The developer behind a proposed Walmart on Kensington's western border thinks there are misconceptions about the project.
Not so long ago, Kensington Market’s nightmare scenario was that a Starbucks would open up somewhere within its borders, but now that notion seems kind of quaint.
Starbucks is a moderately reviled emblem of corporate fakery, but Walmart, now angling to open on Kensington’s western border, is something else entirely.
Walmart, the thinking goes, doesn’t just make your neighbourhood less cool. It uses low wages and ultra-competitive business practices to hollow your neighbourhood out.
Good or bad, big-box retail is a tough sell in downtown Toronto. And the company with the job of selling this particular project is RioCan, a real estate developer that’s acting as the public proponent for a proposed three-storey shopping centre at Bathurst and Nassau streets, on Kensington’s western border. The upper two storeys of the building have already been leased, conditionally, to Walmart.
But the shopping centre isn’t a done deal yet. While it awaits zoning approval from city council, Kensington has been fulminating against the proposal at community meetings. An online petition has almost 80,000 signatures.
It’s hard to know how worried RioCan is about the mounting grassroots opposition, but here’s a data point: last week, one of the company’s publicists emailed to offer us an interview with Jordan Robins, RioCan’s senior vice president of planning and development. That’s an aggressive way of seeking publicity, and it’s a little unusual. (Maybe the Star is routinely fending off interview requests from real estate executives, but not us.)
Asked whether RioCan considers public opinion critical to getting the deal done, Robins wouldn’t say. (His exact words were, “I can only speak to the municipal process.”) Even so, RioCan is hoping to get the project approved by city council. Bringing at least a few residents around to the point of view that Walmart wouldn’t turn Kensington into a smoking crater—or worse, into Yorkville—would be enormously helpful with that.
Robins said his company is trying to change minds.
“To that end,” he said, “we are hoping that through working with the community, through explaining exactly what we’re doing and proposing to the community…we will ultimately get the councillor’s support.” (The local councillor is Mike Layton, Ward 19.)
It’s often said that development proposals like this one are truly decided at the Ontario Municipal Board (OMB), a provincial body that hears appeals of planning decisions made by local governments. Even if RioCan loses at council, there’s still a chance the OMB could intercede.
But the tricky thing, in this case, is that this shopping centre already went before the OMB in 2012, after RioCan’s proposal was rejected by a different arm of the City’s planning-approval apparatus. The OMB’s decision, released in December, specifically says that, because of the size of the retail space involved, the project is subject to city council’s approval this time around.
Robins didn’t say this, but it seems possible that RioCan doesn’t like the odds of the OMB overruling city council. Which would explain the charm offensive.
RioCan is interested in correcting what it sees as misconceptions about the project. There are several things Robins said people generally don’t understand, some of them relating to technical issues like traffic and urban design. But everyone understands Walmart’s likely ill-effects on Kensington’s small merchants, right? Robins says no—at least, not according to studies that RioCan has commissioned, some of which are available online (scroll all the way down).
“I think it will be clear that there is no impact on the community by virtue of what we’re proposing,” he said. RioCan has done surveys, he said, and they all point to the same conclusion: “The results of those surveys are quite remarkable in their defence of our position that there’s a huge exodus of dollars that leave the community. People who get in their cars to go shopping because either, A) they can’t afford to shop in Kensington Market, or B) they get goods that aren’t available in Kensington Market.”
That’s Robins’ pitch: no impact, no difference. Though the only way to put his studies and surveys to the test would be to build the Walmart and see what happens—which of course would be fine with RioCan. And if the outcome isn’t quite as promised, no backsies.
And then there’s also the classic developer’s argument.
As Robins put it: “First of all, the area—what I call the Bathurst Street corridor—is, unfortunately, I’ll say, not pleasant to look at today.”
“We believe the area is significantly underserviced by retail today. And that position has been confirmed by the variety of retailers, none of whom are currently located within the vicinity, all of whom wish to locate on this site along the Bathurst corridor.”
So, the market wants what it wants. In this instance, though, there’s also the Market to consider.