Will corporate giant Walmart be Kensington Market’s new neighbour?

There was shouting, jeering, audible spitting, and a standing room only crowd. It wasn’t long before people were turned away at the door, as the College Street United Church had quickly reached capacity. What draws a crowd like this to a humdrum community development consultation?

According to Councillor Adam Vaughan: nothing less than the potential “to do damage to the soul of Toronto.”

At issue? 410-446 Bathurst – a stretch of street just south of College and steps away from Toronto’s beloved Kensington Market – which the real estate investment firm RioCan hopes to develop into a three-storey retail complex, complete with a Walmart.

Prior to the June 6 meeting, a petition entitled “Don’t let a Walmart and a three-storey shopping mall destroy Kensington Market” had already received some 65,000 signatures (as of the time this report was published, it had nearly 80,000).

The spirit behind the petition’s success was immediately clear, not only because of the massive turnout, but because of the concerted outrage from participants. As RioCan representatives struggled through their brief presentation, they faced calls of “shame,” “what a bunch of crap,” and, during the question period, one local resident defied them to “look yourselves in the mirror.”

 “To build the city we want, and to build the neighbourhood we want, the neighbourhood we love, is to maintain the diversity of the local small businesses,” Councillor Mike Layton said to vigorous applause. Layton was echoing concerns that so-called big box retailers like Walmart would ruin the atmosphere of Kensington Market – known for its small, eclectic, independently owned shops.

Councillor Adam Vaughan, taking the stage to a cry of “be our mayor,” was a little more terse.

“I can tell you – not as a politician, but as a neighbour – that this project must be stopped,” he said.

Vaughan said he sees people all over social media “talking about the value of a walkable city.”

“People don’t walk to stores in a walkable city. They walk in neighbourhoods with stores, they walk in neighbourhoods with merchants, and those merchants walk in those neighbourhoods with their neighbours.”

“Multinational, big box retail is the antithesis of a walkable neighbourhood.” – Councillor Adam Vaughan.

One of those neighbourhood merchants in attendance was Martin Zimmerman, owner of Zimmerman’s Freshmart in Kensington. He told Swept he’s heard over half of Walmart’s sales are food related.

“And that’s exactly what Chinatown, Little Italy, and Kensington Market are all about,” he said.

Zimmerman was welcomed and applauded by the audience when he stood to address the developers in protest, but – as journalist Jonathan Goldsbie pointed out on Twitter that night – when Zimmerman first opened shop in 2005, he likewise drew the ire of those worried about maintaining the character of the market.

Zimmerman sells goods supplied by Loblaws, but he says that doesn’t make him big box.

“Just because you may be selling a corporate product, does not mean the store is corporately owned,” he said. “My store is privately owned, it’s been in the family for 60 years. If I do great, that’s lovely. If I falter, there’s no corporation behind me, I’m on my own.”

In spite of the significant rancour from residents, Jordan Robins, RioCan’s senior vice president of planning and development, is optimistic the company can work with residents and politicians to reach a solution.

“It was certainly an intense public meeting, but, you know it’s part of the process,” Robins said, in a telephone interview with Swept.

Robins said the purpose of the June 6 meeting was twofold: on the one hand, to listen to residents, and on the other, to explain what RioCan is both proposing and permitted to do.

Outside of Kensington Market proper, Robins says the site at 410-446 Bathurst has already been identified (or “zoned”) by the city for exactly the kind of retail use RioCan is proposing.

“A Walmart is permitted, as of right, today,” Robins said.

RioCan already had one proposal for the site denied by both the city, as well as the Ontario Municipal Board (which mediates disputes between the city and developers).

Robins said they now have a new proposal, seeking technical variances in height and size higher than zoning bylaws allow, which necessitates re-zoning by the city. RioCan performed a number of studies, which Robins said show the proposal will have no adverse impact on Bathurst Street traffic, or the nearby Kensington businesses.

In fact, Robins said the proposal will improve the area.

“Go drive down the Bathurst corridor. That is an area that needs improving. Period. End of story.” -  Jordan Robins, RioCan’s senior vice president of planning and development

“We have been approached by retailers – all of whom are not in the marketplace, but are interested in locating as part of this development because they recognize it is an area under-serviced by retail.”

Also, Robins said, RioCan is preparing an unreleased report, gauging Kensington Market shoppers’ buying habits, which he believes will show the Bathurst site will not have an impact on the market proper, because people go there for different reasons than they would for, say, a Walmart.

“Second, and more important: the people who shop at Kensington Market also do extensive – in fact, unbelievably extensive – amount of shopping outside of the area. In other words, they get in their car, and they go and drive to the Walmart in Dufferin Mall.”

Robins says the exceptions RioCan is asking for are usually a matter of course, non-substantive, and uncontroversial. So what’s the problem?

“It happened, because of the nature of the tenant, and some of the backlash, that it became controversial.”

The tenant, conditionally, being Walmart.

Certainly, Walmart was the name on everyone’s lips on June 6. While there were some at the meeting expressing concern with the proposed building’s size and shape, the traffic it might cause, and other technical concerns, those people were few. Most people spoke about Walmart: what it is, and why it doesn’t fit near Kensington.

One dapper looking man in a suit called it “tacky” and “outre.”

The meeting’s host, Christopher Levan, minister at the College Street United Church, said they are “a notoriously poor employer.”

One participant alluded to Walmart’s purported involvement in the tragedy in Bangladesh, where a garment factory collapsed, saying “this is a blight, not only on Kensington, but on the universe.”

All the same, Robins said he is still hopeful that with time and more discussion, the community and Councillor Layton will ultimately support the project.

In any case, concerned and/or curious Torontonians have a chance to hear the proposal, have their say, and make their decision, at a second consultation July 9 at Toronto City Hall.