Members of Toronto’s Jane and Finch neighbourhood say they are disappointed Metrolinx isn’t formally donating a parcel of land acquired during the Finch West LRT construction project for use as a community centre, raising questions about how the facility will get built.
Coun. Anthony Perruzza, who represents the neighbourhood, raised concern in an open letter after a conversation with officials from the provincial transportation agency.
The portion of land, located on Finch Avenue West between Jane Street and Highway 400, is part of a larger parcel of property that will be sold off after the Finch West LRT opens. It’s beside the facility that will store all the light rail vehicles and is currently used for construction staging.
“We always thought at some point Metrolinx would be turning a portion of the frontage over to the City for that project to materialize, to be built,” Perruzza told Global News.
“You feel like you were duped, you feel like you were misled, you feel like you were to some degree cheated because you wouldn’t expect that to happen from a pseudo-government agency or the government.”
He said he was recently told the whole parcel of property was going to be sold on the open market — potentially worth millions of dollars.
“We’re not going to be able to outbid a developer who is looking to build a multi-storey, multi-use building,” Perruzza said.
Debra Eklove, co-chair of Community Action Planning Group (CAPG), is one of many community members who has been advocating for a community centre. She said she and others have been working for five years to see the hub built. Two years ago the group received funding to begin planning work.
Eklove said she, too, was shocked after Metrolinx staff clarified the agency’s intentions for the site, adding she believed the land was going to be considered a “community benefit” in exchange for dealing with years of construction.
“All along there was the recognition and the feeling this is good, it is great. We have emails from people that talk about it. I think the most thing is the surprise as we always had such a good relationship with Metrolinx,” she said.
“It would contribute to all of Toronto because of the talent in this area and the dedication in this area is outstanding.”
Sahle Robinson, an art activist who was born and raised in the Jane and Finch neighbourhood community, said the area needs these types of facilities to help the community thrive.
“The promise of them being able to hone their crafts and develop it to rival kids in more privileged communities and put themselves in a position where they could compete in industry, so for me it was gut-wrenching to hear the news,” the father-of-five told Global News.
“It feels a little bit like a slap in the face … Your hope for positivity gets diminished a little bit.”
Tom Rakocevic, the NDP MPP for Humber River-Black Creek, was among those calling on Metrolinx and the Ontario government to take action to ensure the land is provided for the facility.
“It’s an absolute disappointment to the Jane and Finch community who are often hardest hit when it comes to cuts,” he told Global News.
“It’s as simple as the stroke of a pen. Honour the commitment of Metrolinx and provide this parcel of land … Don’t sell it to the highest bidder.”
Global News contacted Metrolinx to ask about the process taken to date. Anne Marie Aikins, a spokesperson for Metrolinx, said staff needed to clarify that the land couldn’t be donated and said there was a “misunderstanding.”
“There can’t be a donation … it’s a way to protect provincial assets, which are essentially owned by every taxpayer,” she said.
The agency bought the property for the Finch West LRT project and Aikins said the property is “worth millions,” noting it won’t be available for use or construction for a few years.
She said Metrolinx could put a condition of sale could include allocating part of the land for the hub. Aikins also pointed to examples such as the new Union Station bus terminal under construction and the new GO station near Woodbine Racetrack, both of which are being financed by private developers as part of transferring ownership of lands.
However, nothing was firmly committed to as of Thursday. Aikins said negotiations are currently underway with the City of Toronto and that Metrolinx staff want to work with CAPG and the community.
When asked about the matter, Ontario Transportation Minister Caroline Mulroney’s office reiterated the transit agency’s commitment to building the hub with CAPG and the City of Toronto.
However, spokesperson Christina Salituro that the government expects the transit agency “to bring forward options that align with standard procedure and ensure value for tax dollars.”
“At no point did MTO direct Metrolinx to not support this community hub. We are committed to advancing the Finch West LRT, which will bring better public transit and greater connectivity to neighbourhoods, like the Jane-Finch community,” she wrote in a statement.
Meanwhile, Robinson and Perruzza had messages for the government.
“In terms of Metrolinx, put your money where your mouth is … Going back to what was promised in the first place, that’s all we’re asking for,” Robinson said.
“I don’t think it could come at a worse time,” Perruzza added.
“We need arts, we need culture, we need social services and people need to be able to walk to those things.”