Premier Doug Ford’s provincial PC government has backed out of $14 million in funding promised by the former Liberal government for a new community centre in Lawrence Heights, putting the future of the project in limbo at a time when the neighbourhood has been overwhelmed by gun violence.
The community has endured at least nine shootings in the last month alone, which police have called “concerning” and local Councillor Mike Colle (Ward 8 Eglinton-Lawrence) said has frustrated residents. An incident Wednesday night saw reported gunshots bring police to the area, where officers found a shell casing but no victims, suspects or property damage.
Experts have long emphasized the importance of providing young people with safe spaces specifically for them as well as access to recreation as part of addressing the root causes of violence. The seminal Roots of Youth Violence report, prepared for provincial leaders a decade ago, said the lack of such spaces was one of the “loudest messages” the authors heard from youth they spoke to and those that work with them.
“The police have got everybody in here and meanwhile these shootings are still occurring and that’s what’s very troubling for them and the community,” said Colle. “We’re trying to build the place up and get positive activity and hope in the area and then this thing that we could have probably been working on right now, the money disappears from the province.”
The hub — in a neighbourhood which long had a maze of Toronto Community Housing townhomes at its heart in an area tucked into the space where Allen Rd. meets Hwy 401 in North York just south of Yorkdale mall — was planned to be cost-shared by three levels of government as part of an ongoing revitalization that is rebuilding social housing mixed with market homes and condos. The new community centre was part of a master plan for the area approved by council in 2011. In 2018, the province put the total cost of the new space at $42 million.
But now that part of the plan may be stalled with the province’s promised share now missing, said Colle, who as a former Liberal MPP for the area helped announce the provincial funding in late April 2018, ahead of the last provincial election that June.
“Everything has been put on hold since the money has been taken out of the provincial budget,” he said, saying the news was “difficult to swallow given everything we’re trying to do up here.”
A spokesperson for Tourism, Culture and Sport Minister Lisa MacLeod accused the Liberals of using the promise of funding for the centre as a “desperate attempt to buy votes.”
“They did this even though no formal project proposal was made available,” said the spokesperson Derek Rowland in a statement to the Star. “This is another promise the Liberals had no intention of fulfilling, and they should have been upfront with the community at the time.”
Rowland said the city is “welcome” to apply for funding through the province to be eligible for a federal infrastructure program, which the province plans to begin accepting applications for starting later this year.
Marco Mendicino, Liberal MP for the area and parliamentary secretary to the federal Minister of Infrastructure, told the Star in his own statement that the city can’t access federal funds unless the provincial government resubmits the community centre project and commits to a $14 million share “which it has sadly back-peddled on.”
That means the city is currently the only source of funds for the project, now in question.
“My support as the local MP is 100 per cent locked in and I am confident the federal government will fund its share,” said Mendicino, who is facing re-election in an upcoming federal election.
“In light of this latest summer spike in gun violence, which has hurt my riding — and Lawrence Heights in particular — far too much, I am calling on Premier Ford to act . . . Lives depend on it.”
Mayor John Tory’s spokesperson Don Peat said the mayor was first made aware of the “potential withdrawal” by the province this June ahead of the official opening of the first new Toronto Community Housing building in Lawrence Heights.
“Together with local Councillor Mike Colle, he immediately approached MPP Robin Martin at the event to express concern about this possibility and to offer help in producing a positive result,” Peat said Wednesday, adding the mayor is determined to see the hub built.
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“Lawrence Heights is a neighbourhood of great opportunity. It needs and deserves the complete support of all governments to make it the proud, peaceful community of hope that it can be.”
According to Toronto police, there have been 14 reported shootings in Lawrence Heights since January. In five of those shootings, a total of six people were injured. The others left bullet holes in homes and vehicles, or there people who were shot at but uninjured, said police, who would not comment further on ongoing investigations as they appeal to the public for information. A spokesperson called the concentration of shootings in July “very concerning to police in the area.”
Colle said he’d also like to see police open a satellite office in the neighbourhood, which he said would reassure local residents.
There are currently four dedicated neighbourhood officers assigned to Lawrence Heights, police said Wednesday.
The revitalization in Lawrence Heights got underway in earnest, with demolitions of existing townhomes, in late 2015. The first phase is expected to be completed in 2021.
The community centre was scheduled to be completed during phase 2 of the project, Toronto Community Housing spokesperson Bruce Malloch told the Star.
A city-run youth hub — a dedicated space within a community centre or library offering after-school activities, snacks and a safe environment to do homework or spend time with friends — was proposed for Lawrence Heights and more than a dozen other locations after a push by Councillor Josh Matlow during the 2018 municipal campaign. The proposal was for the Lawrence Heights site to be open in 2020. Council voted against funding the first phase of the proposed expansion plan earlier this year.
With files from Emma Sandri
Jennifer Pagliaro is a Toronto-based reporter covering city politics. Follow her on Twitter: @jpags