Kensington Market fights for survival

Local councillor Joe Cressy calls the city’s efforts to preserve Kensington “unparalleled,” but rising rents and bylaw ­enforcement around building code violations have left a different smell in the Market


Walking down the street in Kensington Market with Patrick Morrison means pausing our conversation every few minutes while he exchanges pleasantries with practically everyone in sight. He’s an undeniable star of the neighbourhood.

Along with his part-time job as coordinator of the Kensington BIA, Morrison is one of the organizers of Pedestrian Sundays (he likes to call them “Pedestrian Sun Days”), the celebration of “community, culture and ecology” held monthly from May to October. Employed by the BIA’s board, Morrison is the go-to guy in Kensington when problems arise.

Lately, those have been about the rising cost of land, and new landlords pricing out long-time tenants.

Tensions boiled over this past summer when residents came together to oppose Claude Bitton, owner of CB Holdings, who bought five properties on Kensington Place in June and who tenants say tried to “intimidate” them into leaving by hiking their rents. As a result, Flashback, one occupant, will have to close. But others in the buildings, which have been used as live-work spaces, are vowing to stay. 

Bitton, for his part, denies intimidating tenants. He tells NOW he was reclaiming property from renters who couldn’t prove they lived there. 

He says he’s charging market rates, and those who can’t afford them should look elsewhere.

Although residents are worried about those properties turning into condos, Bitton says he is not a developer and has no plans for any construction beyond repairing what’s already there

“Everyone’s been feeling the pressure,” says Morrison.

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Tanja-Tiziana

Demographics in the Market have been changing ever since Jewish immigrants from the Ward moved into the area west of Spadina in the 1930s. Kensington has been prone to change and evolution as different waves of immigrants set up shop and added to the eclectic mix in the neighbourhood some call the heart of Toronto. 

Still, the Market has remained a place for small businesses and misfits, able to resist rapid development and the gentrification that inevitably follows.

David Beaver, who runs Wanda’s Pie in the Sky, says Kensington is a place for “anarchists, gang members and artists.” He calls the area “the heart and jewel of Toronto,” but he’s also worried about it becoming “antiseptic.”

With a growing number of condos and mixed-use developments under construction or proposed on its borders, and a long-term study conducted by the city in 2013 showing restaurants now outnumber raw grocers in the Market – call it gentrification through the back door – the script has been flipped. 

“You hear a lot of talk about the Manhattanization of Toronto,” says Morrison. “But what about the Toronto-ization of Toronto?”

A study initiated by the city to develop zoning bylaws in response to the growing number of restaurants was supposed to deliver its recommendations in 2013. But that’s been delayed until another city proposal to study designating Kensington a Heritage Conservation District (HCD) is completed sometime next year.

At a recent meeting of the BIA, Pouria Lotfi, who runs Cafe Pamenar, posed the question being asked with increasing urgency by businesses and residents: “How do you preserve the character, the diversity and the nature of the Market?”

Abi Hod, owner of Hot Box Cafe, has been in the Market for 20 years. 

“When I first discovered it, it was this crazy, weird place,” she says. But now she doesn’t experience “the many smells of Kensington.” Grocers made way for more upscale restaurants, and “the grittiness has disappeared.”

Hod has experienced the effects of gentrification first-hand. When Jimmy’s Coffee moved into the building her business occupied on Baldwin in 2012, Hod says she was given two weeks to gather her belongings and move out. “It’s not the city,” she says. “It’s the landlords.”

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Local councillor Joe Cressy has taken over some of the work started by former long-time councillor Adam Vaughan, now Liberal MP for the area, more than a decade ago to help preserve Kensington’s character. To that end, Cressy says every planning tool available is being used to protect the Market. He calls the effort “unparalleled.”

“We’re building neighbourhoods, not towers,” Cressy says.

Besides plans to declare the area a Heritage Conservation District, which residents hope will mean more restrictions on development (studies of the surrounding College and Bathurst area have already recommended low-rise development and new buildings that blend into the current architectural style), Friends of Kensington, supported by the city, have been working on a land trust proposal.

A land trust is a way for an organization – most likely a non-profit or charity – to buy land for the purpose of conservation.

