Historicist: Dreaming of Domes
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Historicist: Dreaming of Domes

Riverdale Park—Senior Baseball, Opening, May 22, 1915. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 200, Series 372, Subseries 52, Item 511.

A spring weeknight. A fan planning to go to that night’s Blue Jays game flips on the radio to check on the traffic heading to the ballpark.

Traffic and weather together on the twos…and it’s an ugly night on the roads this evening. You’ll want to stay away from the Gardiner due to the protest that has proceeded up onto the freeway at Spadina. As a result, both directions are closed from Jarvis to Jameson, while traffic on the southbound Don Valley Parkway is being diverted onto Richmond Street. Those of you headed to the ball game will find traffic much heavier than normal by the ballpark…expect lengthy delays on Bayview, Gerrard, Parliament and other streets around the Dome as game traffic mixes in with drivers trying to escape the DVP at River Street. If you can, walk, bike or take the subway to Castle Frank to get to the game…

On a parallel world, this report may have come in handy if a scheme to place a domed stadium in Riverdale Park had come to fruition. This was one of many sites, along with areas stretching from Downsview to Exhibition Place, that were targeted as potential spots for a multi-million dollar domed stadium in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Why Toronto doesn’t boast a “Metrodome” and why the Blue Jays played their first game in a snowstorm is a tale of local rivalries, rising political careers, financial disinterest from higher levels of government, and the quest to make Toronto a “world class city.”

Proposed stadium site, North York, circa 1965. Future North York Mayor Basil Hall is on the left. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 217, Series 249, File 91, Item 0003.

By the dawn of the 1960s, the hunt was on to improve professional athletic facilities in the region. Maple Leaf Stadium was considered inadequate to attract a major league baseball team, while CNE (later Exhibition) Stadium was felt to need sprucing up for the Argonauts. A proposal for expanded facilities was championed by City of Toronto Mayor Donald Summerville but failed to make much progress.
Then came the Astrodome.

Once the first indoor stadium opened in Houston in April 1965, officials from other cities lined up for an audience with developer Roy Hofheinz. With our unpredictable winter climate, it didn’t take long for Toronto developers and politicians to float dome proposals. Among the initial sites proposed by the City of Toronto’s Board of Control was the Don Valley Golf Course at Yonge Street and Highway 401. Controller William Archer was the proponent of this plan, noting that the planned subway extension along Yonge might disturb the site enough that it would no longer be suitable for a round of golf. During a November 1965 meeting, Archer pointed out that parking at the site could be used for commuters during the week. Opposition was voiced by future mayor William Dennison, who noted that the city had handed over the property specifically to Metropolitan Toronto for use as a golf course, even though the city had hoped to use the site for a zoo. He felt that golfers deserved consideration before sports fans who would only “sit on their fannies.” He also felt it was questionable for taxpayer money to be used for private sports, as the subject came up during discussions on a request for financial assistance from the Maple Leafs ball club. Dennison maintained his opposition to dome schemes during his mayoral campaign in the fall of 1966, when he knocked a forty-five million dollar proposal at the time as “far too expensive” and one the city would take a huge annual deficit on.

Another dome plan was unveiled in 1968 for the city’s bid for the 1976 Olympics. Situated on landfill south of Exhibition Place, this stadium was part of a proposal that included housing for ten thousand athletes at the foot of Bathurst Street and a subway along Queen Street. Montreal’s winning bid killed this plan, but on the bright side we didn’t wind up with the ever-unlucky Big O.

Borough of North York Council, 1967. Paul Godfrey is fourth from left in the back row, James Service is fourth from the left in the front row. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 217, Series 249, File 264, Item 0001.

Up in North York, Mayor James Service unveiled a plan for a dome at the north end of the Downsview Airport lands in June 1969. Estimated to cost forty-nine million dollars, Service felt that the site was ideal due to its proximity to 401, the Spadina Expressway, and a proposed subway line. The difficulty was securing the land from the federal government and promises of funding from federal and provincial levels. Most of the North York Board of Control supported the plan, with much enthusiasm shown by an up and coming local councillor named Paul Godfrey.

In October 1969, Bramalea Consolidated Developments and Toronto Alderman Joseph Piccininni announced a plan to build a seventy-million-dollar closed stadium and adjoining hockey arena in Riverdale Park, which had long been a site for amateur baseball games. As plans were afoot to move the zoo out of the park within a few years, the site would soon become one of the largest open spaces in the core. If the proposal went ahead, Bramalea planned to ask for the creating of access to a parking structure from Bayview Avenue and the Don Valley Parkway, as well as to provide its support for improved public transit in the area, including GO service from Hamilton and Oshawa. The plan met with some resistance from local residents and fellow councillors like Fred Beavis, who argued that the area should be preserved as a park. As Beavis noted, “everybody agrees we need a domed stadium, but every time a proposition comes up somebody tries to kill it.”

