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Shipping container marketplaces help new entrepreneurs and carry a low financial risk. (photos by Bob Gundu)
Shipping container marketplaces help new entrepreneurs and carry a low financial risk. (photos by Bob Gundu)

A market made of containers fills a neighbourhood gap Add to ...

For some, winning an award means the pressure is off; it’s now time to sit back and take stock. For others, such as Scadding Court Community Centre (SCCC) executive director Kevin Lee and the many micro entrepreneurs who work outside his doorstep, it’s a challenge: how can we do more of this, and do it better?

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Since 2011, Market 707, a tidy row of shipping containers stretching along Dundas Street West east of Bathurst, has been a colourful, thriving and busy model of how to create a community where there was none before. A panel of judges agreed, and went so far as to create a special jury award to celebrate the project, which was handed out last month at Toronto’s Urban Design Awards.

Offering everything from coffee and crepes to ethnic food and bicycle repair, Market 707 was the brainchild of Mr. Lee upon his return from a trip to Ghana with a youth group. While the containers there were more primitive than the ones he’d ultimately see set up in Toronto, he marvelled at how these utilitarian structures were so versatile.

“It’s something that Toronto has not had, from a public realm perspective [and] from an architectural perspective,” he says with characteristic energy. “It’s limitless what you can do with these things.”

Architect Dean Goodman, who has been working on studies for an expansion of the community centre since the mid-2000s, agrees. Shipping containers, he says, are “so pedestrian, on the one hand, whatever you do to them makes it better; from a design standpoint, that’s a wonderful thing.”

Mr. Goodman’s firm, LGA Architectural Partners, helped get the original Market 707 in place, which featured food vendors operating out of containers with a window cut into the side. When the market was ready to expand into retail, Mr. Goodman suggested a small group travel to the Dekalb Market in Brooklyn, where containers are handled differently: one end is sliced off and replaced with a glass wall and door, thereby creating a small store. “Oh, that’s how you do retail,” remembers Scadding Community Engagement Manager Nikki Toten. “It actually feels like a really cool store – there was room for five of us to be standing around looking at jewellery.”

What else is really cool is what these humble little containers have done to give start-up businesses a leg up. Scadding Court charges vendors a meagre $10 per day in rent because, says Mr. Lee, “that piece is missing” in a system that is trained to think only about macro economics. With such small financial risk, those who might never have thought of opening a business, such as a newly arrived immigrant, can do so here; already, a few of the vendors have moved to a bricks-and-mortar location after a year at Market 707.

“We like to say that there are organizations out there that will help you build your business case, but no one that’ll help you get a case for your business,” laughs Ms. Toten.

And not only has SCCC provided those very real cases, they’ve transformed the surrounding neighbourhood into something unthinkable; before 2011, shoppers exiting the Kensington Market area never went further west in search of interesting food or merchandise. Now, that gap in the urban fabric has been filled. Further, these new “eyes on the street” have made things safer for local residents. In summer, says Mr. Goodman, some LGA employees come and use the pool, then have lunch at the market. In fact, Market 707 has been so successful, not only is there talk of expanding it to create a “container mall,” the concept may soon reach other parts of the city. Mr. Lee and Ms. Toten are working with the Centre for Spanish Speaking Peoples to create a new market on land owned by the Toronto Community Housing Corporation at Jane St. and Wilson Ave. This market will benefit from the knowledge gained at Scadding Court with the “vendor toolkit” that’s been created, with includes tips on signage, marketing and the types of government support for which entrepreneurs may be eligible.

“One of the most magical pieces” of the project—and one SCCC didn’t anticipate—is the vendors support for one another, says Mr. Lee. The businesses have started a group that collects a small amount of money each month to buy things such as lighting and advertising.

This is not surprising, really, when one considers the magic that takes place within the walls of SCCC: the Oasis Skateboard Factory, which teaches kids “creative and entrepreneurial skills”; the many sports programs, especially basketball; the “emergency and occasional child care” that helps parents during periods of new employment; newcomer services; and a surreal event each June, “Gone Fishin’,” that transforms the pool into a lake with rainbow trout.

Of course this type of magic requires many minds, hands, and a frenetic pace, where awards are only signposts on a long, long journey.

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