Wajid Iqbal has shaped his family's life around living in and operating a small business out of Toronto's Thorncliffe Park neighbourhood, but construction related to the Ontario Line means his family may need to change everything soon.
Iqbal, owner of iPlus Business Centre, which provides a multitude of services including tax services and real estate, has been a mainstay of the neighbourhood since 2007.
When businesses in Thorncliffe Park began to be expropriated for construction related to the Ontario Line, he thought, with no word about his building, that his business at 28 Overlea Blvd. was spared. But last month, he learned from his landlord that all tenants of his building would need to be out for good at some point later this year — cutting short his lease by six years.
"I never thought that I would move out of this area," he said. "I'll have to build my business again."
With so many businesses needing to move, he said he's had no success so far finding somewhere to go within the neighbourhood.
"My family's upset. They all moved with me here. And now we have to move somewhere else."
Businesses like iPlus Business Centre will need to move to make way for Ontario Line related construction. (Clara Pasieka/CBC)
He said he feels certain he will lose business if longtime customers have to drive to see him. He worries he doesn't have the energy he might have had early in his career to market his business' new location enough to attract customers his way.
And according to a recent report, Iqbal is far from alone. The Canadian Urban Institute looked at the importance of supporting communities during major transit infrastructure projects, and used Thorncliffe Park as its case study. The report was commissioned by the City of Toronto with funding from the Federal Economic Development Agency for Southern Ontario. It only gave recommendations to the city on how it could better support small businesses, rather than making recommendations for the province, who is responsible for the transit project, as the city was the report's recipient.
The Ontario Line is a project of the provincial transit agency, Metrolinx. Multiple businesses at 2 Thorncliffe Park Dr., who were told earlier in the process their strip of businesses would be expropriated, told CBC Toronto they could not discuss details of the agreement on record.
The Ministry of Infrastructure directed all questions about the report to Metrolinx. A spokesperson for Metrolinx said in a statement "In the event we need to acquire property to support a transit project, Metrolinx works to ensure tenants and owners do not experience a financial loss."
The spokesperson would not share details of any agreements saying each case is considered independently to "ensure the right solutions" for each owner and tenant.
City should help Thorncliffe get a BIA: report
One of the report's core recommendations is to establish a Business Improvement Area — an association of commercial property owners and tenants who work in partnership with the city to create a thriving business area and neighbourhood — for Thorncliffe Park.
That's because the city— home to over 80 BIAs — has created funding streams only available to BIAs or other recognized groups like registered charities, but not individual businesses.
In 2022, Toronto City Council authorized a new Transit Expansion Construction Mitigation grant program using $1.38 million in funding from Metrolinx and the federal government. The program would assist BIAs and businesses associations impacted by major transit construction projects with business engagement, marketing, research, needs assessments and more.
Thorncliffe Park businesses were left out of the city's few opportunities for financial assistance because a BIA was not established, said Jennifer Barrett, managing director of planning and policy for the Canadian Urban Institute.
"They're small, independent businesses — often they are the livelihood of families and households," said Barrett.
"Many of these businesses had already suffered through the challenges of the pandemic and now were faced with another, more complex issue to deal with."
Businesses at 2 Thorncliffe Park Dr. must soon leave to make way for Metrolinx construction related to the Ontario Line. (Clara Pasieka/CBC)
The decision to start a BIA is ultimately made by the people who own or lease commercial property in the area, but the process heavily involves councillors and city staff.
The councillor for the area, Jayne Robinson, was not available to speak to CBC Toronto about this report's recommendations.
Eric Holmes, a spokesperson for the city says businesses in Thorncliffe Park could be eligible for funding from the Commercial Space Rehabilitation Grant Program, which provides federal funding distributed by the city for interior renovations to businesses impacted by transit construction.
CBC Toronto is spending time in the Thorncliffe Park neighbourhood as part of our Communities in Focus initiative. Our goal is to hear your stories about this unique neighbourhood and share them with the rest of the city.
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More direct support to businesses offered elsewhere
Ryan Mallough, vice president of legislative affairs for Ontario for the Canadian Federation of Independent Business, said a bigger issue isn't the absence of a BIA, it's that businesses should be more directly supported by the city.
"A direct compensation program would help offset some of those challenges more directly than the indirect version that Toronto currently has through the BIA," he said.
He said businesses who are asked to leave may be impacted and disrupted in other ways, such as construction. But with so many transit projects underway in the city, the report offers important lessons for this and future projects, he added.
Many businesses in Thorncliffe Park have been displaced to make way for Metrolinx construction. (Clara Pasieka/CBC)
"For those businesses who are about to go under the long haul on the construction side, you want to make sure that any existing program is readily available and that any future programs are not restrained by having a BIA," he said.
The report also highlighted programs that offered direct compensation to businesses affected by major construction in other cities, including Montreal, which provides thousands of dollars directly to impacted businesses deemed eligible. Mallough says Toronto could copy a program or create one of its own.
The Canadian Urban Institute also recommended the city create a municipal liaison position to help businesses who need to relocate deal with licensing and permitted, among other challenges. It also recommends on boarding dedicated municipal staff and working closely with trusted local organizations to offer additional communication support
A Thorncliffe business displays a sign indicating its moved. A Metrolinx construction site is revealed in the reflection. Photo taken Jan 29, 2024. (Clara Pasieka/CBC)
Many of Iqbal's neighbours at 2 Thorncliffe Park have already placed "We've moved" signs on their windows, with a handful listing new addresses many neighbourhoods away or even outside Toronto city limits.
Iqbal hopes a far away new location isn't his fate.
"I have served this community for 16 years … You see your own people, you're talking to them, they talk to you," said Iqbal, who helps customers in both English and Urdu. "Somewhere else? Probably you're not gonna get that feeling."