'It's a living history': Why the city slapped a surprise 1-year freeze on demolitions in Kensington Market

A surprise one-year moratorium on demolitions in Kensington Market is aimed at protecting any potentially historically significant buildings from being torn down while the city works to have the entire area designated a heritage district.

Councillors move to protect neighbourhood while staff studies making it a heritage district

Kensington Avenue with it's mix of Victorian homes and eclectic businesses is considered part of a unique area of the city. Toronto staff want it declared a Heritage Conservation District. (Barry Smith/CBC)

After city council voted 39 to 1 this week in favour of a one-year freeze on building demolitions in Kensington Market, Coun. Joe Cressy said there was a reason why he introduced the motion with so much stealth.

Cressy, who represents Ward 20, Trinity-Spadina, says he didn't want to touch off a rush to tear down buildings in the neighbourhood while city staff study the idea of designating it a heritage district. 

"If we were to announce publicly that we are about to implement the demolition freeze, buildings could've been demolished," he said.

Tom's Place is one of the iconic businesses in the community. (Barry Smith/CBC)

He says there have been cases where developers "beat the clock" and tore down buildings that potentially had historical significance before they are officially protected.

"So we've put in place the one year demolition freeze, which gives us that protection as we finalize and implement new heritage policies," Cressy explained.

He says there was a real risk of losing a lot of the history in Kensington Market before a study of the area was finished.

Since the neighbourhood was designated for consideration under the Ontario Heritage Act in 2015, four of six applications for demolition permits were given the go-ahead, along with dozens of variance applications on commercial and residential properties.

University of Toronto professor Siobhan O'Flynn helped develop the Hidden Histories augmented reality app that showcases the history and cultural significance of Kensington Market. (submitted)

Siobhan O'Flynn, who teaches in the Canadian Studies program at the University of Toronto, has developed the Hidden Histories augmented reality app that showcases the history and cultural significance of the market.

"I think this might be the first bylaw which actually put a halt on demolition in the neighborhood to this extent," O'Flynn said.

"I don't think that this has actually happened in any of the other and neighbourhoods that were also under review for the heritage conservation district."

She says students researching the market found a trove of sites known to be of heritage value, from the childhood homes of composer Percy Faith and actor Al "King of Kensington" Waxman, to the home of jazz drummer Archie Alleyne, who played with Billie Holiday, Stan Getz and Lester Young.

Nigel Murray, left, Bindra Murray, centre, and Sandhyaa Murray run Dancing Days vintage clothing store in Kensington Market. They hope the heritage designation the city seeks won't prevent them from renovating to create more living space. (Philip Lee-Shanok/CBC)

O'Flynn says it's likely more research in the market will reveal hidden sites of cultural importance.

Nigel Murray, owner of Dancing Days Clothing at 17 Kensington Ave., approves of protecting the special feel of the community.

"If they let condos be built it would ruin the whole thing," said Murray, who has operated the store just beneath where his family lives for 29 years.

But in that time, he's seen his property taxes skyrocket from $3,000 to $15,000 a year, which makes it difficult to make ends meet. And he worries the new rules will prevent any renovations to expand his family's living area.

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      Bruce Beaton, who lived in the neighbourhood for almost 20 years and is a historian with the Kensington Market Historical Society, says recently developers have made some lucrative buyout offers.

      He says he's heard one home owner was offered $1.9 million.

      "We're not against change. That certainly is important to say," Beaton said.

      "People who live here realize historically that the place has always been changing," says Beaton. "But a large scale change that might happen, say a large condo development, would change the environment here."

      'You couldn't plan it. It works by accident'

       Beaton says the market has traditionally been a place where newcomers settled and could start businesses right on their front lawns.

      Bruce Beaton, a historian with the Kensington Market Historical Society, says recently developers have made some lucrative buyout offers. For example, he says, the owner of the Maison Close was offered $1.9 million. She refused. (Barry Smith/CBC)

      "Until the turn of the last century, it was a little Victorian suburb, but before the First World War this neighborhood changed," he said.

      "Jewish merchants moved here from the Ward area, which is around where the city hall is today. They moved over here with carts. And they began peddling things and they turned their front lawns into stores. Kensington has a vibrant street culture because of this."

      But as immigration patterns changed, and the city's Jewish population gravitated to North York, other newcomers —Portuguese, Jamaican and Chinese — settled in the neighbourhood.

      "Tourists come to Kensington to get a view of the actual immigration history here. It's a living history on the street," said Beaton. 

      "It's a bit of a bohemian theme park in a lot of ways because it's unique. You couldn't plan it.  It works by accident," 

      About the Author

      Philip Lee-Shanok

      Senior Reporter, CBC Toronto

      From small town Ontario to Washington D.C., Philip has covered stories big and small. An award-winning reporter with two decades of experience in Ontario and Alberta, he's now a Senior Reporter for CBC Toronto on television, radio and online. He is also a National Reporter for The World This Weekend on Radio One.