Metrolinx deal to move and expand Islamic centre meets criticism

A deal Metrolinx has made with the Islamic Society of Toronto (IST) to repurpose its existing Thorncliffe Park building into a multi-use religious centre has met with criticism from some local residents.

Ninety percent of the IST’s current founding members agreed to move from its quarters at 4 Thorncliffe Park Dr.

The Thorncliffe Park Drive building has been the community’s masjid (or musallah) for more than 25 years. However, Metrolinx says its acquisition of the space along with its adjacent plaza for the Ontario Line’s elevated tracks will see the space relocated nearby at IST’s property at 20 Overlea Blvd. as part of an expansion plan paid for by Metrolinx.

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The IST has actually been raising funds on its own to relocate to Overlea Boulevard since 2017. Prayer congregants and businesses have pitched in donations for years, but now Metrolinx is covering all costs associated with the expansion.

The project, which comes at a cost of $50 million dollars, is said to be home to new religious facilities and services, larger prayer spaces for women, and enhanced educational facilities.

Its new amenities are include a gymnasium, a fully-equipped kitchen, a youth drop-in centre, a banquet hall, and 6,500 square feet of prayer space. The community will also — for the first time — be able to provide funeral services, known as janazah in Arabic.

Renderings of the centre under construction were also uploaded to their YouTube channel in December 2017, although they are subject to change, according to the video.

The expansion project, although a large feat for the community, comes with mixed emotions and questions, as some community members are concerned with business ethics on the part of IST’s administration.

A community-led movement known as Save T-Park was established in response to the announcement by Metrolinx on April 8, 2021 to build a maintenance and storage facility atop the masjid and plaza.

Save T-Park has raised concerns of increased noise, bright lights and increased vehicular and pedestrian traffic along the construction site. The group also argues the move is a form of environmental racism.

IST says it has not been able to provide further optics on their deal with Metrolinx, citing a non-disclosure agreement.

The Save T-Park group alleges that IST denounced its status as a place of worship after 25 years, and instead has classified it as an industrial building in order to close its deal with Metrolinx at a Jan. 9 meeting.

‘An embarrassment to Muslims’

“IST had an opportunity to utilize their foothold of owning a piece of property to strongly stand up for and protect the community from being taken advantage of by an arbitrary process that will result in a train yard in Thorncliffe Park”, the group said in a recent blog post.

The $50-million payout by the provincial transit agency to IST is also described as being a “shameful disregard for the wishes and interests of the Thorncliffe Park community and likely an embarrassment to all sensible Muslims across North America.”

Others have been critical for reasons of their own. Susan Scandiffo has written online she is upset that Metrolinx’s funding for the project is going to go to a supposedly select group.

“There is no way that a ‘community centre’ (which won’t even serve the whole community) will offset the permanent destruction done to this neighbourhood,” she said on Twitter. “Why are taxpayers footing a $50 MILLION bill for a religious org?”

Some argued on Twitter the deal “smells like a bribe,” while other criticized Metrolinx for trying to take credit for the move and expansion when the new property had already been bought and fundraising efforts had been under way for many years.

The Islamic Society of Toronto was not immediately available for comment, citing the non-disclosure agreement.

Safety mandates

Metrolinx’s chief development officer Kayla Avis-Birch said there were a multitude of factors in choosing Thorncliffe for the Ontario Line project.

“We have primary drivers that make those decisions around jobs, and housing preservation, and land availability, impacts to businesses, appropriate zoning,” Avis-Birch said.

Addressing the concerns of noise and bright lights on the facility’s premises, Avis-Birch saids Metrolinx is looking to ensure construction mandates and safety mandates are met.

“We have a community engagement and community communications team that are on the ground, making sure we are sharing those changes and educating the community as we are working through it,” Avis-Birch said.