A New Lease on Life for 234 Augusta
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A New Lease on Life for 234 Augusta

234 Augusta today. Photo by Steve Kupferman/Torontoist.

Phil Pick does not enjoy being called a villain. Wait, which Toronto publication was it that described him that way, again? Oh, right. It was us.
“That was totally inaccurate,” said Pick during a phone call last week. “Somebody took it upon themselves to disparage me.”
Pick, avuncular on the phone, is Kensington Market’s predominant commercial realtor. He works for Yorkville-based real estate brokerage Esbin Realty.
Phil Pick represents several landlords with properties throughout Kensington Market, but his notoriety and infamy stem almost entirely from a public relations faux pas he committed in fall 2008 with a single storefront: the former J & J Fruit Market, at 234 Augusta Avenue.

In the thirteen-hundred-square-foot space in Kensington Market—a neighbourhood with so many small and independent coffee shops within two blocks that a person could feasibly drink at a different one every single day of the week without even dramatically altering his or her walking route—Pick would have installed a Starbucks. He admitted as much to the Post‘s Adam McDowell, after the deal had already fallen through as a direct result of rumours and negative publicity, which included an anti-Starbucks petition, a “We ♥ Our Local Cafés” flyering campaign, and an indignant phone call to Starbucks corporate headquarters by local city councillor Adam Vaughan.
Even after it was known that Starbucks wouldn’t be taking over the property, Pick’s signs still hung outside the vacant 234 Augusta storefront. There remained a possibility that a national or international corporate lessor would try to move in.
About two weeks ago, the controversy gained an undramatic coda. Pick’s signs were quietly removed from the windows and were replaced by those of Robert Escoe, of the brokerage City Commercial, who says that he’s considering local businesses exclusively (“to keep people happy”). Phil Pick no longer has anything to do with the property that earned him his shiny black helmet and breathing apparatus.
“I presented offers to the landlord that were unacceptable,” said Pick. “His expectations are high.” Asked if these unacceptable offers included Starbucks, Pick said yes, but that he’d also tried to interest the owners in local tenants, some of whom are now settled elsewhere in the Kensington Market, at storefronts Pick manages for other landlords.
This turn of events has two implications, seemingly at odds with one another.

234 Augusta as it used to be. Photo by gbalogh, from the Torontoist Flickr Pool.

First of all, it demonstrates that a property’s realtor can influence rental outcomes. The only element that has changed here is Pick himself. Even 234 Augusta’s listed price remains the same: a whopping five thousand dollars per month for an increasingly run-down former fruit stand that only came on the market after its previous occupant was shut down by Toronto Public Health.
But the situation also demonstrates the falsity of the notion that Pick is in a position to single-handedly remake or ruin Kensington Market. Landlords have final right of refusal on any rental decisions relating to their properties.
Pick has become an easy target for contempt in cases where these decisions seem as though they aren’t being made with the necessary degree of sensitivity. This has much to do with the fact that his name is hanging in windows all over the neighbourhood. In reality, if a Starbucks did one day open somewhere in Kensington, the act of pointing fingers would defy human physiology. A person would have to be built like Krishna.
At least one of those fingers would have to point to Ontario’s retail rental market, which, by Statistics Canada‘s reckoning (as of December 2008), has been buoyed along by record consumer spending throughout the decade.
And there’s also the fact that many of the businesses leaving empty spaces in the Market have had long, full lives. Max and Son’s butcher shop on Baldwin Street, for instance, where the owner still sprinkles sawdust on the wood floors every single day, is now for sale. (The business, that is—not the property.) The agent is Phil Pick.

The reign of Phil. Photo by Steve Kupferman/Torontoist.

The reason Pick’s signs keep appearing on more and more properties in Kensington is that he’s good at what he does. He’s not villainous; he’s adhering single-mindedly to a solid business plan: make landlords happy (most of them, anyway) by renting old properties to stable new tenants, who will make repairs, build clientele, and then leave those properties more desirable than they found them.
That’s wise, and it’s safe—and therein lies Phil Pick’s image problem. Kensington Market is neither of those things. The neighbourhood as it exists today relies on a mesh of somewhat questionable business plans that work out beautifully almost in spite of themselves. Say, running your father’s small butcher shop well into the age of the megamart, for example. Or opening a French restaurant on a limited budget in a grungy neighbourhood, like Augusta Avenue mainstay La Palette’s owner, Shamez Amlani.
“The market value has gone up, for sure,” said Amlani. “I’ve been here for nine years, and my rent has tripled. We had certain rent locked in as part of the lease, and now it’s kind of wide open. And, increasingly, more out-of-shape, derelict properties are going for higher and higher rent.”
“Certainly, the business I started for twenty grand nine years ago…I couldn’t do that today.”
We asked Amlani if he thought the spate of new businesses opening in Kensington Market would ultimately improve the neighbourhood. “I think any new businesses starting up are welcome,” he said. “As long as it’s not a car dealership.”
234 Augusta’s new realtor has no plans to rent to anyone who would turn the property into a BMW showroom. Escoe told us that all his potential lessors are food-related businesses and that he hopes to bring in one that is already established somewhere else in the city and looking to expand into Kensington’s (trendy, pedestrian-friendly) core.
But no coffee shops, he said. The neighbourhood has enough of those already.

CORRECTION: JUNE 30, 2009 This article originally misidentified the Globe‘s Christopher Shulgan as the reporter with whom Phil Pick confirmed Starbucks’ desire to move into 234 Augusta Avenue, when Pick, in fact, revealed that information to the National Post‘s Adam McDowell instead.