This is the fourth and final article in my series about the Ontario Line Open Houses. See also:
- Ontario Line Environmental Assessment Open Houses: Part I – General Thoughts
- Ontario Line Environmental Assessment Open Houses: Part II – North Section
- Ontario Line Environmental Assessment Open Houses: Part III – South Section
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.