A building at Baldwin Street and Augusta Avenue has become a focal point of anxiety over Kensington Market's future.
No stranger to controversy, Kensington Market is once again in the spotlight. Last month, several storefront units in a building at one of the neighbourhood’s key intersections—Augusta Avenue and Baldwin Street—went up for rent, and now Councillor Adam Vaughan (Ward 20, Trinity Spadina) is pushing the City to conduct a heritage study of the site. It’s a move that could put the brakes on plans to turn the intersection’s modest storefronts into new—and possibly upscale—retail.
In his written request for the study, which was approved by the Toronto and East York community council on April 9, Vaughan noted that this “prominent corner in the heart of Kensington Market” has been characterized for many years by the small retail floorplates of the businesses in the building (the property comprises several small storefronts at 235 Augusta Avenue and 200 to 206 Baldwin Street). He also wrote that part of the uniqueness of Kensington Market has been the area’s ability to act as an incubator for small businesses, and that this is possible as a result of affordable commercial rents.
“We’ve asked Heritage Services to examine it,” Vaughan told us, “to let us understand what changes should be prevented, and what changes might be possible on the site, but also to protect what is critically important infrastructure in the Market, which is small spaces that are start-up spaces.”
With the heritage study on the way, Vaughan thinks prospective tenants shouldn’t plan to make sweeping changes. He describes the building as “a significant cultural landmark in a neighbourhood that is one of the most prized possessions of the city.”
His concern is that a business may try to consolidate all the small storefronts into one, giant space. If the building were ultimately to be added to the City’s inventory of heritage properties, Vaughan hopes it would be protected from that and other types of changes, including relatively small ones, like the removal of benches from outside the property.
“If you’re Company X and expect to come in, re-brand, and demolish the interior of this building, you better think twice,” he said.
Phil Pick, a real estate agent described by Vaughan as “very aggressive,” is the listing agent for the property. According to Vaughan, Pick wants to turn the intersection into a high-end retail destination, which would mean evicting its current tenants.
For his part, Pick notes that none of the parties interested in the space at Augusta and Baldwin represent national businesses. He says that he, like Vaughan, is only trying improve the face of the Market. Contrary to the popular narrative, Pick says that he doesn’t see himself as being opposed to the councillor.
“Whatever the city can do [to preserve the heritage of the market] I’m all for,” Pick said. “As long as it doesn’t infringe on people’s rights to earn an income.”
While he says he’s in favour of preservation, Pick is concerned about the fact that heritage designations on buildings sometimes place limits on landlords’ abilities to rent properties to tenants of their choosing.
“The business of trying to control somebody who owns a property from doing what they want in their own property, I’m not that comfortable with that,” he said.
Kensington, he added, is an open marketplace, and when properties sell at market rates, the new owners need to get a return on their investment.
“Yes, the neighbourhood is maturing, but you’ve got to understand it’s a function of real estate in the heart of Toronto,” Pick said. “It’s become very valuable, and each year it goes up in value.”
“Ultimately it’s a function of real estate and supply and demand.”
To Pick, change in Kensington Market is a positive thing. He says new owners renovating their properties is good for the area, as it improves the overall environment.
“Because of that, you see less graffiti and less crime, because the tenants have a vested interest. Now when they see a kid walking down the street with a can of spray paint they say something.”
Vaughan doesn’t seem convinced by the free-market argument. He maintains that he’s trying to prevent the neighbourhood from being put at risk by, as he describes it, people who think that the real-estate market should dictate how Kensington Market grows.
“The Market shouldn’t be surrendered to market forces just because a certain real estate agent thinks Margaret Thatcher should run the world,” he said. “This is a unique and critically important piece of food infrastructure in the city, but it’s also a critical and unique piece of social infrastructure in the city, celebrated around the world for its existence.”