The next battleground in fight over Moss Park gentrification is a community centre
'There's no pride in gentrification' says group opposed to new inclusive community space
What is a sure sign of neighbourhood gentrification in Toronto? Condo construction? A new Starbucks franchise?
In Moss Park, fears of gentrification have been stoked by plans for a new community centre and hockey rink.
That historically poor neighbourhood is already experiencing rapid changes: a slew of new condos under construction directly southeast of the park; real estate analysts praising its potential for rising property values.
Now, with the possible redevelopment of John Innes Community Centre, Moss Park Arena and the surrounding park space, some are accusing the city of deliberately taking part in the neighbourhood's affluent makeover.
Gentrification happens when prices of property, goods and services in a neighbourhood rise dramatically, forcing lower-income residents and small businesses to relocate.
That may be happening in Moss Park, but not because of the city's interest in redeveloping the community centre, said Howie Dayton, the director at the Community Recreation branch of the city's Parks, Forestry and Recreation department.
"I would say that gentrification is a term we're not applying to this project," said Dayton. "We are not gentrifying that site in any way, shape or form."
Regardless of who is using the word "gentrification" has come up a number of times in the city's initial public consultation and feasibility study, which began earlier this year.
The most vocal group warning against gentrification is called Queer Trans Community Defence (QTCD), formed to fight against any redevelopment of the downtown east neighbourhood that will bring in the wealthy and push out the poor.
Community activist Helen Jefferson Lenskyj of QTCD said together with residents groups, the city is using underhanded tactics to "get rid of poor people through more policing, attract more upscale retail and restaurants, and get more young middle-class professionals as tenants.
"One residents' group suggested that there should be a gift shop in Allan Gardens," said Lenskyj.
Enter the 519
The 519 had been looking for a space to open up a community centre for some time.
As a city agency and charitable, non-profit organization that serves Toronto's lesbian, gay, bi and transgender communities, it wanted a community centre focused on inclusion, and joining forces with the Moss Park redevelopment appeared to be a good match.
"[The 519] has what we consider an expertise in the delivery of inclusive-based community services," said Dayton. "Anything you do to make a community space more accessible or more inclusive to one community will benefit other communities."
"We're involved because we understand the value of community centres," said Maura Lawless, the executive director of The 519. "The greater concern that many people have expressed is that people will be displaced. We want to make sure people will continue to access this space on a long term basis."
Furthermore, the redevelopment plan estimates of up to $125-million price tag on the redevelopment, at least in these early stages. The 519 had a private, anonymous donor willing to provide up to one-third of that cost.
'There's no pride in gentrification'
That last financial detail concerns Lenskyj and the QTCD. They are skeptical of who is actually driving the redevelopment plans, and particularly object to The 519's involvement.
"Our group questions The 519's claim that their staff have expertise in developing an 'inclusive' model for the new sport centre that addresses the needs of current users of John Innes, who are very differently demographically from users of the 519," she said.
Lenskyj said the Moss Park facilities are used by significant numbers of poor and homeless people, Indigenous people, sex workers, drug users and others groups not necessarily represented by The 519.
The QTCD, a coalition of "queer and trans people and allies" in the community and unlikely foes of The 519, say the LGBT presence is being used to smooth the path toward a more upscale Moss Park.
"We reject the invoking of LGBT rights to justify the gentrification of Toronto's downtown east neighbourhoods," said the group's online literature.
Lawless said The 519 is in the thick of public consultations, and have spoken to more than 1,000 people in Moss Park.
There have been two public meetings along with many emails sent and doors knocked on. It also set up the site MoreMossPark.ca to collect feedback.
For those who don't have an email account or even a door, Lawless said the public consult has reached people who live in the park and those who sleep in homeless shelters in the area. The redevelopment even has paid staff to make sure as many people in community can have their say.
"The fact that were doing this now, before the neighbourhood changes, helps ensure their voices help shape the community," said Lawless.
But QTCD said the community consults have skewed toward wealthy newcomers to the neighbourhood.
"It's unrealistic to assert that public consultations dominated by middle class condo-owners will provide a safe and welcoming climate for disadvantaged people to speak out," she said.
How will this work
If the city and The 519 were to meet the needs of the community, QTCD said redevelopment of the park and community centre must:
- facilitate the ability of homeless people to sleep in the park and area.
- facilitate the ability of sex workers to work in the area.
- allow the use of the area and facilities by drug users. It also must facilitate harm reduction efforts in the area.
"It is vital that any designs and plans be opposed to further gentrification of the area," said the group.
But, again, the city said it's not about gentrification.
"This is about building capacity, this isn't about taking anything away. It's envisioning a dynamic space that can serve our community better," said Dayton of the proposal.
"The vast majority of people see this as a tremendous opportunity for their neighbourhood," said Lawless.
The feasibility study and public feedback will go to council at the end of the of year. The argument over the new community centre and, inevitably, gentrification, will then be left to city council.