06/04/2013 05:46 EDT

Walmart's Toronto Plan Raises Ire Of Kensington Market, Little Italy Residents


A Toronto resident has started a petition to keep Walmart from opening a location near two of the city’s most prominent, historic districts.

Shopping mall developer Rio-Can is planning a 130,000-square-foot mall for Bathurst Street on the western edge of the city’s downtown core, a few blocks away from both Kensington Market and Little Italy, that will feature Walmart as its anchor tenant.

Both neighbourhoods are known for their vibrant, locally-owned businesses, and residents are alarmed by the prospect of Walmart’s arrival.

City Councillor Adam Vaughan told The Toronto Star Walmart’s arrival would gut local businesses.

It’s something which must be fought at every single corner and on every single street,” he said. “We cannot allow this kind of big box retail to cannibalize and destroy the downtown core.”

Some 33,000 people have signed the petition started by Dominique Russell of Friends of Kensington Market, which urges Toronto’s City Planning Division to reject Walmart’s application to have the area rezoned.

“Everything I love about my neighbourhood is threatened by this proposal: the human scale of the streetscape, the skyline, its walkability, the local independent businesses that give Kensington Market and Little Italy their character,” Russell wrote in the petition, noting the size of the mall would make it “130 times larger than most of the stores on College and in Kensington Market.”

Opponents of the Walmart bid point out that the Arkansas-based retail chain has long been accused of -- and even prosecuted for -- predatory pricing. That’s the practice of setting prices on some goods at or below cost in order to drive smaller competitors out of business.

Rio-Can applied once before for a permit to build the Walmart-anchored mall, but the city rejected the plan last year, saying the zoning variances Rio-Can wanted won’t be enough, and the entire area would have to be rezoned. Rio-Can is now applying for that rezoning.

Rio-Can CEO Ed Sonshine told the Star the objections over Walmart ignore the fact there are many low-income residents in the area who would benefit from a low-cost retailer.

“There’s often this hair-trigger response when you hear the word ‘Walmart’ that I think, unfortunately, is often ideologically driven,” he said. “I think there’s this whole population that is perhaps being ignored by this sort of anti-Walmart frenzy.”

But city Councillor Mike Layton says the whole plan is wrong for downtown Toronto.

We don’t put big-box retail in the middle of areas with vibrant economies. And we don’t put car-dependent uses in areas with good public transit,” he told the Globe and Mail, adding that parts of the proposed mall plan are in “direct contradiction” with the city’s plans for the area.

Sonshine argues this will be neither your typical suburban Walmart or your popular suburban mall, with the building adapted for an urban environment.

“This will be a very beautiful building. This will not look like a Walmart,” he told the Star. “We think this is what fits with the neighbourhood.”

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