Ontario Line Environmental Assessment Open Houses: Part IV – Thorncliffe Park

This is the fourth and final article in my series about the Ontario Line Open Houses. See also:

Many issues affect the Thorncliffe Park section of the Ontario Line, to the point where I have split this off into a separate article.

Listening to all of the debates, I cannot help seeing that many problems arose from Metrolinx’ trademark secrecy coupled with a piecemeal approach to planning in a large, important neighbourhood.

The transit line was, in effect, dropped out of the sky as a line on the map fitted as best it could (depending on one’s definition of “best”) through the community without advance consultation. Many wider needs were beyond the project’s scope, and yet it is clear that Thorncliffe Park requires an integrated plan for its future including many elements:

  • The future of lands south of Overlea including an aging mall and its parking lot.
  • Whether low-rise commercial/industrial buildings north of Overlea will remain in the long term, and if not, what will this area become?
  • What should Overlea Boulevard look like as the main street of a future Thorncliffe Park? There is already a plan for the east end of Overlea, but what of the entire street?
  • How will a growing population be served both for public facilities such as schools and businesses providing local, walkable access?
  • What is the target population and demographic? Will Thorncliffe’s growth be driven by a forest of high-priced condos, or a mix of building types and affordability?
  • How will open space and parkland be provided in an area where parking lots are a dominant feature?
  • What is the future of lands in the Leaside Industrial area and how can redevelopment there be linked with the needs of Thorncliffe Park, including the MSF yard’s location?

I fully expect the response to be “this is an important transit project and we cannot wait for an overall plan”. That would be the response of a construction agency eager to do its master’s bidding, not of a city-building agency with a wider outlook. An area plan would be an iterative process that could identify key elements up front, but guarantee a wider scope for the neighbourhood’s future. Most importantly, it would occur in public to bring trust that there was no hidden agenda or deliberate sidelining of community concerns.

The remainder of this article consolidates the Q&A sessions from the online open houses.

Q: What were the EA considerations for this densely populated area? What can be shared?

A: Metrolinx talked about the site selection process and among the items mentioned was relocation of existing businesses.

Comment: When the site selection first emerged, it was quite clear that existing businesses had not been consulted. Building owners, yes; tenant businesses, no. Metrolinx really shot themselves in the foot on that one because of the important role some of the existing businesses play in the community. It was not a question of just shifting them somewhere else in the general Thorncliffe/Flemingdon/Don Mills area, but of keeping them close to their community. Add to that the launch of consultations on a major religious holiday for the area.

This was all rather ironic considering the hand-wringing by Metrolinx about preservation of jobs and businesses on any lands that they had rejected for the Maintenance and Storage Facility. Without question, some industrial facilities in the Leaside area north of the CPR/Hydro corridor might close rather than build anew somewhere else, but Metrolinx never considered how long those businesses might stay in any event given development pressure in the area that comes, in part, from new stations at Thorncliffe and at Laird/Eglinton.

Q: The MSF site in Thorncliffe does not meet policy criteria about positive effects, and works against them. There should be an affordable Transit Oriented Community (TOC) in Thorncliffe. Metrolinx should follow its own guiding policies and put the MSF in Leaside. Why was the Overlea site chosen, not Leaside?

A: Metrolinx outlined the selection process including the amount of space needed including expansion capabilities. This included lands from the Exhibition to the Science Centre and beyond. Three sites were short listed:

  • Leaside (the industrial area northwest of the CP rail corridor)
  • Wicksteed (an area partly occupied by industry and partly by a self storage business)
  • Overlea (the area at the north side of Thorncliffe Park south of the rail/hydro corridor)

Metrolinx settled on a hybrid design with the maintenance building on the south end of the Wicksteed block (replacing the self-storage area) and the storage yard on the north end of the Overlea block. This, they claimed, affected the fewest jobs and those were relocatable. There is an “active” relocation program either within Thorncliffe Park or possibly elsewhere.

Comment: Metrolinx does not appear to have considered a “hybrid” with the maintenance building on the Wicksteed block as planned and the storage yard in Leaside. Any discussion always takes place in an “all or nothing” context where companies that can, and indeed will be left in place are portrayed as casualties of alternative proposals.

A: Regarding a TOC: Metrolinx looks at every station for TOC options and these things are all at play along the line. They are “very actively engaged” with what they can deliver.

