Photo by Ben Spurr.
First Parkdale, now Kensington Market?
The historic downtown enclave of vintage clothing stores, cheese shops and, increasingly, jam-packed patios, could become the next target of a new strategy to control the growth of nightspots in Toronto.
On Tuesday, the Toronto and East York Community Council approved a plan to put a cap on the number of restaurants and bars on Parkdale's trendy Queen West strip. Councillor Adam Vaughan liked the idea so much he moved a motion to study a bar limit in Kensington Market as well.
Both the Parkdale proposal and the Kensington study still need to be approved by council, but Vaughan believes that placing a limit on the number of drinking and eating establishments in the beloved Kensington district could save it from losing its unique character.
His main concern is the dwindling number of greengrocers in the area, which is also under pressure by controversial proposals to build a Loblaw's and Walmart nearby. For decades Kensington thrived off its fruit and vegetable stalls, fishmongers, and meat markets, but the food sellers are disappearing.
"It's not Kensington Entertainment District. It's Kensington Market. And when the food providers are being chased out... we have to take a look at how we balance and protect one of the most cherished neighbourhoods in the country," says Vaughan, whose ward includes the market district.
The Parkdale study recommended limiting bars and restaurants there to 25 per cent of storefronts, but Vaughan thinks Kensington might need a different target.
"I have no idea what the cap would be. I think we need to study it," he says.
Because the province is responsible for granting liquor licences, the cap would apply both to licensed establishments like bars and unlicensed establishments like cafes. If council approves the study next month, the results will go before community council on November 19.
But the proposal may have come too late, according to the owner of one of the few remaining greengrocers left in Kensington. The man, who didn't want to give his name for fear of drawing the ire of his neighbours, recalls that when he set up shop in 1978, there were 30 produce sellers, 20 fish shops, and several butchers in the area. But the crowds of tattooed young people who frequent Kensington these days aren't interested in buying fresh food, he complains, and today only a half-dozen mom and pop groceries are left.
"It's finishing up. It's dying. It will never come back," he says of the old Kensington, as he restocks a crate of asparagus. "No profit whatsoever to keep the place running. Zero profit."
With frustration audible in imperfect English, the grocer says that he can no longer afford to hire staff and has to do all the work of the store himself, including driving the truck to pick up fresh goods, stocking the shelves, and working the register.
"The city should come and make this as a market, if they want to keep it as a market," he says. "It's a culture, you're losing it. It [does] not exist in all Canada."
According to Mike Shepherd, the death of the greengrocers would also be bad news for the same restaurants that are pushing the food sellers out. Shepherd, who owns the Big Fat Burrito on Augusta Ave. and also chairs the Kensington Business Improvement Association, says it was access to fresh produce and fish that attracted restaurateurs to the area in the first place.
The market has "unique products that come in from around the world," Shepherd says. "You have that owner/operator in there that cares about what he's selling, that understands what he's selling, knows the flavour, knows how to prepare it properly."
The run on restaurants and bars is also making life difficult for existing business-owners by driving up property values, Shepherd says. His rent has increased 200 per cent in the eight years he's been in the neighbourhood.
Shamez Amlani tells a similar story. He opened up a French bistro, La Palette, on Augusta in 2000. Over the next ten years he says he saw his rent quadruple, so he relocated to Queen Street where it was half as cheap.
Still a Kensington resident and also member of the BIA, Amlani agrees that something needs to be done to stop preserve the market, but he's concerned a 25 per cent limit on restaurants could backfire.
The limited slots in the market would become so valuable that eventually low-key watering holes would be bought out by high-end establishments, he warns. That wouldn't "do anything to stop Kensington Market from becoming fucking Yorkville."
One of the newest additions to the neighbourhood's bar scene is Rachel Conduit, who opened up Handlebar in August. She supports striking a balance between bars and other uses, but admits that if the city had imposed a cap on drinking places before she got her place off the ground she would not have been pleased.
"I would have been piiiiiissed!" she intones as she sets up chairs on Handlebar's sun-soaked patio. If the cap had been imposed after she had sunk money into her place but before she got a liquor licence, "I would have been bankrupt," she says.
Conduit realizes that bars may have disrupted Kensington's pre-existing equilibrium in recent years, but she recalls that not too long ago the neighbourhood wasn't safe to walk in after dark. At least the nightlife has brought more "eyes on the street."
"As much as it's easy to paint bars as a villain, they are start-up businesses that are trying to contribute to the neighbourhood, at least the good ones are," she says. "So you employ people, you do volunteer work in your community. I'm just an entrepreneur trying to make a dollar."