Metrolinx signs $ 50 million deal for new Islamic Center in Thorncliffe Park despite opposition to Ontario Line rail yard

The provincial transit agency has reached a $ 50 million deal to help fund a new church and community center in the Thorncliffe Park neighborhood, where it also plans to build a controversial rail yard.

Metrolinx announced Tuesday he had entered into an agreement with the Islamic Society of Toronto as part of the Ontario Line project to make major improvements to a facility at 20 Overlea Blvd., owned by the religious group.

Although Metrolinx has said the deal will bring substantial community benefits to the East York enclave, some local advocates have criticized the deal, arguing that it does not meet the needs of the region’s economically marginalized residents and will open up the way to the completion of a marshalling yard many of them do not want.

“Public transit has always been a catalyst for building, developing and growing the community,” Metrolinx President and CEO Phil Verster said in a statement touting the deal. “Helping the Islamic Society of Toronto realize its vision of a new, larger Islamic center will bring benefits to the community far beyond the positive impact that the new Ontario metro line will have. “

The modernized Overlea center will provide new religious facilities, including a mosque and “bigger and better prayer spaces for women,” according to Metrolinx. It will also provide spaces for educational programs, a gymnasium and a 24,000 square foot business center where up to 19 organizations and businesses displaced by the transit project will be able to locate. Metrolinx said the total value of the deal is $ 49.5 million.

The Metrolinx announcement quoted leaders of the Islamic Society of Toronto as saying the deal “will bring to life the dream we have had for our community over the past two decades” and “will provide a better and bigger facility.”

The new facility will be about five times the size of the company’s existing center on Thorncliffe Park Drive, which the company had previously planned to leave.

The 15.6-kilometer, $ 11 billion Ontario line will run between Exhibition Place and the Ontario Science Center, and will stop at Thorncliffe Park, which is expected to provide 12,800 residents with be within walking distance of rapid transit by 2041.

Metrolinx in April announced plans to build a vehicle maintenance and storage facility for the line at Thorncliffe. The 175,000 square meter yard will house 44 trains and will require the demolition of a plaza at 2 Thorncliffe Park Dr., which contains small businesses and community organizations, as well as the nearby Islamic Society building.

The transport agency said on Tuesday it was working with affected businesses to relocate them to the neighborhood, including the popular Iqbal Halal Foods.

The Save TPARK advocacy group opposes the rail yard plan and has accused Metrolinx of throwing an unwanted facility on an economically marginalized and racialized community. About four in five residents of Thorncliffe Park are visible minorities and almost half live in poverty.

Save TPARK member Aamir Sukhera on Tuesday criticized the Metrolinx deal, saying it aims to reduce opposition to the rail yard, but will mainly benefit the Islamic Society of Toronto, which does not speak for them. 20,000 residents of Thorncliffe and who to his knowledge has never consulted the wider community on the terms of the ‘secret deal’.

“Adding a basketball court and a few other knickknacks is a small price to pay for the massive disruption Metrolinx is inflicting on the heart of our community,” said Sukhera.

His group wants Metrolinx to relocate the rail yard, but said any deal with the agency should have included affordable housing. He also wanted to be assured that all new community facilities will be open to all residents, including non-Muslims.

The Islamic Society of Toronto did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Metrolinx rejects claims that it chose Thorncliffe for the yard site for social or economic reasons, and says the location was chosen after careful study which determined it was the only option that could meet technical requirements “while preserving local jobs”.

Agency spokeswoman Anne Marie Aikins said Metrolinx “is working with all parties” at Thorncliffe, and although the deal with Islamic society “offers significant benefits to the community,” the agency is “open to also consider any other proposal for Community benefit”.

Ben Spurr is a Toronto reporter who covers transportation for The Star. Contact him by email at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter: @BenSpurr

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