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The impact area of a proposed GO train layover facility in the Don River Valley Park in Toronto, is photographed from across the Don Valley Parkway, on Fri., May 7, 2021. Environmental advocates believe that the construction infrastructure of the layover facility will negatively impact the sensitive wetlands in the valley, notwithstanding Metrolinx's claims.Christopher Katsarov/The Globe and Mail

Ontario’s transit agency is facing opposition on two fronts as it pushes through a major expansion of mass transit in Toronto, with community groups saying one new facility will do significant ecological damage in the Don River Valley and another will displace a retail outlet that is crucial to its community.

In the Thorncliffe Park neighbourhood, a planned storage and maintenance facility meant to serve the the $11-billion Ontario Line subway would force relocation of a mosque and shopping plaza, including Iqbal’s Halal Foods, a grocer that serves the area’s large Muslim population. The new subway line, scheduled to be completed in 2030 and carry 388,000 trips a day, is a centrepiece of the province’s plan for transit in Toronto that received a major funding boost from Ottawa this week.

In the ravine system nearby, a new GO Transit layover facility would occupy space in the Don River Valley Park. In each case, community members suggest that a different choice of site could minimize the impact.

People shop at Iqbal Halal Foods grocery store in Thorncliffe Park on Fri., May 7, 2021. A Metrolinx storage facility for the proposed Ontario Line will displace the shopping plaza where Iqbal Foods is located.Christopher Katsarov/The Globe and Mail

The fight over the GO Transit plan pits Metrolinx against grassroots environmental groups. The layover facility would see three trains, totalling more than one kilometre in length, maintained and stored there during off-peak hours. The project includes significant regrading and construction of a retaining wall, an access road, parking, and buildings for staff and waste disposal. Metrolinx aims to begin construction in 2022.

The contentious site is on the east side of the Don River, running under the Prince Edward Viaduct and alongside the Don Valley Parkway. It “takes advantage of an existing access road in an area that already saw construction when the [viaduct] was revitalized,” Metrolinx spokesperson Anne Marie Aikins said.

But the location also borders the Don Valley Trail, within the city’s Don River Valley Park – an area that has been the focus of cleanup and environmental restoration efforts since the 1980s. “It is a poor choice of site,” said Floyd Ruskin, a volunteer with the local advocacy group Don’t Mess With the Don. “We don’t need a return of industrial operations to the Don Valley. For decades, conservationists and government have been working to get rid of the Don’s polluted past.”

Floyd Ruskin, a long-time volunteer with the group Don't Mess With The Don, is photographed on the impacted area of a proposed GO Train layover facility, in the Don River Valley Park in Toronto, on Fri., May 7, 2021. Rushkin believes that the construction infrastructure of the layover facility will negatively impact the sensitive wetlands in the valley, notwithstanding Metrolinx's claims.Christopher Katsarov/The Globe and Mail

The area right now is largely young forest. Mr. Ruskin said that the Metrolinx project, which includes significant earthworks, would destroy 1,100 trees.

He and other advocates suggest that an alternative site is available – on Metrolinx-owned tracks on the west side of the Don River, along Bayview Avenue, about 500 metres to the south. This area is already fenced in, includes a small work yard and is heavily polluted, Mr. Ruskin said.

Metrolinx says that site does not leave enough space for the buildings and parking it needs, would impinge on the recreational trail and would mean building new track. Mr. Ruskin argues that the existing rail corridors might need to be rebuilt, but not expanded.

Meanwhile, in Thorncliffe Park, some business owners were surprised in April by the news that they would be displaced by the planned a storage yard and maintenance facilities for Ontario Line trains. That site runs along a rail corridor north of Overlea Boulevard.

Iqbal Halal Foods owner Iqbal Malek says he learned via social media that his store would have to move. The grocer employs 150 people in a strip mall that’s also home to more than 20 other businesses. Under Metrolinx’s current plan, the mall would be demolished along with surrounding buildings.

”This is not just a business – it’s a community,” Mr. Malek said of the 35,000-square-foot store, which carries specialty products from across the Islamic world and beyond. The majority of local residents are immigrants to Canada, predominantly from South Asia. “They have just arrived from overseas, they are working two jobs and they can walk here to find their daily needs.”

Metrolinx selected the site from a shortlist of three in the vicinity in 2020, and began private discussions with landowners (Mr. Malek is a tenant).

Steve Munro, a Toronto transit activist and writer, contends that the two other possible sites, just to the north in an industrial section of the Leaside neighbourhood, “seem entirely viable. Either one or a hybrid could reasonably accommodate [Metrolinx’s] needs.”

The site Metrolinx “ended up choosing affected the fewest jobs while meeting all of the technical requirements for the site,” Ms. Aikins of Metrolinx said. “At the same time, we were confident we could work with each business and organization in the area to successfully relocate them to other locations within the community or nearby.”

The impact area of a proposed GO train layover facility in the Don River Valley Park in Toronto, is photographed from across the Don Valley Parkway, on Fri., May 7, 2021. Environmental advocates believe that the construction infrastructure of the layover facility will negatively impact the sensitive wetlands in the valley, notwithstanding Metrolinx's claims.Christopher Katsarov/The Globe and Mail

Mr. Malek puts the number of jobs that would be displaced in the neighbourhood at 450 – a total he thinks Metrolinx has underestimated. The transit agency has offered unspecified compensation for his moving expenses, he added, but he is concerned it will not be enough to secure and renovate a new location in the neighbourhood within the agency’s 17-month deadline. “Because of COVID, this could be very challenging,” he said. “The situation is very confusing; there is a lot of anxiety.”

The Thorncliffe Park facility could yet be forced to move if the province responds to a motion from Toronto City Council. Last week, council called on Metrolinx to examine alternative sites and to expand community consultation. An April 15 meeting fell during the Islamic holy month of Ramadan, preventing many local residents from attending. In a statement, Metrolinx apologized for the timing and promised more meetings.

Metrolinx aims to begin construction on the Don Valley layover facility in 2022. Mr. Ruskin is calling for a federal environmental assessment, while local Liberal MP Julie Dabrusin has expressed concern over the environmental impacts of the project in a letter to provincial officials. Mr. Ruskin also said city council, which has a ravine strategy in place to protect the ecology of the Don Valley and other ravines, should call on Metrolinx to change course.

“John Tory stood here and stated his strong support for the ravine strategy and the Don River Valley Park,” he said. “Sometimes you have to put your money where your mouth is.”

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