Thorncliffe Park protestors step up fight against Metrolinx railyard project

Dozens of Thorncliffe Park residents gathered in the rain on Saturday to protest the building of a mammoth railyard in the community.

175,000-square-metre storage facility planned for densely populated area

Community members gather at a protest against a Metrolinx train yard planned for Thorncliffe Park. (Spencer Gallichan-Lowe)

Dozens of Thorncliffe Park residents gathered in the rain on Saturday to protest the building of a mammoth rail yard in the community.

Metrolinx announced in an April blog post that Thorncliffe Park was selected for a 175,000-square-metre maintenance and storage facility. 

The yard would service the Ontario Line, a 15-stop subway route, which is projected to run from Ontario Place to the Ontario Science Centre.

Currently, the area is home to a mix of small businesses and an industrial park, located on the north side of Overlea Boulevard, between Millwood Road and Thorncliffe Park Drive.

Residents have overwhelmingly opposed the move, saying the densely populated area needs more affordable housing and recreational spaces, not a train yard.

Thorncliffe Park is home to some 30,000 people, many of whom are new Canadians from Pakistan, India and Afghanistan. 

Space is scarce — there are about 7,000 people per square kilometre.

Group calls move 'environmental racism'

Grassroots group SaveTPARK, made up of long-time Thorncliffe Park residents that formed this past spring to fight the Metrolinx project, gathered on Saturday afternoon in the parking lot of Khandahar Kabab and Food Basics to air their concerns.

They say that of all the neighbourhoods across Toronto Metrolinx considered, theirs is the poorest and least white and have described the project as "environmental racism."

Long-time resident Aamir Sukhera said "we are grateful for the train line," but not for the train yard. He said the space could be better used for affordable housing, space for businesses and recreational space for youth, which Thorncliffe Park desperately needed. 

Syed Benazir (left), Kaynat Shaikh (centre), Aamir Sukhera (right) are members of SaveTPARK, a grassroots group fighting to keep a proposed Metrolinx rail yard out of Thorncliffe Park. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

Sukhera and SaveTPARK had pitched an alternate site to Metrolinx, one that's within walking distance of the current proposal, but it had been rejected.

He said he felt that Metrolinx "don't really care about our concerns", but the community would continue to protest the move anyway.

"This is a great nation. We came to this country because it afforded us the rights and opportunities that we need to succeed. A lot of us left behind places where we couldn't stand up and speak to the media about why we're fighting for our community and here we can. And here we should."

Syed Benazir, who has lived in the area for 13 years, said he was "very concerned about what's happening." 

"This was a completely unilateral decision taken by Metrolinx without any community consultation whatsoever," he said.

"The needs for this community is not a train yard at this point. What we need is affordable housing, what we need is rent-to-own housing and the land that Metrolinx is planning to acquire adjacent to businesses is the land which the community was proposing to the city and the provincial government for affordable housing."

'Construction comes with challenges': Metrolinx 

Anne Marie Aikins, spokesperson for Metrolinx, said the Thorncliffe Park site was chosen because "our studies showed this location is the option that met all of the technical needs for the project and had the fewest impacts on local jobs, businesses and organizations."

Metrolinx is acquiring land to move local businesses and organizations, including "two key pillars of the community, Iqbal Foods and Darus Salaam Mosque," to new locations nearby.

The mosque was already slated to move across the street to a property it purchased three years ago.

Iqbal Malek started Iqbal Halal Foods over three decades ago. Now, he faces having to move to make way for a Metrolinx maintenance and storage facility. (Paul Borkwood/CBC)

However, Iqbal Halal Foods owner Iqbal Malek told CBC News earlier this year that moving his business was a "devastating" prospect, as he'd spent 35 years growing his halal grocery store into a mainstay in the neighbourhood. 

Aikins said Metrolinx had been conducting meetings with businesses, many which were "one-on-one with our staff over coffee", and "many are very receptive to what we're doing."

She said "construction comes with challenges," but Metrolinx was trying to "minimize those impacts as much as possible." 

"We're working with the mosque leadership as well as all of the business owners in the area and tenants to buy up land in the neighbourhood so we can help them locate to a nearby location that is suitable for them, that they agree to, that's at our cost."

Aikins said it was "sad to hear" people were describing the move as "environmental racism," but said "we're trying to make their community even better by bringing them the transit they need." She said she was aware of the Saturday rally and said "we completely get it."

"East enders... are very passionate about their neighbourhoods, very passionate about their communities and protecting their communities, and we know that they're just fighting to make their community better. So we get that and we are determined to keep working and building this transit system so at the end of the day they'll have a wonderful transit system to get them access to jobs, to schools, to where they need to go."

Construction on the site is slated to start in 2022.