The young man at the microphone was the Jewish mother of community meeting participants. "When you guys go home tonight, are you gonna sleep okay?" he asked the developers, calmly and sweetly but leaving no doubt as to his soul-crushing intentions. "Because I'm gonna go home and sleep really well. Cuz I feel good about the things I do on a daily basis."
The qualities of Kensington Market cannot be summed up by one person or statement. But at the 300-strong public consultation on June 6 at College Street United Church, this man's combination of irony and sincerity, drama and nonchalance, pride and irascibility did a pretty good job of it.
RioCan has applied for a zoning amendment to construct a large retail complex, including 300 underground parking spaces, on the west side of Bathurst between College and Nassau. The anchor tenant, occupying the upper levels, would be a Walmart.
It's tricky to think of a Toronto word marriage more potentially button-pushing than "Kensington Walmart." (Perhaps "waterfront wall-of-condos"?) Each half of it is shorthand for such different things that the resulting conflict requires minimal elaboration.
They want to build a Walmart. Next to Kensington.
The problem isn't limited to Walmart itself, of course, though it has its own specific odour. (Christopher Levan, the church's minister, took the mic to call the company a "notoriously poor employer.") The issue is that any large-format retail space would almost certainly destabilize whatever balance currently prevails in the commercial components of the adjacent neighbourhoods.
RioCan, of course, argues that the new development would be serving demands that are not currently satisfied in the area, and that the shopping centre would therefore not compete with existing businesses. One of the many tensions in this planning exercise is whether city staff may be inclined to agree with them.
There's no consensus as to what might happen next. Or what might happen after that or after that. There's another public meeting July 9 at City Hall, and then staff is to produce a report with recommendations headed for community council.
There are several opportunities for negotiations or confrontations involving various combinations of residents, developers, City Hall and/or the Ontario Municipal Board. It's like a chess game where all the rooks have minds of their own and a checkmate can be vetoed by a quasi-judicial body.
Even the local councillors don't quite seem to be on the same page. Or maybe their juggling of carrots and sticks is all part of a honed routine.
Mike Layton (who represents the west side of Bathurst, where the property is) and Adam Vaughan (who represents the east side, where Kensington is) make an excellent good cop, bad cop double act. The former is amiable and idealistic, while the latter is hardened and cynical. At their best, they complement each other, an ego and id that together appeal to both reason and emotion.
It's a strategy that worked well when they led the fight against the American casino industry and the Ontario Lottery and Gaming Corporation (OLG). And Paul Godfrey, who made such a comically convenient arch-nemesis when he was chair of OLG, also happens to be the chair of RioCan, which saves the trouble of crafting a new villain from scratch.
Layton is all about hearing resident concerns and working together to shape a vision for that stretch of Bathurst. Vaughan is all fire and brimstone, warning the developers that "if Kensington Market is hurt, if it bleeds one drop of blood, it is on your good name."
Meanwhile, residents and businesses continue to organize on their end. By the time a petition was hauled into the meeting like so many letters to Santa, the "64,000" label affixed to it was already out of date.
And the event kicked off with a giant banner trotted out to the front of the sanctuary, artfully painted in a colourful graffiti style. "No Walmart. No Big Box. Respect the Official Plan."
It's doubtful the original New York hip-hoppers who developed the modern graffiti aesthetic in the 70s could have foreseen its being used to advocate adherence to planning principles.
But Kensington represents that sort of synthesis, and it will use whatever artistic and legal means necessary to defend itself.