Lawrence Heights residents demand more input into neighbourhood's new community centre

Lawrence Heights is getting a new community centre nearly two decades after the City of Toronto designated it a "priority neighbourhood."

New $5.4M facility slated to open in 2027, City of Toronto says

Lawrence Heights residents have learned an architectural firm has been awarded a contract to design them a new community centre, something the community has spent decades pushing for. (Submitted by North York Community House)

Seventeen years after the City of Toronto identified Lawrence Heights as a "priority neighbourhood," it is finally on track to get a new community centre. 

The city designated 13 priority areas following the violent summer of 2005, which later became known as the "Summer of the Gun." But despite Toronto Community Housing's multi-year revitalization project in the diverse neighbourhood, located north of Lawrence Avenue between Bathurst and Dufferin streets, the new community centre never got off the ground — until now.

Long-time resident Trudy-Ann Powell, the project coordinator for the Lawrence Heights Revitalization Coalition, says the community knows what it needs and the city needs to take a "bottom up approach," including grassroots organizations and residents at every stage of the process.

"Don't just bring us to the table to eat when you have everything sorted out. Let us prepare the meal with you," she said.

The city awarded a $5.4-million contract this month to CS&P Architects Inc. to design the new Lawrence Heights Community Recreation Centre and Child Care Centre, a project the city now says will be complete by summer 2027.

The news is welcome but a surprise to many residents like Powell, as well as community organizations and grassroots leaders. They say they have been advocating for this investment for years, but were told the project was in limbo as money from different levels of government never seemed to come through.

Trudy-Ann Powell says the number one priority for the city should be ensuring residents and groups that support them are at the table in decisions about the community centre. (Submitted: North York Community House)

Cutty Duncan, who grew up in the community and now works for North York Community House, says a new centre is needed, but the city and the designers need to understand the role the existing centre has played as a place to organize. 

"It's been a real caretaker for the community ...  If you don't put those things in place, or ensure those things could occur in a new space, then you're really taking those things away from the community," Duncan said. 

"You'll have a nice gym, but those important critical things that were sustaining community, if they're no longer there, and there's no space to support them, you're pulling those things away."

The gymnasium at the current Lawrence Heights Community Centre. Cutty Duncan says as the city moves forward with a new project it needs to realize the role the old community centre has played for the community. (City of Toronto)

Khairiya Ahmed, a mother of five and a community leader, says residents and grassroots groups that may not be connected to a non-profit are hungry for more space to meet.

"It's very hard for us to access space when we're doing initiatives in the community," she said. She'd like to see priority given to grassroots groups or residents who live in the surrounding Toronto Community Housing buildings.

When incidents happen on a consistent basis, like rashes of gun violence that have happened in the past, the community wants to at least have a place to hold an emergency meeting that doesn't involve finding a large organization to partner with, she says.

What's being proposed

CBC Toronto reached out to all three levels of government about the project, including questions about the process and funding contributions. But federal, provincial and City of Toronto officials all said they were unable to speak Friday. 

The city has said the new accessible, zero-emissions community recreation and child-care centre will be located near Varna Drive and Ranee Avenue, but the existing community centre on Replin Road will remain open in the meantime.

The community will have the opportunity to provide input, but two pools, a gym, fitness studios, multi-purpose rooms, a community kitchen, administrative spaces, an active roof and an outdoor play area are part of the proposal. The child-care facility would accommodate 88 children. 

A mural is painted on the existing community centre. The city is proposing many features in the new facility, including indoor pools. (City of Toronto)

Ahmed, who attended a recent community meeting, says she isn't sure all the plan will meet everybody's priorities or if Toronto Community Housing residents in the area will have as much access to services as they hope.

Ahmed says 88 child-care spaces seems low, even for families immediately surrounding the centre, never mind those who might apply for a spot from elsewhere.

She says the universal change rooms are also a concern as some cultural groups represented in the community would like to see additional options..

Demand for the facility expected to grow

Trevaun Douglas, a resident who runs programs for different age groups to stay active, safe and engaged, says developments in nearby neighbourhoods and the excitement of a new facility, will only add demand for programming. 

He says the city should ensure it isn't just making fitness needs a priority in the new centre.

"I would love to see a whole community space that has something geared to mental health, physical health, spiritual health, financial health," he said. 

Elena Korniakova, who lives in Lawrence Heights and runs art programs there, says there is so little community space, she has been leading programs outside. (Submitted by: Elena Korniakova)

Elena Korniakova, who runs arts programs for the community, says the demand for arts spaces is particularly dire. She is currently offering programming outside without any real community space.

She says nurturing "creative spirits" is critical for a community trying to move beyond a history too often plagued with trouble or violence.

Lessons from Regent Park

Several residents cited Regent Park's aquatic centre and community centre as an example they see promise in, but note they have heard there is still not enough room in those buildings for truly grassroots, resident-led initiatives.

"We want to get it right … We don't want to just import something that's doing well in one particular neighbourhood and try to do the same thing here," Duncan said.

"Lawrence Heights is a unique place with unique conditions, he said. 

"And we want something that works well for residents who are currently here and also people who are coming in."


Clara Pasieka is a CBC journalist in Toronto. She has also worked in CBC's national bureau and as a reporter in the Northwest Territories, Ontario and New Brunswick. Her investigative work following the Nova Scotia Mass Shooting was a finalist for a CAJ Award. She holds a Masters degree in Public Policy, Law and Public Administration from York University.


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