“We don’t want to freeze the Market in time we want to preserve a place that’s porous and open to vulnerable people, and that’s not going to happen through market forces,” says Dominique Russell, chair of Friends of Kensington Market.

She’s been working on the land trust for months, and it will be ready for a soft launch later this month. 

Affordable housing is one of the biggest goals, as is preserving local businesses. Parkdale has a land trust of its own, and the two organizations have been working together to set up Kensington’s version. Other ideas on the table from the city are tax credits for local businesses like green grocers to give them an incentive and the financial wherewithal to stay. 

But other parts of the city bureaucracy are working against the Market. It’s not just about new landlords pricing out old tenants. Bylaw officers have been acting on complaints about buildings not being up to code. Thirsty and Miserable, a local bar, had its front patio dinged for encroaching an inch onto city property. In another case, bylaw officers received complaints about umbrellas out in front of a business.

Cressy says the officers don’t go out looking for violations, but if someone calls one in they have to investigate.

It’s tricky to strike a balance between bringing all buildings up to code and making sure business owners aren’t shouldering crippling costs, to say nothing of rising rents.

“The price of rents has not allowed artists to move in or independent grocers to open,” says Hod.

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Photos by Tanja-Tiziana

Kensington Market

The explosion of marijuana dispensaries in the Market has helped revitalize the area.

“It brought back the creative entrepreneurship spirit of the neighbourhood,” she says. They attracted visitors who often stuck around to hang out on bar patios or get lunch. The Toronto police raids of marijuana dispensaries in May, known as Project Claudia, “murdered” the vibe, say Hod.

But even if marijuana is legalized, she’s not optimistic that it alone will fend off development incursions.

Cece Scriver, who runs the vintage store Courage My Love and whose family owns six properties in the neighbourhood, is more optimistic about Kensington’s future.

She says they’re not selling out. Part of what attracts her and her family to the area is that “you can walk down the street and not see any big corporations.”

Her father, Stewart Scriver, has lived in the Market for 40 years. 

“I love the Market,” he says. “It’s just the right amount of chaos to make life interesting. We may not all be friends, but we certainly have each other’s backs. We seem quiet and laid back, but don’t poke us.”


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Market anxiety

Mapping creeping gentrification in and around Kensington

1. 333 College and 303 Augusta 13-storey mixed-use building fronting onto College connected to a six-storey building fronting onto Augusta, with a total of 172 dwelling units and 97 spaces in three-level underground parking

2. 297 College 15-storey mixed-use condo development attached to City Market is nearing completion

3. 243 College 30-storey mixed-use development proposed

4. 245-255 College 25-storey student residence currently under construction

5. 484 Spadina 15-storey mixed-use development on historic Silver Dollar Room and Waverly Hotel sites was approved at the Ontario Municipal Board last year

6. 270 Spadina 10-storey mixed-use development

7. 571 Dundas West, 91 Augusta, 20 Vanauley Part of the 15-year Alexandra Park revitalization, the project consists of a total of 2,346 apartment units on 7-hectare site just south of the Market, with up to 5,700 square metres of retail. Plans call for three buildings facing Dundas, each consisting of a five-storey pedestal at street level, rising to 15 storeys further back.


Kensington rules

A brief history of the city’s efforts to protect the nabe 

The “market” area of Kensington Market, defined by the city as the quarter bordered by Dundas, Bathurst, College and Spadina, is designated for mixed uses in the Official Plan. 

Residential areas in Kensington are designated “neighbourhoods” and, according to the Official Plan, “intended for small-scale change that is complementary to the existing scale and form of development.”

An area-specific policy for the Market directs that new development “should be consistent with existing low-scale buildings with retail at grade, minimal setbacks and open-air display of goods.”

Current zoning bylaws restrict development to a height limit of “approximately” four storeys.

A special provision in the Official Plan limits the size of retail, restaurant “and similar uses” in the Market to ground level and a maximum size of 200 square metres.

In response to local concerns about the proliferation of bars and restaurants in Kensington, the city initiated a study in 2013 to review zoning bylaws and propose changes.

The Heritage Conservation District plan has put the city’s review of Market zoning bylaws on hold until next year. 

Get more from this week’s cover package here.

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