John Tory Calls for a Large Park in the Redeveloped Ontario Place
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John Tory Calls for a Large Park in the Redeveloped Ontario Place

Review panel delivered its report on the future of Ontario Place to the provincial government this morning.

Photo by {a href=""}Tom Podolec{/a} from the {a href=""}Torontoist Flickr Pool{/a}.

Six months ago, the provincial government announced that Ontario Place would be shut down, effective immediately, and that an expert panel would be convened to study options for revitalizing the aging waterfront attraction. Today, that panel delivered its report on Ontario Place to Minister of Tourism and Culture Michael Chan.

Calling it “an exciting model for a new Ontario Place,” John Tory summarized the panel’s recommendations [PDF] for reporters this morning. The panel is calling for a major “state of the art park” to be built on the site: one that is free, easily accessible, and where “people can gather at any time of day and at any point in the year.” They recommend that this park take up the majority of the site, and that development be scaled accordingly, to maintain Ontario Place as a primarily public space. This should include some residential—but “not a wall of condos”—a major institutional or corporate anchor tenant, some retail and entertainment tenants, and new transit infrastructure to support this development.

The panel was determined, said Tory, to develop plans for an Ontario Place “that better reflects Ontario’s culture and history and life…a lot of things have changes since Ontario Place was conceived and built.” Noting the rapid waterfront growth Toronto has seen in the past two decades, Tory emphasized that Ontario Place needed to serve the residents of the city and the nearby communities: “a new opportunity to work and to live and to play and to discover along the water’s edge.” Residential, institutional, and retail tenants are key, says Tory, to keeping Ontario Place vital throughout the year, and not just a seasonal summer attraction.

It’s a stark contrast to the vision for the waterfront that the mayor and his vocal brother have presented since being elected to office, a clear rejection of the Ferris wheel/casino model of development in favour of some more urbanist city-building goals. John Tory’s Ontario Place is meant for the people who live here, not trying to attract tourists for the weekend.

“We strongly recommend bold, excellent design, and insistence on using sustainable and green building principles,” Tory went on, repeating that “discipline” would be required in choosing private-sector development partners who respect these goals. “Any new projects, we believe, must respect and enhance the natural beauty of the surroundings by protecting sightlines to the water,” a point that is discouraging for condo developers who might want to build up—high up—against the water’s edge, and put those lakeside views in their promotional materials.

Tory spoke with clear affection about the old Forum concert venue; he hopes Ontario Place will create a free outdoor performance space (as opposed to the current ticketed amphitheatre). And allaying concerns many historically-minded Torontonians have expressed, the panel recommends keeping the cinesphere and pods; “it’ll never become part of our heritage if we tear it down after 40 years,” Tory remarked this morning.

It is a sweeping vision, one with something for (almost) everyone, and which will be appealing to many residents. What’s far less clear is whether the report includes funding proposals that will get us anywhere close to realizing it.

A sketch of some transit options for Ontario Place (see page 49 of the report).

“[S]uccessfully revitalizing an asset like Ontario Place requires the creation of new partnerships with the private sector,” proclaims the report, but all of the admirable goals about keeping developed, scaled-to-modest proportions may precisely undermine that goal.

The recommendations call for a maximum of 10–15 per cent of the land to go to residential development, and for that development to be on the lower end of the height spectrum. With the hotel, small-scale retail, and major commercial or institutional tenant (the MaRS Discovery District, Corus Quay, and the new George Brown waterfront campus are cited as examples) the report recommends, this amounts to some significant but not enormous opportunities for investment.

Some are already concerned that the private sector money the report envisions won’t be enough to underwrite the revitalization work, and that it would come with strings that would quickly start pulling at Tory’s carefully laid-out vision of a new public space. “It’s not really clear what their focus is and if they’ve broken down the numbers,” councillor Mike Layton (Ward 19, Trinity-Spadina), told us by phone after Tory finished his press conference. He represents the ward in which Ontario Place is located, and while he supports many of today’s recommendations—especially making Ontario Place a year-round venue, making it a public space, and building to high environmental standards—he is sceptical that there’s been enough work done around the financing elements. “All of these great things,” he says, and somehow (the implication is magically), “they are going to be funded by private dollars, that aren’t a wall of condos… This isn’t going to fund the whole thing.”

This, of course, raises the question of what role the government might, and should, play in reshaping Ontario Place. MPP Rosario Marchese (NDP, Trinity-Spadina) echoed many of Layton’s concerns, telling CP24 that while he “agrees absolutely” with the panel that Ontario Place should be a public space, he was worried that “there was so much emphasis on the private sector… I really believe the government needs to be a strong player.” Neither he nor Layton spent much time addressing the panel’s other funding recommendation, that Ontario Place pursue philanthropic donations and sponsorships aggressively. Though there are some recent high-profile examples (Millennium Park in Chicago, which got up to 50 per cent of its funding from donations and sponsorships, comes up often in the report), it’s not a practice that has been used to raise such large amounts of money in Toronto before.

Layton is also concerned that some other details haven’t been thought through: building an outdoor concert venue is all well and good, he points out, but you can’t have it near residential developments because you’ll immediately be flooded with noise complaints. Most worrying to Layton, though, is the ability to get appropriate transit into the community. “You’re still missing the key piece, which is how transit is going to work.”

The last recommendation in the report addresses this question. According to Tory, the panel consulted with Metrolinx in looking at transit ideas for Ontario Place. That agency estimated that one of the leading options—looping the Exhibition Place streetcar through Ontario Place—might cost $100 million. “We’ve got to decide it’s time to suck it up in this region,” said Tory, “and decide how to pay for the transit we desperately need.” As the report more diplomatically puts it: “We understand that the current fiscal situation of governments across the country means there is limited funding for new or enhanced transportation projects.”

The language of the report is telling in its tentativeness: “Ontario place should explore” is perhaps the most-often used phrase in its 55 pages. Whether the Province will take up those recommendations and pursue the direction the panel suggests remains to be seen: the Liberal government has not yet issued a formal response to the report. Minister Chan was not in attendance at today’s announcement; Tory said that he spoke with Chan this morning, and that the panel will be meeting with him tomorrow to discuss their recommendations in detail.