Symone Walters, a community leader and resident of the Jane and Finch neighbourhood in Toronto, had the vision for a community hub four years ago.
Walters lost her son to gun violence and sees the hub around the Finch West LRT as a space to provide opportunities for youth.
So when she heard a recent announcement by Metrolinx proposing a development on the site that was not consistent with the community’s vision, she had to speak out.
“This community is not only consistently dealing with death physically and mentally but also the constant death of promises made and commitments forsaken. This is not just another community hub,” said Walters, adding the community wants to be an equal partner at the table to make decisions on the fate of the parcel of land.
“We need to be able to go into rooms with the powers that you speak to at the City of Toronto and whoever else it is and we need to be treated as equals in that room,” she told Metrolinx CEO Phil Verster during a Jane Finch Community Hub Land Town Hall, hosted by the Toronto Community Benefits Network (TCBN) online July 28.
“At the end of the day we are the ones that live in these communities. We don’t want any more of your ideas. We have our own ideas. We spent four years building out this idea without any assistance from anyone outside of this community. We’ve gotten to the point now where all we need to do is have a piece of land and dollars to build it.”
The group attending the town hall said Metrolinx donated the land and committed to transferring it to the community years ago but that hasn’t happened yet.
“I’ve got to apologize to you for what I see as a couple of communications mistakes,” Verster told those attending the online forum. “I would like to clarify the following: at no stage was there any change in our commitment to make the land that the community hub was going to be built on available for free.
“I’m going to put something in writing and if there needs to be more through a process of doing a formal transfer then more can also follow afterwards, but I intend to get something in writing to the community and the community leadership as soon as possible.”
Verster said issues arose when the team at Metrolinx was considering if more development could be added to the site to add value such as affordable housing, office space or apartments.
An actual land transfer, I believe, is the only way to protect the future vision of this project,
— Tom Rakocevic
Humber River-Black Creek MPP
“We are transit people, when we get to this part of the decision-making process on a parcel of land we just try to say ‘how do we get the most benefit for the community?’ ” said Verster. “What is unfortunate about the way that we did it is that type of decision should be part of a process. A number of the speakers have made that comment that there should be a process whereby whatever the community hub looks like, whatever the other developments look like, this should be a process. We are just asking the question and if that process brings us to a point which says the community hub alone is what goes onto the site that is the process we will go with.”
The land is located one block west of the Jane Street and Finch Avenue intersection on the north side adjacent to the maintenance and storage facility for the LRT.
“This is just the continuation of a conversation that we have been having for four years now,” explained Rosemarie Powell, executive director of the TCBN. “We’re at a really good moment to really see something concrete happen that will support the community’s vision for the land transfer for a hub along the Finch West LRT and the maintenance and storage facility.”
Metrolinx had originally proposed the use of the whole site, putting a heavy industrial complex on the land. The community lobbied for a 32 metre setback in the tendering document and the winning bidder included it.
“What we have always been seeking throughout this entire process for the last four years is a legally binding document that would make it very clear for all parties, all stakeholders involved, for the community, for Metrolinx, for the government, for the unions that are going to be building this space, what it is that we are talking about here,” said Powell. “We want to see commitments for local jobs and jobs for people from underrepresented groups in the construction industry coming out of this as well. We want to see community being able to build and finance and maintain and operate the space and of course it needs to have oversight by the community throughout the lifecycle of the project.”
Troy Budhu, a Jane Finch resident who has been involved in planning the community hub, said Metrolinx was making plans for the land but doesn’t understand what the neighbourhood looks like or how things work.
“I think what was deeply offensive about the process is that you underestimated the value of lived experience and you underestimated the expertise that the community has,” he said to Verster. “It seems like you thought you could do it better.
“Having housing on top of a community hub, if you know the history of our neighbourhood, it makes that community hub inaccessible.”
“What really shows us that you truly apologize for your actions is any conversation about developing the land that you are in needs to be with the community,” he added. “Whoever you are talking to, there is a community member sitting there as well so that we can demonstrate we know what we are talking about here and we can move this forward.”
Tom Rakocevic, MPP for Humber River-Black Creek, told those at the town hall he sent a letter to the minister of transportation and the premier urging an immediate land transfer.
“That way there is an assurance, because now the land will not be up to Metrolinx to determine for development,” he said. “An actual land transfer, I believe, is the only way to protect the future vision of this project.
Follow the author on Twitter @DCN_Angela.