Comment: Any TOC will be delivered by Infrastructure Ontario, not by Metrolinx, and this is an obvious location for major redevelopment both at the station and nearby on the copious lands occupied by parking or low-rise commercial/industrial buildings. However, IO has not yet announced plans for any sites along the Ontario Line north of East Harbour. If the downtown plans are anything to go by, many large condo towers will descend out of the sky in a future announcement either from IO or from private developers.

A related problem for any major development is that Thorncliffe Park already has many more residents that it was originally designed for, and adding more buildings will worsen existing issues with schools and other community services. This is something of a catch-22 because the space is obviously available for more buildings, but simply plopping, say, another 10,000 residents in the area without looking at the bigger picture will not work.

Q: Re the MSF and the selection process – it’s supposed to be a feedback loop. The socioeconomic review talks about Thorncliffe Park demographics, a neighbourhood built for 10,000, but housing over 30,000. With these demographics you are taking away one third of land for this community. Originally this facility was to be in the Leaside Business Park but it was moved. Public transit is important, but minority communities take the brunt of transit such as Jane/Finch, Eglinton and now Thorncliffe. How can you move forward with this? You talk about [the effect on] the Leaside Business park but not the residents. People you have talked to do not include renters. People receiving benefits are not residents.

A: No single project is going to deliver everything. This is a transit project. One of the most important things we have heard from Thorncliffe Park is job preservation. Business relocation will provide jobs . Community benefits – e.g. better community spaces – a main street environment on Overlea, redevelopment, more commercial space. There is the question of what to do with non-transit lands. This investment in the community, transit, will bring better connectivity.

The Relief Line South was only coming north to Pape Station with a hope for additional funding for a future extension.

Comment: There is a lot to untangle here both in the question and in the response.

Without question, the site selection did not involve the neighbourhood, but rather appeared as a done deal when “consultations” began. Affected businesses did not know they would be displaced until after the selection was announced. Initially Metrolinx spoke only vaguely about relocation in the same general area, not immediately within the community, and not in space purpose-built to house them near their existing locations.

The reference to “one third” of the community is unclear and only makes sense in the context of the lands north of Overlea, not all of Thorncliffe Park. The real problem is whether we are planning only for the immediate vicinity of the transit line and MSF, or for the wider area.

The claim about the MSF being originally planned for the Leaside Business Park is puzzling. I have not seen anything to support this, and would welcome feedback from anyone with specifics on that issue. Previously, I have written about a hybrid configuration that would leave the maintenance building, as planned, in the south portion of the “Wicksteed” block, but shift the storage yard to a portion of the “Leaside” block.

Whenever Metrolinx talks about this land it is on an all-or-nothing basis, and they do not quantify the economic effects (jobs, dislocation) of taking only part of this property. Moreover, there has been no review of the future of the office/industrial uses in Leaside generally given the growth of condos replacing such buildings along the west and north sides of the area. Are we “protecting” something that is fated to disappear through redevelopment?

The suggestion that the MSF is foisted on a minority community with a large immigrant population, and that this is typical of other transit projects, stirs together insensitivity and double-dealing on some aspects of Metrolinx’ “consultation”, with effects that are general to any transit project.

There is a limited number of large industrial sites in the city for major facilities like a rapid transit yard or bus garage. These tend to be near rail corridors because, historically, that is where industry developed. In turn, some of these areas were less desirable for housing which for various reasons came to be concentrations of lower income residents, although this is not consistent across the city, especially downtown.

The effect of the MSF in Thorncliffe Park was worsened by the secrecy regarding the site selection and the insensitive presentation by Metrolinx. Handled in a truly inclusive way, the MSF could well have wound up in a similar location, but with the agreement and support of most who were affected. This was a case study in appalling government-community relations.

On Eglinton, there have been severe construction effects along the line because of the cut-and-cover approach to station construction. This has affected low-income, minority communities like Eglinton West’s Jamaican neighbourhood, but also high-end locales such as Yonge/Eglinton, Forest Hill and Leaside.

On Finch, Metrolinx originally committed to provision of land for a community centre on the MSF lands, but then reneged. This decision was reversed through political intervention, but the situation smacks of the bait-and-switch tactics seen on other Metrolinx projects where community benefits are used to get buy-in, but they are then watered down or dropped due to “budget pressures”. A “budget” says more about what the government is willing to spend money on than what it can afford, and Metrolinx has reached a point where their “commitments” are not trusted.

