The wolves are at the door! No, actually, they?re in the room with us. This is the sentiment of most of the 80 or so merchants and residents of Kensington Market gathered at a meeting October 17 at the invitation of their councillor, Adam Vaughan.
The first guests of the evening here at the Kensington Lofts on Nassau are local developer Lorne Gertner and his associate from SMC Alsop Architects, Caroline Robbie. Gertner, an investment banker and small-scale developer, tells us how much he loves Kensington Market, how his father and grandfather both had stores here, and how he's concerned that unfettered development will change the "energy" of the neighbourhood.
He appears to have interests in the area between Bathurst and Spadina from Queen to College (basically Alexandra Park and Kensington Market). He assures us, "We have nothing planned. We're just kicking around ideas." (Later, when I ask him what properties he actually owns, he responds, "Sorry, no comment.")
He describes how this development process started: on a walk through the Market with English architect Alsop (designer of the new OCAD building), he asked Alsop to paint his artistic impressions of the neighbourhood as a way to get people talking. It worked.
Hands start to fly up around the room. 'So what are your plans?'
"As I said, we have nothing planned. We are trying to initiate a process to work with the community to develop something both economically feasible and environmentally and artistically friendly."
'But the Market is unique. You shouldn't change it.'
"That's why we're trying to develop a process to keep the community engaged in any future developments."
'You are going to turn Kensington into Yorkville! "
Had we been in the street, I'm sure tomatoes and fish heads would have been hurled through the smog.
Vaughan explains the challenges facing the area. There are a lot of vacant properties in Kensington. Many older owners may soon be looking to sell. "We need to build a planning process that involves the community from the beginning, a way to protect what needs to be protected while making allowance for sustainable development. Change is inevitable. How can the community lead instead of follow?" Vaughan asks.
He says this is the reason he ran for council, to engage the community in development projects early and avoid the OMB.
So what steps can the community take? The designation of Kensington Market as a National Historic Site offers no protection. It just means Parks Canada can spend part of its budget telling tourists to come visit.
Vaughan would like to see a planning study go to council seeking designation of the Market as a Heritage Conservation District. This was done on Queen West between University and Bathurst and basically establishes guidelines of architectural character: brick instead of stucco, so much space for windows, etc.
But what is it, exactly, that we're trying to protect? How do you set guidelines to promote chaos? Vaughan points out that Kensington became a market when poor people started doing business from the front of their homes. "The ability to start a small business is precious, to survive off the space where you live, on your terms."
Gertner has to leave. He promises to open a storefront office in Kensington with an open-door policy. He wants the community to feel welcome to participate in the process of planning the neighbourhood's future. He exits to a mix of handshakes and grumbles.
With only a half-hour left, Vaughan introduces the next guests. Architect Leon Hui and his associate Keith Ly are in the midst of a development project in the alleyway area south of St. Andrew, between Kensington Avenue and Spadina.
Hui and his family have owned the property for 25 years. Their design has council's approval, but they've come to get feedback from the community before going further. (Cue the tomatoes and fish heads.)
But Johanna Wong, a homeowner on Glenn Baillie Place, is livid that her quiet little street (only 12 houses) is being turned into a thoroughfare. And Rob, a resident of Kensington Place, recognizes the drawings on display as exactly like the new condos at the north end of his street.
Yes, it's the same developer. All trust has flown out the window. Rob is steaming mad. "You built ugly stucco condos with no consultation. You're turning our street into a driveway for a bunch of expensive condos!"
But what's done is done. It's too late for Kensington Place; the eight ground-floor parking spots are already built. Here, we have a chance to stop it from happening again. The Glenn Baillie plan is for 45 double-occupancy units on three levels, with parking garages on the ground level, marketed to students (i.e., cheapish). The kicker is the 60 parking spots, some at street level and some underground.
Local resident and restaurateur Shamez Amlani offers his criticism. "What kind of street presence is that? Why not get rid of the parking and make street-level commercial space?"
City zoning bylaws require 1.5 parking spaces per unit (really? in downtown Toronto?). To change this, the developer will have to garner support from Vaughan and the community and apply to council for a variance exactly the kind of process Vaughan has been introducing for the last two hours.
Other ideas are thrown around: grey-water systems, green roofs, some bigger units for families. How about changing that ancient zoning bylaw?
Finally, Vaughan invites volunteers to join a heritage conservation committee to create guidelines for future developments. As I leave, Wong is chatting with Hui. Previously angry neighbours sharing constructive ideas. Nice work, Councillor.