The city council in Vaughan, Ont., north of Toronto, is slated to vote on April 11 on whether to accept a plan for a controversial Muslim community and housing complex.
Hundreds packed Vaughan’s council chambers on April 4, for a meeting in which both sides aired their concerns about the project.
It’s a passionate debate that’s been ongoing since 2013, when the Islamic Shia Ithna Asheri Jamaat of Toronto (ISIJ) applied to build the development.
The original plan, unveiled in 2014, called for two 17-storey residential towers, 61 townhouses and retail space on its 11-hectare property at 9000 Bathurst St., south of Rutherford Road, in the heavily Jewish area known as Thornhill Woods.
But almost immediately, concerns about traffic, congestion and density surfaced, amid religious tensions and alarm that the complex would be a Muslim-only enclave.
At one meeting in 2014, some 2,000 residents aired concerns and more than 3,000 signed a petition opposing the project.
After 28 meetings with city staff and the Preserve Thornhill Woods Association, the ISIJ pared down the plan and proposed 60 three-storey townhouses, a six-storey seniors’ residence, an eight-storey residential building, a three-storey above-ground parking garage, a high school and a new park and nature trail along the East Don River.
The underdeveloped site, called Jaffari Village, currently houses a mosque and community centre in one building, an elementary school and a banquet hall.
Rom Koubi, chair of the Preserve Thornhill Woods Association, acknowledged that the ISIJ has addressed many of his group’s concerns, but that there are still several outstanding issues: not enough parking, increased traffic and services for the planned homes, including what he said is a sewer system that does not have the capacity to handle more houses.
Koubi said the association hired traffic consultants and engineers to support its claims.
Koubi said that the report compiled by city staff “still had holes” and that his group’s concerns “were not covered properly” in it.
If council omits some of the association’s demands when it votes on the issue on Wednesday, the group can go to the Ontario Municipal Board. “It’s not necessarily an appeal because we’re not going against the city. We’re going in a kind of parallel route to the city,” said Koubi.
The association has also “insisted” on keeping some of the woodlands on the property, after the ISIJ wanted to cut down 3,000 trees to build some of the townhomes, Koubi said.
He conceded that there are many similarities between the Jaffari project and Peace Village, an Ahmadiyya Muslim development about 10 kilometres northwest of the site, at Jane Street, south of Teston Road. It consists of 260 homes, with a mosque as its centrepiece.
“However, from day one, they were inclusive,” Koubi said. “Over here, if not for our fight, this would have been solely for the members of the Jaffari community.”
He acknowledged that the ISIJ has said that the development would be open to everybody, “but based on conservations and the expectations of their members, it doesn’t look like it’s going to be open (to non-Muslims).”
Mark Flowers, ISIJ’s legal counsel, told The CJN that the Islamic group has “repeatedly confirmed” that the proposed development “is intended to be inclusive of others.”
He enclosed a letter from ISIJ to Thornhill Ward 4 Councillor Sandra Yeung Racco dated March 2014, stating that the development will be “inclusive” and “open to all members of the public.”
Koubi estimated that the Jewish population of the surrounding neighbourhood has dipped below 50 per cent, from about 70 per cent in 2014.