Metrolinx says it will help advance Toronto community centre project after reportedly reversing plan to donate land
Metrolinx says it is "committed" to help build a community centre in the city's Jane and Finch neighbourhood after a Toronto city councillor accused the provincial transit agency of pulling out of a deal to donate land to the project.
Ward 7 Coun. Anthony Perruzza said Metrolinx previously promised to provide the city with a parcel of land at Finch Avenue West and York Gate Boulevard to build an arts and culture centre in the area.
The property is currently being developed to house a maintenance and storage facility for the Finch West LRT and Perruzza said the city was told that when the facility was complete, Metrolinx would hand over part of the land so the community centre could be built.
But Perruzza said last week he received an email from Metrolinx indicating that the transit agency now intends to sell the land at market value.
The email, which has been provided to CP24, states that "early conversations" that referenced "a possibility of divestment at less than market value" were "well-intentioned" but "not properly internally vetted or approved as a reasonable option."
"As a responsible landowner of public lands, Metrolinx must follow a rigorous process of land review before divestment. Metrolinx expects to put the land to market when it is no longer needed for the project after 2023," the email read.
"We understand the community expectation that the lands might be available in the short term and at less than market value and will continue to work with the community to clarify our position and approach."
Perruzza slammed Metrolinx for "pulling the rug out" from under the project, noting that the city could not possibly outbid developers for the land.
"For five six years now they've been telling us they would give us that swath of land for a community centre. We've been building towards that. We've expended money. We've done a lot of planning work with the community for that," Perruzza told CP24 on Thursday morning.
"We've had so many conversations with them... This is the government we were talking to. We weren't talking to private interests here. We were talking to Metrolinx."
He said he intends to take the matter up directly with Premier Doug Ford.
"This decision couldn't have come at a worse time when this neighbourhood is struggling with anti-Black racism, struggling with poverty, struggling with higher rates of COVID... for these guys to pull out the rug on such a big dream that this neighbourhood had is absolutely pitiful," Perruzza added.
"I think what we need to do now is basically go directly to the premier of the province... and say to the premier, ‘Look you need to step up here and get Metrolinx, your agency, to keep their word.’"
Metrolinx spokesperson Anne Marie Aikins said the transit agency "can't donate or gift a provincial asset."
"We have a realty directive to follow that guides the sale of provincial assets like land. But conditions of sale can be built in to ensure the community hub gets built. This is what we are working through right now with the city," Aikins told CP24.
In a statement emailed to CP24 on Thursday morning, Metrolinx said the transit agency is "100 per cent committed" to getting the community hub built, adding that it recognizes the "importance of this project to the Jane Finch neighbourhood."
"The mechanism for achieving this will need to follow all standard directives and ensure value for tax dollars," the statement read.
"With that in mind, we have been working proactively with the City of Toronto for several months to explore a variety of innovative options to find the best solution possible to support this important community hub project."
Metrolinx noted that the project could proceed through the Transit Oriented Communities program, a provincial initiative announced earlier this month.
"We look forward to continuing to work with the city and the community as the Finch West LRT project advances over the next few years," the statement concluded.
Metrolinx's decision has prompted backlash from community groups and members of the public who criticized the provincial transit agency for not following through.
Tiffany Ford, a former TDSB trustee for the area, called Metrolinx's decision a "heartbreaking" blow to the community.
"For years, the Jane Finch community wanted a central community hub space to unite our youth. Why? Because there are small spaces in different sections of the area, that are considered separate 'turfs,'" she said in a tweet published on Thursday.
"All we wanted was a community hub that was central and truly could unite the community and break those geographical barriers that brought so much bloodshed. It's not just a community hub. It's a game-changer."
In a statement, Jane Finch Centre Executive Director Michelle Dagnino said a reversal on the community space plans for the land would constitute “a terrible betrayal” of the community “at a time when this neighbourhood is still reeling from the impacts of Covid-19.”
The community group said it has already been at work on the project with the Community Action Planning Group (CAPG) and other stakeholders in the community on elements such as architectural drawings and fundraising plans and initial discussions with local businesses and groups to commit as tenants.
"Many are now realizing the connection between the disproportionate toll of the pandemic on people here and the lack of investment for this community,” Dagnino said. “An about-face on this land isn't just a broken promise to CAPG and thousands that have already shared their input, but to the entire community that will need investment to emerge from this crisis."
In a tweet, Jane Finch Action Against Poverty said the group will address the "unjustified" decision together with other groups.
"Community groups are coming together to plan a series of responses to @Metrolinx & the provincial government for their unjustified decision to take away this land which was dedicated to becoming a community hub," the tweet read.
Mayor John Tory also expressed concern over the fate of the project in light of Metrolinx's decision.
"We all want this community hub to happen and I am confident there are many ways for Metrolinx and the provincial government to work with the City of Toronto to make this important project for the Jane-Finch community a reality," he said in a written statement on Thursday.
"I have confirmed with city staff today that discussions are ongoing with Metrolinx about this provincial land. I know city staff are meeting with them again very soon. Council made it clear to Metrolinx in 2018 that this land should be designated for a combined community hub. I stand firmly behind that objective."