Why it’s hard to tell NIMBYism from racism

By Chantal Braganza - Published on Sep 30, 2015
Parking and traffic are often cited as concerns for religious developments, even when building plans are changed to address them.

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Earlier this month, hundreds of Mississauga residents attended a city planning committee meeting.

The meeting was unremarkable in many respects: the committee was deciding whether or not a proposed new building should be approved. A long line of residents came up to the microphone to explain why they thought the building should or shouldn’t go ahead. As with many new buildings, concerns over increased traffic came up repeatedly.

But then Kevin Johnston stepped up to the microphone. Johnston had published a website and distributed flyers stating the new building would, among other things, lead to increased violence and crime in the surrounding neighbourhood and “set women’s rights back a century.”

The new building was a mosque proposed by the Meadowvale Islamic Centre. Mayor Bonnie Crombie questioned Johnston about the site and flyers.

“Is this what you believe in?” she asked.

“It’s what I believe in but I’m not here to talk about that.” Johnston said, as groups of people in attendance cheered for him. Like the other residents at the meeting, he said he wanted to keep his comments focused on other concerns he had about the centre, such as noise and parking.

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Community reticence to new development of any kind is a common occurrence. But parsing the nature of that resistance to religious developments in particular brings up difficult questions about what a community considers appropriate for its neighbourhood or not—and whose voices often get amplified the most in such discussions.

The story of the Meadowvale Islamic Centre mosque is, as with many other building projects by religious groups, a long one. In 2002, the group bought property in the northwestern part of the Mississauga, right across from the Erin Mills Town Centre shopping mall. Already zoned for religious worship use, the plan was to build a mosque and community centre on the one-acre lot instead of renting church and gym spaces for worship nearby.

However, the neighbourhood expressed concerns that the property wasn’t big enough to provide adequate parking and that the lack of a traffic light at the property entrance would cause traffic problems. That forced Meadowvale Islamic Centre to go back to the drawing board.

So, over the next eight years, the group continued to rent spaces. They raised enough money to buy the lot next door, which would allow them more parking space and, as a corner lot, did have access to a traffic light. The original plan called for an 18,000-square-foot building with prayer areas, a gymnasium and classrooms. Unlike the first lot, however, this new one would need to be re-zoned. So the Meadowvale Islamic Centre’s executive team prepared for a lengthy re-zoning application. More than two years later, a reduced plan for a 12,000 square foot building with several changes to address local objections made it to Mississauga’s Planning and Development Committee.

“When we learned about some of the concerns and the feedback from neighbours, we said, ‘Let’s scale it down. Let’s make sure our neighbours are happy to the maximum level we can,” says Moid Mohammed, a trustee of the Meadowvale Islamic Centre.

Mohammed is hesitant to connect neighbour objections to anti-religious or anti-Islamic sentiment specifically. “People react to any change,” he says. “Mississauga is the sixth-largest city in the country, and it’s growing, and I do think that change brings some resistance in neighbours.”

But Mariana Valverde, a professor of criminology and sociolegal studies at the University of Toronto, says when it comes to planning developments for marginalized communities, from religious group to the homeless, what seem like understandable objections related to parking and traffic can mask deeper concerns. Valverde’s 2013 book, Everyday Law on the Street, outlines a number of such cases.

She brings up another Mississauga example from 1996, when the Canadian Islamic Trust Foundation applied to re-zone an industrial site in the area. It was initially rejected on the grounds of preserving the prestige industrial site despite, she points out, that applications for a school and a church already existed in the area. The CITF ended up taking the case to the Ontario Municipal Board, where the application was eventually cleared. “The OMB ended up doing this basic education thing,” she says “telling residents that because Muslims go to mosque on Fridays more than other days, then they won’t be causing traffic pile-ups next door.”

Zak Ghanim, a GTA-based architect, has worked on mosque and church projects in Markham, London, Toronto and Mississauga over the past 20 years. Almost every time, he says, the usual traffic, parking and noise concerns are brought up, but objections to religious-based aesthetics and functions are also not uncommon. In one memorable case, while working on Jam’e Masjid, Markham’s first mosque in 1999, neighbours objected to features such as the traditional dome and minaret.

“People thought it was a spying tower,” he says of the 110 ft. tower that was eventually lowered to 80 through community consultation. “When you’re opposing for the sake of opposition, you’ll come up with anything.”

Difficult planning experiences aren’t limited to Islamic developments. Wong Dai Sin, a Taoist Tai Chi temple that opened two months ago in Thornhill, a suburb just north of Toronto. Eight years ago, the Fung Loy Kok Institute purchased a lot in a residential area of the city that had previously housed an empty ’70s-era home. “We bought the property in 2007; we got permission for occupancy in 2014,” says Chris Farano, manager of Greater Toronto Locations for Fung Loy Kok. What happened in between was a procession of community consultations, re-zoning applications that were approved by city planners but fought by local politicians and neighbours, and a case taken to the OMB, where the project was eventually approved.

Farano says the initial reaction to the project from local politicians was mild. “They went along with the process until we had the first public meeting, when it was a shambles.”

“The councillor stood back while members of the public skewered every professional we brought in to deal with parking, traffic, civil engineering. They even called into question the credentials of the people we brought in.”

“We can’t keep asking these groups to mollify the neighbours," says Valverde. Such participatory planning mechanisms, she says, “can be used for all kinds of ways to re-enact all kinds of prejudices and inequalities that were already there. And it does take at some point a local politician to say, ‘Enough already.’”

Which is what happened in Mississauga this month. “This is heinous,” Mayor Crombie told Johnston of his published website and flyers. “This is hate-mongering.”

In a public statement published later that day, Crombie wrote: “This proposal met all of the City’s planning requirements, including zoning and parking requirements and addressed traffic concerns. It was also consistent with the policies of our Official Plan for where places of religious assembly are to be located.”

The Planning and Development Committee voted that evening to approve the mosque proposal by a vote of 11 to one. The final vote on the development will go to Mississauga City Council on October 14.

Despite the difficulties in getting the mosque built, Moid Mohammed of Meadowvale Islamic Centre wants to stress the positive relationships the group has with the larger community.

“We’re involved in a lot of community services,” he says. “We’ve adopted roads nearby, we clean them three times a year … we do food drives for the local food bank. We’ve been involved in interfaith dialogue, family day walkathons, and humanitarian relief. So, whenever people see us in these activities they appreciate our presence here, too.”

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