For more than a decade gentrification has threatened, and Kensington Market, the bohemian enclave off Spadina, has valiantly resisted the winds of development change. Condos have gone up on the Market's fringes, particularly along Spadina, but the charming ramshackle Victorians, low rents and hip clientele have remained.
The city has been quietly pushing rejuvenation plans, including offering area businesses grants to refurbish their storefronts, but the concrete-and-glass invasion has been held at bay.
It's an unlikely urban tale given the development pressures that have been placed on historic and more established neighbourhoods in the city.
Now it looks like residents pushing a more pedestrian-friendly vision may get their biggest wish - a totally car-free Market.
The issue's been a hot topic ever since the Kensington Market Action Plan (KMAP) created a working group of city staff and market community members back in 1997 with the goal of revitalizing Kensington streets and buildings.
The recent Harvest Festival held in the neighbourhood proved that the Market can be hip, happening - and most importantly for area businesses - profitable without the cars.
The festival dress rehearsal, part of a city proposal to start testing car-free weekends in certain areas of the city, packed the streets.
"I'm hoping that after having seen the Market full of lights and energy and free of cars, all the fence-sitters will come on board," says Shamez Amlani, owner of La Palette bistro on Augusta and co-founder of Streets Are for People, a group that's been pushing the car-free alternative.
Amlani says that Streets Are for People's research indicates that 40 per cent of merchants are in favour of a car-free Kensington.
The city says it's willing to look at the proposal, but on one condition - that at least 50 per cent of the merchants are in favour.
But not so fast, say more-established shop owners in the area, which is still reeling from the 30 per cent decrease in business caused by construction of the Spadina LRT. Those customers are only now returning.
Opponents of the plan also point out that car-free areas have been successful in Europe when the areas are more homogeneous in nature - that is, made up almost entirely of restaurants and bistros.
"They're the kind of places where people go to be seen," says Cristina Enrietti-Zoppo, chair of the Kensington Market Action Committee (KMAC). "They benefit from people travelling by foot. Others would not."
Kensington is more mixed, says Enrietti-Zoppo, which makes shutting the area off to car traffic more problematic for shops that rely on customers coming from outside the area who buy the specialty meat, cheese and produce.
That's why Larry Leider, vice president of European Quality Meats and Sausages, the largest employer in Kensington, is staunchly opposed. He says making Kensington car-free will only disrupt businesses. Leider says that, on average, about eight truckloads of meat are delivered to his store every day. Each truck can take up to an hour and a half to unload.
About 10 years ago, he tried to solve the problem by purchasing a house behind Quality Meats. He planned to knock it down and build shipping docks, but the city denied permission because of concerns about dwindling housing stock in the area.
Leider's willing to compromise - making Kensington car free on Sundays only, when merchants won't be so affected. But he warns that a totally car-free Kensington will scare businesses away.
"I see us seriously walking. People want convenience. If we stop making it convenient, people will go somewhere else. It's going to be another nail in the coffin."
The economic fallout more recently from SARS and mad cow, which hit Kensington particularly hard because of its proximity to Chinatown, has only made area businesses more wary.
The prospect of businesses pulling out opens another can of worms - the gentrification feared by the same people who are pushing pedestrianization. Ron Keeble, a professor of urban planning at Ryerson University, says the latter scenario is a possibility.
Any time a neighbourhood or business has been forced to make significant changes - instead of creating change themselves - one of two things happens, he says. Either businesses fail and get wiped out, or the cultural and more organic businesses get replaced with things like Starbucks and McDonald's.
In other words, if Kensington is forced to pedestrianize, the very thing that makes it unique - the cultural, grassroots appeal - might be threatened. Says Keeble, "It's the sheer will of the community that will sustain this over time."
He believes Kensington's diverse business mix is no reason to abandon the idea of pedestrianization.
He says an area with similar characteristics in Galway, Ireland, has adopted a partially car-free existence. In the morning, deliveries are allowed to come and go at will, but in the afternoon and evenings poles rise from the ground to block traffic.
"Over a period of time they discovered businesses ended up with more trade... particularly if the municipality provides more parking," Keeble says.
Local councillor Olivia Chow is optimistic. She says less vehicular traffic will increase pedestrian traffic in the Market. "Most people know when they get into Kensington by car that they can't really go far," she says.
Adds Dan Egan, the city's manager of transportation, "It's about making a place that's attractive, vibrant and financially successful."