As people were being turned away at the door, College Street United Church minister Christopher Levan struggled to manoeuvre extra chairs so he could add seating down the centre aisle.
Organizers were apparently not anticipating the more than 400 people who showed up for this public planning meeting, though an online petition opposing the proposal to put a Wal-Mart on the outskirts of Toronto's Kensington Market has collected more than 68,000 signatures since Monday morning.
Proponent RioCan Real Estate Investment Trust confirmed last week that it has signed a conditional lease with Wal-Mart to be the chief tenant of a proposed three-storey retail complex on Bathurst Street, south of College Street.
Toronto city council's committee of adjustment and the Ontario Municipal Board rejected the variances requested for the development last year. So RioCan is back, asking the planning department and city council for the required zoning amendments. That brought the public into the process, and residents are keen to express their outrage.
RioCan lawyer Mark Noskiewicz was repeatedly jeered when forwarding the company's view that a Wal-Mart would not endanger Kensington's smaller stores.
Councillor Adam Vaughan met a more favourable reception when, standing at the pulpit and pointing his finger at the RioCan representatives below him in the first pew, told them, "If Kensington Market is hurt, if it bleeds one drop of blood, it's on your good name. This is one of the most precious, prestigious, wonderful neighbourhoods on the continent. To damage it is to damage the soul of Toronto."
Jordan Robins, senior vice-president of planning and development for RioCan, says the stretch of Bathurst between Dundas and College stands to be improved, not damaged, by development. "That corridor borders on blight and is in significant need of improvement," he told The Globe and Mail before the meeting. "What we are proposing will provide neighbourhood services that don't exist."
Dominique Russell of Friends of Kensington Market led off the question-and-comment session by presenting her petition. It was the third-most active petition on the global Change.org online petition site this week in a field of more than 300,000. Change.org spokesperson Pascal Zamprelli said no other Canadian petition has ever matched the 25,000 signatories that this petition gathered on the first day. He said two-thirds of the signatories are from Toronto and the majority of the remaining third are from the Toronto region.
Ms. Russell explained the response by saying the issue resonates citywide. "People feel very emotional about plunking down inappropriate development in between two flourishing neighbourhoods. It would set a precedent, and people are astonished that it's a possibility."
Submissions from the long line of public respondents ranged from technical planning queries to questions about how RioCan representatives slept at night and suggestions that all Wal-Marts be shut down. In the end, the mood of the crowd was summed up by a voice from the back that intoned, without a microphone, "We don't need you there. Thank you."