Over the last several months, a debate has raged across Toronto concerning the merits of a Walmart near Kensington Market. Developer RioCan plans to install a 12,000 square meter retail complex near the intersection of Bathurst and Nassau streets. The building will include several retail units: most notably, a two-storey Walmart. Kensington Market – a thriving community of local businesses – is only a few minutes’ walk from the proposed complex.
The public’s response to the proposal has been largely negative, with an online petition against it, created by the group Friends of Kensington Market, garnering more 87, 000 signatures to date. Certainly this petition reflects the views of many store owners within the market itself. “Nobody wants it here, nobody,” said Jack Sunbulian in an interview with The Varsity. Sunbulian has owned his store, Araz Impressions, for nearly thirty years, and feels his product – various flags from around the world – will not be threatened by the new retail center. “We’ll be fine, but others won’t be, and we’re a community. It’s not good for all of us.”
Elizabeth Manso, owner of local butcher shop Kensington Meats, agrees with Sunbulian. She believes it is possible that the additional parking and traffic generated by the new center could generate extra business for the market, but is unsure of how it will affect grocers and butchers such as herself. “I’m skeptical, I’m concerned that it will shut some businesses down,” she said, adding, “The meat shops, the cheese shops, the fresh fruit shops, that’s what’s gonna close down.” Manso believes that loyal customers would continue to support her and her business despite the opening of the big chain store. Her employee, Manuela Arajo, disagrees, “I may not, you may not, a few people from the market may not, but it’s convenience, and that’s who’s gonna shop there.”
Kensington Market also hosts a large student community due to its affordable housing and proximity to U of T’s St. George Campus. “I think it’s a terrible idea,” said Jess Shane, a University of Toronto student and Kensington resident. “It counters the long history of Kensington’s working-class roots — from the Jewish immigrants who came in the early 20th century to the Portuguese, then the American draft dodgers and Chinese immigrants, and, of course all the artists, activists, students. Kensington is such a special place in Toronto because it has an eclectic, underground, and non-corporate feel. Customers feel that when they buy from the independent shops, they’re supporting local business and mom-and-pop owned stores.”
The breaching of a local, unique setting with box stores is something that Shane doesn’t want to see occur in the area. “People aren’t just against Walmart, I think they’re just afraid that this will be the beginning of a corporate transformation that will destroy the market as we know it for good.”
Michael McGinnis, local resident and employee of Cheese Magic is against the project for a number of reasons: Not only does he feel the store would take business away from the store owners of Kensington but he is also particularly opposed to the entire Walmart chain itself for its low-quality products and poor employee treatment. When asked how he felt about students who wanted options for cheaper groceries, he responded: “Students need to learn to budget better and learn to value fresh produce — instead of buying bad quality products en masse, they can buy fresh produce in smaller amounts and have the same amount of food for the same price.” He also maintains that Kensington grocers offer prices for fresh vegetables similar to what a consumer would find in chains such as Loblaws or Walmart.
Not all students are dubious of the development’s potential benefits. Some students feel that Kensington Market, with its high-class artisan goods, is inaccessible to them, and that there aren’t enough grocery stores with affordable products in their area. Justin Lee, resident of the market and student at U of T, said that he doesn’t think the development will “make a huge difference,” noting that the new retail centre wouldn’t be in the market proper, but nearby. He went on to say that the market, while good for older, more talented cooks, isn’t necessarily geared towards students or student cooking. “I live in Kensington and I love it because it has a very lively atmosphere. The bars are always booming and the restaurants are kickass, but I’m not a huge fan of the actual “market” — I’m still a student and I don’t have time to cook gourmet stuff, you know?”
The city council has recently passed a one-year freeze on new retail on the Bathurst stretch where the proposed building would be built, so the question is currently at a standstill; nevertheless, Kensington residents, storeowners, and students alike will certainly have more to say when the subject is next up for discussion.