By Daniel Ross
A few dozen locals braved the cold on February 16th to march in the streets of Toronto’s iconic Kensington Market. They were protesting plans to open a big-box supermarket in the neighbourhood. Developer Tribute Communities plans to break ground soon on a condo development on College Street—just east of the market’s northern entrance—that will include a 20,000-square foot Loblaws store.
Demonstrators from the group Friends of Kensington Market fear that Loblaws will damage the community by driving the small shops that give the market its character out of business. As they marched down Augusta Ave., the Friends held signs reading “No Loblaws No” and “Save Small Kensington Businesses”. In an interview with the CBC, market shop owner Anna Cecilia Espinoza worried that the arrival of big retail could spell the end of small businesses like hers. A “Save Kensington” petition has since been started on Activism.com. News of the development comes at a time of acute insecurity about how rising property values are changing the area (by bringing in more chain stores, higher rents, etc.). The recent closure of local café Casa Acoreana has led some to speculate that the area has reached a “tipping point” for gentrification.
Recently, my own research has led me to read about community responses to urban planning and development in Toronto in the 1960s and 1970s. I’ve been struck by the degree of success of certain downtown communities during that period at organizing and having their voices heard on projects that threatened their homes and neighbourhoods. One was Kensington Market.
This post fits the Loblaws protest into a larger history of people in Kensington speaking up about the market’s future. In the 1960s shop owners and residents organized to have their say in neighbourhood planning. While they weren’t able to follow through on many of their own plans to improve the area, they did set up an innovative community-based planning model, and blocked or altered several projects that would have dramatically changed the neighbourhood. Today’s Kensington owes a lot to those efforts to keep the area’s character intact. And that may be one of the best arguments for taking opposition to big-box retail in Kensington Market seriously.
The area that is now Kensington Market acquired its eclectic, bohemian vibe through more than a century of change. The influential Denison family owned most of the land that is now Kensington before it was subdivided in the 1850s. Since then, several waves of immigrants—first British, but soon followed by Jewish, Portuguese, Caribbean, Chinese and others—have occupied the area. Small family shops dotted several blocks in the area’s south-east, giving the market an Old World feel and encouraging a sense of community among its diverse, but mostly poor or working-class, residents. By the 1970s the area was famous throughout Canada as the inner-city “ethnic” neighbourhood par excellence, in part because of the popular CBC sitcom The King of Kensington. From the sixties onwards it also became known as a destination for the counterculture, attracting students, artists and other hip residents. As property values rose, those populations mixed with recent immigrants. Family groceries now sit side-by-side with coffee shops, used-clothing stores, art galleries, and, more recently, a few higher-end boutiques, restaurants and bars. The area tends to be a hit with tourists visiting the GTA, and monthly summer Pedestrian Sundays have become a big draw.
Like all of downtown Toronto, the market has changed drastically since it first became a neighbourhood. But one constant over the past fifty years has been area’s ability to mobilize against unwanted change. It began in the early 1960s, at the apogee of Toronto’s wave of postwar urban renewal. Politicians, bureaucrats and developers planned a series of large-scale, capital-intensive projects to cope with population growth, reduce the city’s housing shortage and help reshape Toronto into a world-class city. Such plans included subway and expressway expansion as well as the removal of dozens of blocks of housing to make way for apartment towers and townhouses. Kensington Market was one area singled out for transformation. Planners cited its poor housing stock, unclean streets, and traffic congestion problems as reasons for redevelopment. As early as 1962, the city produced an abortive plan for rerouting and pedestrianizing several of its streets, receiving cautious support from local businesspeople.
That utopian plan for cleaning up Kensington never got off the ground. Instead, over the next decade a number of less-desired projects threatened to eat piece-meal into Kensington’s housing stock and community. The Spadina Expressway, proposed to link Highway 401 to downtown, was the most infamous. If built, it would have radically transformed Spadina Ave. into a thoroughfare rather than a destination.
But there were other threats. South of Kensington, several blocks of houses in the Alexandra Park neighbourhood (now home to the Atkinson housing Co-op) were slated for demolition by the mid-1960s. Planners discussed including parts of Kensington in that project. Meanwhile, several public institutions had plans for enlarging their footprints in the market. The Provincial Institute of Trades on Nassau St. (later George Brown College, now Kensington Lofts) was eager to acquire more room for students from 1968 on, and Toronto Western Hospital was preparing for a $37-million expansion that included a large parking facility. A third threat to the neighbourhood’s character came from the development of a vacant, 52,000-square foot site on College St. between Bellevue and Lippincott. From 1967 until 1970, a series of plans for that lot—including two towers housing 950 apartment units—threatened to dramatically reshape the neighbourhood.