Other community benefits including work guarantees have been watered down. Only a week after the north segment consultations, the Ford government scrapped a planned requirement that a proportion of jobs be reserved for community members. Now at best the community “can participate” in the new jobs to be created, but with no guarantees.

In their response, Metrolinx mangled two issues: the preservation of jobs related to existing businesses in locations close to the community, and creation of jobs in the construction trades for work on the project, and then skilled jobs within the future maintenance facility. These are separate topics.

The claim that the Relief Line was only going to Pape is misleading. The RL South and North projects were divided between the City and Metrolinx, but Metrolinx was not exactly fast off the mark on their portion. Planning work stopped before the 2018 election and never restarted until Doug Ford’s new vision for transit was announced, no doubt with great internal support from Metrolinx. One cannot help thinking that they never planned to build the RL North as proposed in the first place, and simply “ragged the puck” waiting for a different political climate.

Q: An issue in Thorncliffe Park is access to green space. The MSF will take one third of the neighbourhood. What will you do to benefit the community? You have funded the new Islamic Society of Toronto building, but is this really a community space or specific to IST members?

A: The IST relocation to Overlea is in progress. Metrolinx wants to find out what the community wants. There are plans for additional green spaces including the under-guideway spaces. The area the OL will occupy is all developed and so there is not a lot of green space there. The IST space will be open to others, not just IST members.

Comment: There is a sense that by dealing with the IST and the Mosque, Metrolinx has “ticked the box” of community involvement without addressing the wider issues of business displacement and community benefits. As to green space, this should have been part of a wider planning exercise for the area. It is bizarre that Infrastructure Ontario can beaver away in secrecy and drop major development plans on neighbourhoods in the name of “transit oriented communities”, but any benefit such as new parkland is not discussed as an integral part of the transit project.

Q: Which community organizations with a history of serving Thorncliffe Park are you dealing with? What about the jobs, real jobs, for the community?

A: Metrolinx has goals through other ministries and organizations for training and jobs for Thorncliffe Park. They cannot promise that every job will go to Thorncliffe Park residents, but “there are opportunities”. They are looking for spaces for training. They will do everything to have an improved Thorncliffe Park as a result of transit coming in here. The subway will give greater mobility and access to work elsewhere.

Comment: This response contained threads of the announcement that would follow shortly after the meetings, namely that responsibility for jobs would be shifted away from the transit project and Metrolinx to other agencies. The comment about improved mobility is a classic Metrolinx dodge, and implies that the solution to employment problems is to build subways in every needy community so that, eventually, mobility will improve.

Q: The MSF will not only house trains. but also will include cleaning and washing. How will you protect the community from chemicals used for cleaning?

A: Metrolinx tries to use environmentally friendly products and avoid hazardous materials. Some items such as lubricants are stored for safety. The MSF is designed so that there is no risk to the community.

Comment: Metrolinx might well discuss practices at its existing GO Transit shops or at TTC rail yards such as Greenwood. A specific example would have a lot more weight than a generic assurance that all will be well.

10 thoughts on “Ontario Line Environmental Assessment Open Houses: Part IV – Thorncliffe Park

  1. This proves to me that the governance for this project should’ve been completely different…

    1. Metrolinx builds the line with city input
    2. The city creates planning frameworks for each TOC, with assurances to the province re housing supply and a few other basic parameters. IO and Doug Ford’s donors are not involved. Included in it would be issues such as built form, architecture, parks & public realm, affordability, community spaces, etc. It could be implemented with funding that is bundled with the transit project and through development contributions.
    3. To tie it all together, the city creates a transit design guide that precisely defines a coherent vision for the OL, with design that is considerate of each community and of a distinct quality for its interior/exterior expressions.

    Aside from that, there is the serious issue of Metrolinx being a puppet agency of the government, instead of an effective and independent transit provider/builder. I look at Metro Vancouver’s Translink, their Transport 2050 plan, and each city’s local planning. It all ties in together, with clearly defined roles and responsibilities, a common vision balanced with local democracy, and thoughtful and effective planning that creates desirable places and gets people out of their cars. They are way ahead of us in transitioning to a sustainable region with a governance model that works, despite some unfortunate provincial meddling with the Broadway Subway and Surrey-Langley Skytrain extension.

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  2. Apart from being a relative gold mine for some building owners, Thorncliffe does deserve a set of better transit connections, and to enable investment, (not spending), is there good origin-destination data for the area? Not that anybody really follows mere facts, of course, but we really need to have something soon for siphoning off Eglinton demand ahead of the once-overloaded Yonge line, because Eglinton will likely only add to potential overcrowdings.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Montreal’s REM de l’Est appears to be in trouble and it is probably designed by the same people who want to bring the new Ontario Line Stock.

