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Cabbagetown residents are in the midst of a showdown with neighbourhood business leaders over an unlikely foe: a plan to install benches at three corners of Parliament Street.

Leaders of the Old Cabbagetown Business Improvement Area say the seating - part of a larger revitalization plan - will help attract new life to the tired commercial strip.

But residents fear the plan will exacerbate an already serious problem: verbally abusive and sometimes violent loiterers who hang out on the neighbourhood corners noon until night.

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The BIA's streetscape revitalization plan, unveiled in June, includes new trees and greenery, bike racks and interlocking brickwork, which residents unanimously support.

"I think everyone feels there's a real need to do something to create a more pedestrian-friendly street," said Rick Merrill, an urban designer and member of the Cabbagetown Preservation Association.

But the plan, financed by a $7,600 city grant, also calls for three new parkettes with benches at the corners of Parliament Street at Winchester, Carlton and Spruce.

Doug Fisher, the BIA chairman, said the benches will make Cabbagetown more welcoming to shoppers.

"We want to create an environment where there's a lot of life in the streets," said Sunarts Design's David Orsini, the plan's principal designer.

But residents are rallying against the proposal and tensions are building.

"This is turning ugly," opponent Fabien Tiburce said. "People are really upset."

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At a July 16 meeting with the BIA, about 60 residents demanded the plans be benched because they could exacerbate the neighbourhood's loitering problems, which residents' groups have been fighting for years.

According to a 2007 survey by the Don Vale Cabbagetown Residents Association, 62 per cent of residents still have major concerns about public drunkenness and loitering, despite improvements in the neighbourhood. More than 40 per cent have concerns about their personal safety on the street.

The list of complaints stretches on: harassment, intimidation, drug use and dealing, and property damage, especially on the corner of Parliament and Winchester, where 60 to 70 people gather at a time, shouting and drinking, said Brian Ridsdill, the superintendent of the corner's Winchester Hotel.

Tracey Plant, who has been leading the residents' fight, said the neighbourhood must address these problems before seating is introduced.

"It's almost like you're rewarding them and providing them with a comfortable place to sit," Ms. Plant said. "Why don't we just stick a beer fridge there along with the furniture?"

On June 16, Ms. Plant delivered a petition to the BIA signed by 40 business owners, including nearly all of Parliament Street's largest enterprises, expressing "serious objections" to the idea.

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But Mr. Fisher dismissed these fears, saying they stem from deeper-rooted tensions in one of Toronto's most economically diverse - and rapidly gentrifying - neighbourhoods, where a shiny new Starbucks stands across from boarded-up storefronts, and alleyways filled with graffiti lie parallel to leafy streets of Victorian homes.

Mr. Fisher maintained the groups that gather on these corners are largely harmless.

"It depends on who you see when you look at them," he said. "We don't see a threat."

Samantha Thornton has lived in Cabbagetown for 18 years and is one of the Parliament and Winchester's familiar faces. She sits there for hours every day.

Ms. Thorton said she believes benches would be an improvement.

"If the benches were here," she said, "they [the more negative elements]would take themselves elsewhere."

Residents insist their objections have nothing to do with class.

"This is not a rich or poor question, this is a question of safety," said Peggy Weir, who has lived in Cabbagetown for 25 years.

She said she values the neighbourhood's economic diversity. What she's tired of is being verbally assaulted by corner-dwellers.

"When you no longer feel comfortable in your neighbourhood, things are not good," she said.

Mr. Fisher has said the plan will not go forward without residents' support.

He said he will try a "test case" parkette at Carlton at Parliament streets next summer when a new TD Canada Trust is complete. If the seating is a problem, he said, it can be removed.

But residents continue to question why the BIA refuses to scrap the plan in light of such strong opposition.

Many accuse the BIA - half of whose members do not reside in the neighbourhood - of being out of touch.

"This plan is rooted in good intention," Mr. Tiburce said. "But the reality on the ground doesn't bear it."

He, like others, thinks the money would be better spent on private security and improved lighting.

"If this thing goes through, it's going to be a big slap in the face to residents and business owners, basically anybody who lives in this community," he said.

Maybe the plan could work in five years, he said. "Today, it's still a jungle."

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