In response to these individual projects and a general sense that city planners wanted to destroy Kensington by improving it, local residents and shop owners organized. In fall 1967 the Kensington Market Businessmen’s Association (KMBA) was joined by the new Kensington Area Residents’ Association (KARA) as advocates for the area.
Over the next few years, the KARA and KMBA overcame internal conflicts and worked together to represent the market’s interests and present a new vision for its future. They adamantly opposed single-use development of any part of the area, and dug in their heels on the issue of institutional encroachments on housing stock. Instead of tower apartments, they proposed that the College St. site be developed with recreation space, a nursery school, and mixed housing, and that provisions be made for residents forced from their homes. The idea of a pedestrian mall was revived, along similar lines to the 1962 plan. To solve the problem of getting stock to market businesses, they proposed building a multi-story distribution centre in the market which would centralize area deliveries and ease traffic congestion.
In addition to these counter-proposals, organized Kensington residents championed a process for neighbourhood planning based on extensive community consultation. Suspicious of city planners’ raze-and-build attitudes, they wanted their voices to be heard on every decision related to the area. They found allies among some members of Toronto’s city council at a moment when citizens across the city were pushing back against modernist planning. The result was something new. A group called the Kensington Urban Renewal Committee (KURC) was formed, and given control over the planning process for the area. The KURC brought together two city councillors with representatives of the KBMA, the anti-expressway Spadina Businessmen’s Association (SBA), and the KARA, which had the largest representation on the committee.
The KURC functioned until 1970. The results of this dynamic period of neighbourhood mobilization were largely positive. The hospital’s expansion occurred in consultation with its neighbours, and George Brown’s campus did not grow at the expense of local shops and houses. Meanwhile, the plan for single-use apartment towers on College St. was defeated. Instead, the lot was acquired by the Toronto Board of Education (TBE). Following the lead of the KURC, the TBE conducted an exhaustive consultation process with locals—the first of its kind—resulting in a project (the Kensington Community School) that had widespread neighbourhood support. On the other hand, pedestrianization and other solutions to overcrowded streets remained elusive, and the KARA and KMBA were not able to maintain neighbourhood unity beyond the early 1970s. Nonetheless, the consultations surrounding the KURC and the TBE’s work in Kensington broke new ground in terms of community involvement in city planning.
Flash forward to the present. What the Kensingtonians I’ve spoken to want above all to stop Loblaws from muscling in on the market, and in this respect their mobilization echoes protests in 2008 against a proposed Starbucks on Augusta Ave. But as I was told by Dominique Russell, a long-time area resident, they also hope to contribute to a bigger, citywide conversation about how to implement mixed-use development. Retail at grade (street level) is the name of the game in condo development in downtown Toronto, since zoning requires most new developments to be mixed use. This is based on the assumption that a healthy streetscape has to be diverse both in its functions and the people it attracts to develop a sense of community. However, recently condo developers seem to be teaming up with big retailers—Shoppers Drug Mart, Loblaws, Starbucks—to produce a very cookie-cutter kind of development. A great piece by Jake Schabas on Spacing.ca goes into more detail about why that is happening and what’s wrong with it. The result is that while new condo developments provide mixed-use, many don’t allow for any sense of individuality or community space.
The Friends of Kensington Market don’t oppose condo development—in fact they think densification is inevitable. But like their counterparts in the 1960s and 1970s, they want it to contribute to, not harm, Kensington’s unique sense of community. In Dominique Russell’s words,
the problem of the corporatizing of our main streets isn’t going away, and it’s playing out in neighbourhoods across the city. My hope is that the defense of Kensington market starts a conversation about what “retail at grade” actually means,—and right now it’s big corporations—and possibly a rethink of the city plan that is in fact suburbanizing the downtown, so that Toronto will no longer be a “city of neighbourhoods.”
As this post has shown, there is a long history of Kensington Market residents thinking in just this way about development, community, and the place of their neighbourhood in the city. Both Tribute Communities and Loblaws should take the time to listen to their concerns.
Jean Cochrane, Kensington (Erin, ON: Boston Mills Press, 2000).
Douglas Rigby, Citizen Participation in Urban Renewal Planning; A Case Study of an Inner City Residents’ Association (PhD Thesis, University of Waterloo, 1975).
John Sewell, The Shape of the City: Toronto Struggles with Modern Planning, 2nd ed (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1993).
Jennifer Lyn Shaw, Resistance amid Disorganization: Understanding the Nature of Community Organizing in Toronto’s Kensington Market (MA Thesis, University of Toronto, 2005).
Daniel Ross is a PhD candidate in history at York University. His research focuses on the 1960s and 70s, and he is currently studying the history of cycling activism in Canadian cities. He blogs at historiandanielross.com.