    Steve: Obviously, Montreal needs a nice friendly agency like Metrolinx to put the city and its complaining voters in their proper place.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. My friend Hamish wrote:

    “Not that anybody really follows mere facts, of course”

    This gets my vote for best comment of the year for its incisive summary of the true root cause of our problems. Thank you, Hamish!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Thank you for your excellent review on how Metrolinx and all three levels of government have completely failed the residents and businesses of Thorncliffe Park in their sketchy haste to dump the MSF somewhere instead of pursuing a diligent effort to understand this community and use this massive public investment in transit as a significant city-building opportunity. They were able to do this easily as the truncated EA process for this project enabled Metrolinx to completely avoid the need to assess any social or economic impacts on people and businesses in the local community, and were free to design their public consultation process as they saw fit.

    Your comments about the challenges already facing Thorncliffe Park, such as density, limited access to open spaces and community services reinforce this missed opportunity to address these issues and actually make major improvements to this vulnerable community. As you suggest, the failure to look at the bigger picture will not work – the MSF as currently conceived will be a permanent stain on the legacy of those who might otherwise look back with pride on their work building The Ontario Line.

    Your comments questioning the future of some of the industrial businesses in Leaside/Wicksteed is a particularly prescient one – unfortunately, Toronto’s Economic Development department guards these lands as sacrosanct and aggressively protects them, even if it leads to a major distortion from a planning perspective elsewhere – as happened here by forcing the MSF into Thorncliffe Park as a consequence. How long will those industrial operators channeling dump trucks and cement mixers rumbling along busy and narrow roads about to become corridors of condo towers be welcome; or will they even be interested in maintaining operations in this ever-growing mixed-use urban environment? In our view, displacing the aggregates’ yard, the cement yard and the scrap metal recycling facility on the north side of the tracks opposite the site selected for the MSF would constitute more astute planning and that protecting them for the long-term is both short-sighted and negligent. But then, it is easier to expropriate a bunch of small, primarily immigrant-owned businesses on Overlea than tackle the multi-national companies on the other side of the tracks and their phalanx of corporate lobbyists and lawyers.

    It’s our understanding that the originally preferred site selected by Metrolinx was Wicksteed (See TRCA Meeting Info), but City of Toronto Economic Development staff intervened and convened a meeting with two specific employers (Tremco – 200 employees) and Siltech (<100 employees) from the Wicksteed area who threatened to leave the City and maybe even the Country if they were expropriated. This is how Metrolinx and the government explain how they decided that the ‘community impacts’ were more severe there than in Thorncliffe Park.

    Interestingly, it is our understanding that Tremco closed the sale of its properties (over 17 acres of land) in September 2021 to Private Equity Real Estate goliath Blackstone Partners and signing only a short term lease. In addition, the sale of 235 Wicksteed Ave, a 5 acre piece of land, sale closed in May 2021. It is reasonable that the sale process of these lands had started while Metrolinx were communicating with these land owners. It’s a good thing that Metrolinx and the City worked so hard to protect those jobs at the expense of neutering the potential city-building opportunity in Thorncliffe Park!

    SaveTPARK spent considerable time and effort to be constructive and collaborative with Metrolinx and submitted an alternative configuration for the MSF in the Wicksteed/Beth Nealson area that was summarily dismissed by Metrolinx without any serious thought given to shifting their so-called site selection criteria.

    And finally, your comment that the MSF is being foisted on another minority community is also an accurate observation. There are two MSF’s under construction in Toronto – one at Mount Dennis and the other at Jane Finch in the two most vulnerable communities of the 140 studied by the City of Toronto’s Social Equity Scores. Thorncliffe Park ranked #9 in that same study – just a coincidence we presume.

    Steve: Thanks for the background detail including the TRCA meeting link. Yes, Wicksteed was the first site Metrolinx looked at but the potential displacement of Tremco and Siltech stopped that scheme and led to the “hybrid” version including the “Overlea” block. The whole idea of protecting industrial lands for jobs has never worked well for Toronto as experience in Liberty Village, among others, shows. If land is more valuable for something else, that is what it will be used for. The Leaside area is something of an anachronism going back almost a century to its days as a major centre for railway and aeronautical activities. I am not surprised one bit that the two companies thought to be key to job retention are obviously planning to move because they are sitting on a property nest egg.

