Last Sunday, protesters gathered to oppose a potential Loblaws location adjacent to Kensington Market. Tension in the neighbourhood has been running high since the monks at the Zen Budhist Temple put a very valuable piece of College St. real estate on the market. The rumour mill started buzzing in no time, and the news of a potential 15-storey condo development and Loblaws complex emerged shortly afterwards.
Kensington Market’s reaction to a Loblaws on its doorstep has been predictably vitriolic. Local residents and business owners want nothing to do with Loblaws, a corporate goliath ranked as Canada’s largest food distributor. The Market had a similar reaction in 2008 when Starbucks attempted to open a location on Augusta Ave. Residents made their voices heard, and Starbucks quickly abandoned plans for the new cafe (alongside a potential P.R. fiasco).
Given Kensington’s small-business culture, the Market has some reason for concern. Loblaws’ Maple Leaf Gardens location has impacted local businesses, and Kensington Market could very well find itself facing similar pressure.
Kensington Market is a special place to me. I spent my final university years living there, and I am a frequent visitor to this day. I visit the Market for sustainable seafood, knowledgeable butchers and good tattoos. I am far from a bona fide local, but I’ve spent enough time eating burritos in Kensington to get a pretty good feel for the place. The Market is a weird, wonderful corner of the city and I’d hate to see it hurt in any way.
Luckily, Kensington Market is a resilient neighbourhood that is no stranger to change. In all honesty, I can’t see the Kensington loyalists jumping ship any time soon. A neighbourhood Loblaws would certainly force some retailers to up their game. The dedicated and genuine retailers offering quality goods at reasonable prices will continue to thrive, but storefronts that get by on kitsch factor alone will feel the squeeze. There will be little room for substandard food or overpriced goods. And that’s not an inherently bad thing for those of us shopping regularly in the Market.
My knee-jerk, NIMBY reaction to this news had me cursing Loblaws. “Evil corporations sullying my beloved Kensington Market? Not on my watch!” I told myself.
The only problem with this line of thought? Loblaws is not really all that evil a corporation.
The grocery chain has a massive corporate footprint. That fact is hardly debatable. But Loblaws is also a Canadian success story and a leader in corporate social responsibility. Their Oceans for Tomorrow program promotes sustainable seafood on a national scale and their partnership with the Marine Stewardship Council has the potential to legitimately improve Canada’s food-supply system. Loblaws is a corporate giant, but as far as I can tell, they are a corporate giant intent on conducting business ethically.
In other words, a Kensington Market Loblaws is far from ideal, but it wouldn’t be the end of Kensington as we know it.
What is for certain, though, is a large-scale development in one form or another. 297 College St. is a sizable piece of property, and there won’t be any mom-and-pop-style operations putting up the kind of money the developers are after. Chances are Kensington Market will be welcoming a new corporate neighbour in the near future. As far as corporate neighbours go, you could stand to do a lot worse than Loblaws. Just be thankful we’re not talking about a new Kensington Market Walmart.
As for the proposed condo development? Well, that’s got bad news written all over it.