The battle between RioCan and the Kensington Market community over plans for a new retail complex in the area continues, with RioCan appealing to the Ontario Municipal Board (OMB) against the one-year construction freeze imposed by City Council.
In May, RioCan revealed plans to build a three-storey retail complex on the corner of Bathurst Street and Nassau Street, located on the edge of Kensington Market. The proposed building will include three levels, two of which will be occupied by Walmart, as well as an underground parking lot. RioCan’s proposal was immediately met with significant opposition from residents all over Toronto, most of which were specifically concerned with the negative impact a “big-box” retailer like Walmart would have on small businesses, residents, and the culture of the unique Toronto neighbourhood.
Following the strong response from the community, city councillors Mike Layton and Adam Vaughan proposed an interim control bylaw on Bathurst Street, extending from Dupont Street down to Queen Street West, on July 19. The control will prevent any new retail developments for one year. The proposal was passed by City Council, and as a result RioCan’s proposed retail complex has been put on hold as the city conducts studies of the area. However, RioCan announced earlier this week that they are appealing to the OMB, which has the power to overturn City Council’s decision.
Dominique Russell leads Friends of Kensington, a group dedicated to fighting the proposed development. She started a petition against RioCan’s proposal, which has gathered over 89,000 signatures. Russell characterized RioCan’s response to the by-law as not at all surprising: “RioCan’s appeal speaks so strongly that they just don’t care. They’ve said they’re listening and want to work with neighbours and businesses, but that has been proven to not be true,” she said. When it was announced that the area would be free from any retail developments for a year, many felt a sense of relief, she explains. “Some of our momentum was lost both over the summer and the assumption that it had been solved,” she explained.
In July, Friends of Kensington started an online crowdfunding campaign through Projexity, a website similar to Kickstarter. The project intends to use the money towards third-party traffic and market studies, as well as legal representation costs. “The crowdfunding was a response to the concern that if the city and the OMB are relying entirely on Riocan’s evidence, then they are not necessarily going to get the most objective view.”
Russell went on to explain, “Communities have a disadvantage, so the crowdfunding is to counterbalance the money that Riocan has to throw at this and get these studies done. We looked at the initial studies and they don’t correspond to the realities of people that live there.” The campaign aims to raise $120,000, and as of Sunday, it has fundraised over $23,000. For Russell, the next step is to keep the issue in the public eye in the hope that it will “roll out a really strong and unified message that all these different parts of the city are against this.”
U of T students who reside in Kensington have also expressed their concerns regarding how a Walmart would impact the neighbourhood. Tom Mahoney, a fifth-year student who has lived in Kensington for two years, says, “Walmart is super-convenient, which is a benefit; but in terms of what it means to the area, I think it’s a travesty…[Kensington Market] gives a cultural heart to the city.”
Recent U of T graduate Norhan Haroun, who lives in Kensington, expressed a similar view, saying that while Walmart is convenient, it diminishes the unique character of neighbourhoods where stores are built: “They create this kind of generic feel to the area which you expect in every area they are located in.”
While some students would prefer to preserve the characteristic neighbourhood over convenience, fourth-year student Mrinalini Dayal thinks otherwise, “Despite going to Kensington Market regularly for groceries and eating out, I still see the advantages of opening a Walmart nearby. As a student, convenience is the most important thing for me.”