    I will have to double-check the meeting recording, but my notes show that the claim was that it was the Leaside block (i.e. the concrete plant, etc), not the Wicksteed block (Tremco etc) that was the first intended site. Your comment and clarifies this. I will go back and listed to the relevant portion of the discussion and correct the text, if need be, in the article. A problem, of course, in all of his is that anyone who has not followed the issue closely is unlikely to know the boundaries of each property.

    Re the MSF being foisted on Thorncliffe, my point was that large blocks of land that are already industrial tend to be in certain areas that have (at least for a time) less attraction for development and which also tend to be near areas that are poorer off as with the Mount Dennis and Finch MSFs, not to mention a planned TTC facility on former railway lands southwest of Kipling Station. The new McNicoll Garage was in an industrial area, but then Scarborough changed the zoning to allow a seniors’ home, and the residents of that home were quite upset to find a new bus garage going up next door even though it had been planned for years.

    Liked by 3 people

  6. Thanks for praise, Kevin.

    I’m not alone in not trusting what’s now presented as ‘fact’ either, right? Isn’t most everything on the tainted side? Or too relatively damning? (Is that business case for SSE around?).

    It’s not only Mr. Ford, but the slim majority of Toronto eg. Clowncil, as per a Dec. 2016 vote that was 23-19 to ignore best practices in favour of ???. Federal level also choosing wilful blindness of ‘planning’ and bad EAs that neglect basic things like amount of concrete used.

    To get in to speculation, hearkening back to Mr. Snobelen’s comment in the Harristocracy, about bankrupting the system, hmm – are these priority projects really about transit, or are they about $crewing transit and Toronto? Or is it to merely be rewarding some devilopers and some communities and older Toronto/Thorncliffe doesn’t vote for Cons, so…. Then there’s the operating costs and likely leakages from such deep-bore below lake-level tunnellings, oops, though obviously tunnels done everywhere, so…

    Speaking of tunnels, nice juicy story about a tunnel contractor having an oligarch link, and maybe also the tunnelling machine itself. Oh, sanctions? Doing diligence?? If numbers for the spending of billions are indicators, nope, facts don’t matter, sigh, and too bad we can’t switch a half-billion to discerning beneficial owners of various companies eh?

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  7. Now that the Liberal-NDP coalition has secured a majority mandate from the Canadian voters giving Canadians a strong stable Liberal-NDP majority government, how will this affect the amount of money available for new transit construction?

    Steve: I would not hold my breath. There is a lot of “committed” money already to major projects that are in various phases of development and construction. Also we know that there’s a big push on green/electric schemes and so we’re likely to see money for eBuses and electrification generally. The only addition to the pile I suspect we will see locally will be the Waterfront LRT because there is big pressure for it from developers, and the Feds are 1/3 partners in Waterfront Toronto. There was supposed to be a report on this project at the Exec Committee meeting next week, but there is nothing on the agenda.

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  8. A letter-writer in the Globe on Wednesday, T.S. Ramsey, suggested that the federal level debt servicing was close to $40 billion! a year, and maybe that will be a spill over some year in to trying to actually get real value for the billions, maybe. Not just enrich some developers, and buy suburban votes, and what a shame the Liberals did so well in all of Toronto in some ways, though NDP isn’t always ‘smart’ on all of these files either.

    And thus, I was reminded (a pile fell) of a good column by Joell Vanderwagen of a few years back with a great sum-up, of how torqued infra has become by special interests, including the politicians. ‘Can we call this corruption? Not in the strictly legal sense of money being passed under the table. But the outcome is much the same:the wrong thing gets built in the wrong place at the wrong time for the wrong reason.” Paper version headlined ‘Build it and they may not come’,linked here (Glad it’s online and thanks Steve for all of this).

    While one has to be careful about what is wished for, almost hope for a spike in interest rates akin to what the gas prices have been doing, along with political will to actually tackle all that snow-washing etc., though like climate, oop$, it’s likely too late as market/City is thoroughly ‘con’taminated. However, effective transit could do a HUGE amount to enable a more competitive housing situation ie. what can be done more quickly for enabling faster sub-regional travel? And that doesn’t entail multiple billions in burying concrete that will likely leak? (News flash – concrete is energy/carbon intensive, so costs likely up, not down)

    Any Plan Bs around?

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