’s very difficult for us to know where they’re coming from,” she explained. “We know they are coming from all over the country, so what we’re trying to gauge is what the community is saying, and how many of those signatures come from the community.”
Because of the large turnout, the City will host a second public meeting about the development. For those interested in attending, it will be held on July 9 at 7 p.m., in council chambers at City Hall.
The City’s final report on the proposal is set to come out at the end of the year. No matter the outcome, it’s likely that this fight won’t end any time soon.