10,000 jobs, three million square feet, and a lot of unanswered questions.
The most important thing to recognize about the splashy proposal for a casino complex MGM showed off today is that it isn’t actually a plan—it’s a concept. There are drawings, but they are meant to illustrate ideas rather than concrete designs. Even if Toronto agrees to host a casino, and even if the OLG awards the contract to MGM, there is no guarantee that the end result will look like the renderings above. Nor, in fairness, was MGM pretending otherwise: all the representatives who addressed media this morning were very clear on this fact. (“This isn’t a proposal,” cautioned MGM vice president Alan Feldman. “This is a tool for having a discussion.”)
This is not MGM’s fault, but a constraint imposed by the process is currently underway. Toronto City Council can only green light the existence of a casino in Toronto—they can accept or reject that basic proposition. Everything that comes after will be determined by the OLG. On the one hand, the OLG has said they won’t build in any city that rejects a casino. On the other, the cities across Ontario that are making that choice right now have no say in any of the particulars involved. Council can’t, for instance, approve this MGM proposal specifically, or even approve a casino for Exhibition Place (as opposed to any other location) specifically. It’s only if council agrees to host a casino—which they’ll decide at a meeting to be held in April—that the Ontario Lottery and Gaming Corporation (OLG) will issue a formal Request for Proposals. And it’s only once those proposals come in that we’ll have a real sense of the location, form, and scope a casino complex might have.
In the meantime all anyone can do is produce their best guesses and biggest hopes. Today was MGM’s turn.
MGM’s hopes are certainly great. Their development would be about three million square feet. Eight per cent of that area, or 240,000 square feet, would be allocated to the casino itself. They’d also build a 1,200-room hotel, a shopping centre, about ten restaurants, and an 800-900 seat performance space that would serve as a permanent Toronto base for Cirque du Soleil. They would eliminate the 3,500 surface parking spots currently on the site, and build a 10,000 spot underground parking facility. Several new pedestrian bridges would be added to span Lakeshore Boulevard, and though it’s not in the renderings, a physical model of the site (which media was not allowed to photograph) called for a new streetcar spur that would drop people off close by.
Some key questions that emerged from their presentation:
Transportation and traffic
MGM has a traffic study underway, but it is not yet complete or publicly available. They anticipate a 75/25 per cent split in terms of how people access the casino complex: three quarters of visitors, they believe, will come by car, and a quarter by public transit. Projections for the number of visitors they anticipate each day are not currently available, however.
MGM representatives told us that they have had “very preliminary” conversations with the TTC about their streetcar expansion idea, but TTC CEO Andy Byford told us (via spokesperson Brad Ross) that he hasn’t seen a plan, and the TTC will not be commenting on any of these proposals right now. And while MGM says that building the new track would be part of their investment in the site—that is, they’d foot the bill—this leaves unanswered questions about service levels, operating costs, and the impact on riders who use the streetcar to get in and out of downtown. It also isn’t MGM’s call. Though they made the case for enhanced TTC and GO service today, that will be up to the agencies themselves.
Mike Layton (Ward 19, Trinity-Spadina) represents the area that includes Exhibition Place, and the impact of a casino complex on traffic is one of his biggest concerns. He told reporters today that the new complex would create “5,000 car trips an hour on Lakeshore and on the Gardiner” and is extremely worried about the added pressure this will put on both the roads and TTC service.
MGM went to great lengths today to try to reassure anyone who might be worried about the impact a casino complex would have on The Ex, emphasizing that their plan included a large amount of space for the midway—that it would be even better, in fact, since it was closer to the waterfront and the landscaping would improve substantially. They are also promising to cover the losses The Ex would suffer because its own casino would be displaced by the new complex, for a period of 10 years.
As several reporters pointed out, however, the visitor experience at The Ex, especially for families with children, will be substantially different, especially given the greater distance between the midway and the permanent buildings. More broadly, there’s a question about whether families will be less likely to come to The Ex if it’s located by a major casino complex, as opposed to the small, homespun temporary casino that is currently part of The Ex. CNE president Brian Ashton has so far opposed any suggestion that The Ex could successfully co-exist with a casino complex.
Today’s proposal included a pedestrian connection to the neighbouring Liberty Village, which Feldman touted as an opportunity rather than a threat. MGM projects their complex will create 10,000 full-time jobs; those are people who might frequent Liberty Village shops and bars, and live in its condos, he suggested.
Layton, the Liberty Village BIA, and a major developer in the area are not persuaded: all are opposed to a casino complex at Exhibition Place on the grounds that it will disrupt life for residents and businesses in the area. Worries range from traffic congestion, to the economic impact on local shops and restaurants of having a much flashier venue close by, to a potential spike in crime.
City staff from many departments have been working together to produce a full report on the potential impact of a casino complex in Toronto. That report is expected to be released next week, and will be discussed by city council’s executive committee on March 20. The committee is composed of Mayor Rob Ford’s strongest allies; Ford is strongly in favour of a casino and it is widely anticipated that the executive committee will endorse a casino complex—though, again, that will be for a casino in principle, not for any particular location, developer, or proposal. If they do support a casino then a full city-council debate will take place, likely in early April, to make a final decision on the matter.