The reaction from North York? “I’m not really disturbed,” said Service, “that another plan is being brought forward. In fact I’m rather amused.” Service decided not to run for re-election as mayor to help spearhead his city’s stadium plan and prevent it from becoming “a political football.”

The next year proved a rocky one for dome plans. A delegation from North York attended Major League Baseball’s winter meeting in December 1969, only to learn that Milwaukee and Buffalo were considered the next likely spots for franchises (Milwaukee didn’t have to wait long, as the Seattle Pilots moved there prior to the 1970 season). North York proceeded to form a “Mission Metrodome” citizens committee which included Loblaws President Leon Weinstein, comedian Johnny Wayne, and Paul Godfrey. The latter was critical of the slow pace and lukewarm enthusiasm for building a dome and hoped that the announcement of Montreal’s winning Olympic bid in May 1970 would budge local politicians out of their “short pants” approach to large scale projects and “jar some of them into action.”

Opponents made their views known in local newspaper opinion pieces, one of the loudest coming from athlete/then Ontario Treasury Board employee Bruce Kidd. In a letter published in the Star on January 28, 1970, Kidd stated that:

Toronto needs a domed sports stadium about as much as it needs the Spadina Expressway. Like not at all… The stadium’s very existence would satisfy politicians that Toronto’s sports needs have been met. As a result, they would be even more reluctant than they are now to approve spending on parks and facilities for physical recreation. And just to make it pay, every organization in the city—service clubs, church groups, unions, school student bodies—would be pressured to plan its activities around the stadium’s attractions…The real reason we’re being told we need a $100 million stadium is that it would make Toronto a Major League city.

The themes running through most opposing views were that amateur athletes would likely not wind up with their promised facilities, that support for baseball was dying in the city, and that the required funding could be better spent on housing, parks, and other elements to improve the everyday quality of life of Torontonians.

The quest for a dome gained new momentum after the 1970 Grey Cup game at CNE Stadium. During the match, TV cameras caught Montreal Alouettes quarterback Sonny Wade yanking a large chunk of the muddy field and tossing it aside in frustration. Wade later claimed that it had been the worst playing surface he had ever encountered. Godfrey was quoted as saying “it didn’t do our image any good. Imagine a city this size offering a field like that for the Grey Cup.” In December 1970, a five-man Metro Council committee headed by Toronto Alderman David Rotenberg that included Godfrey and former Toronto Mayor Allan Lamport was formed to push forward the dome, with Downsview as their primary site. Rotenberg was convinced that action had to be taken during 1971, with hopes that the federal government might send money to Toronto to compensate for all of the money being poured into Montreal. Plans to spend $16 million dollars to refurbish CNE Stadium were lambasted by the committee, unless they were treated as a stopgap measure before a dome. Suggestions of a lakefront site were dismissed due to the cost of operating pumps to keep water away from stadium walls sunk into the ground.

Map of proposed Downsview site. The Telegram, August 18, 1971.

In August 1971, a new forty-five million dollar Downsview plan was unveiled. As it seemed unlikely private enterprise would fund the stadium, the proposal called for 50% of funding to be covered by Ottawa, 30% by Queen’s Park, and 20% by Metro taxpayers. When East York Mayor True Davidson asked if the stadium would be put to a plebiscite, Rotenberg indicated that he saw “no reason to put it on the ballot.” This made the Globe and Mail uneasy, with an editorial noting that “it would appear the worst thing that could happen to the stadium issue would be to let it fall into the wrong hands. Those of the electors.” The Telegram felt a dome would be an opportunity for local Liberal MPs “to demonstrate whether they can truly do anything for their home town…the task of persuading the Government that it would be money well spent should not be too difficult even for the somewhat limited energies of our MPs.” Long letters for and against the dome were published, ranging from Humber MPP George Ben calling it “the most blatant con job I have seen in my lifetime…a laugh from start to finish—or would be if it did not seriously threaten your pocket and mine,” to Godfrey’s boast that “the Metrodome could become known as one of the greatest single advances in Canadian history with respect to professional sports as well as amateur athletics.”

As Davidson and the Globe and Mail feared, a plebiscite was never held, as Metro Council decided against a vote during a September 1971 meeting. They also voted not to hire an economist to study the exact costs of a dome, which did not ease the worries of those like North York controller Mel Lastman, who figured the price tag would be at least double the estimate. Both the federal and provincial governments showed no inclination to provide any funding. While figures like Piccininni and Rotenberg continued to investigate plans (including one for King Street across from the Royal Alex), dreams of a dome faded into the background.
It would take another Grey Cup game a decade later to revive dreams of a dome…but that’s a tale for another day.

Additional material from the following newspapers: The Globe and Mail: November 18, 1965, October 29, 1969, August 18, 1971, and August 19, 1971; The Toronto Star: November 24, 1966, August 9, 1968, December 12, 1969, January 28, 1970, May 13, 1970, January 9, 1971, August 21, 1971, and August 26, 1971; and the Telegram: October 29, 1969 and August 20, 1971.