Kensington Market Debates Street Closures
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Kensington Market Debates Street Closures

Kensington's community members are divided over banning cars more frequently than they already do.

A typical Pedestrian Sunday crowd. Photo by {a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/[email protected]/4546555910/"}Nicolai Grut{/a}, from the {a href="http://www.flickr.com/groups/torontoist/"}Torontoist Flickr Pool{/a}.

If there’s one thing about Kensington Market that will probably always stay the same, no matter what else changes there, it’s this: Everybody associated with the neighbourhood has very strong ideas about what Kensington Market is, or what it should be. This was especially apparent Tuesday night, in a community-centre gymnasium on Bellevue Avenue, where about two dozen Kensington dwellers met to discuss a proposal to close the neighbourhood’s streets to auto traffic more frequently.

Kensington Market already closes its streets to cars on the last Sunday of each month from May to October for its popular Pedestrian Sundays, which feature musicians and street performances. The new proposal is to make those Sunday closures a weekly occurrence, with less associated hoopla—no performers, just lots of relaxed, car-free shopping and dining in the open air. (The performers would be welcome only on designated festival days.) The City will be installing permanent gates, anchored to concrete planters, at some of Kensington’s major intersections, to obviate the need for neighbourhood organizers to rent barriers each time they want to keep drivers out. Yvonne Bambrick, the Kensington Market Business Improvement Area’s coordinator, said she believes the barriers will be installed whether or not road closures become a regular thing.

The rental savings will come in handy, because the City’s proposed 2012 budget will likely result in Pedestrian Sunday’s annual subsidy—approximately $12,000—being cut, along with small pedestrian-project grants for groups all over the city. To keep Pedestrian Sunday going, the market’s BIA will be making up the shortfall out of its own budget.

Marcus von Ierssel—who has owned a home in the market since 1996 and whose driveway intersects with Augusta Avenue, the neighbourhood’s main commercial thoroughfare—addressed the room. Every Pedestrian Sunday, he said, “there are 300 people between me and my driveway.” He complained of rude behaviour from attendees. “That’s not what I paid for when I bought my house,” he said. Needless to say, he’s not in favour of more-frequent road closures.

Others oppose the closures. Ozzie Pavao, owner of Casa Acoreana, a small cafe on Augusta Avenue, is one. “The people who make money on the streets [during Pedestrian Sunday] are the restaurants and the fast food outlets,” he told the room. Some businesses report decreased sales during Pedestrian Sundays. The glut of people overwhelms them and most of the visitors don’t make purchases other than food.

Mika Bareket, chair of the Kensington Market BIA and owner of Good Egg, a kitchen implements store on Augusta Avenue, said her business decreases by about a third on Pedestrian Sundays. And yet, she still supports more-frequent street closures.

“My sense is the reason we’re losing business is not because of the road closures. It’s because of the spectacle,” she told the room. “The critical mass.”

As development encroaches upon the market—two large retail projects are planned for sites along its borders—Bareket thinks an innovative approach to pedestrian traffic could help the neighbourhood avoid turning into nothing more than another bar-and-restaurant destination, like College Street.

“College Street is going to come to Kensington if we don’t do something like this,” she said.

Bambrick is the one responsible for taking all this community feedback and using it to refine the proposal. More-frequent closures aren’t a done deal until the community has signed off on them.

“I think it’s a unique opportunity,” said Bambrick in an interview. “And I think it will add value to an already incredibly eclectic, kick-ass neighbourhood.” Many pro-closure residents and business owners, she noted, were not at the meeting—to say nothing of the market’s legions of occasional visitors.

On his way out of the meeting, von Ierssel, the frustrated homeowner, took a moment to answer a question about why he’d moved into the market in the first place. “It’s got character and charm,” he said.

Everyone seems to agree on that much.

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