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It’s time for politicians and planners to say no to the Ontario Place redevelopment plans
Sept. 12, 2023

The battle for Ontario Place is coming to a head. The City of Toronto will hold an online public meeting on Tuesday night about the province’s plans to redevelop the waterfront site. Sometime this fall, city planners will state their opinion about that scheme. By December, Toronto City Council, led by Mayor Olivia Chow, must take a stand: Do they support it? Yes or no?

The answer must be no. But it’s unclear whether the city is ready to speak the truth and pick a fight.

Last Thursday, the plan was discussed at an in-person public meeting held by the city. The big news was no news: The plan is much the same as it was last year. Its subject of controversy, the indoor waterpark run by the private operator Therme, is nearly as big and destructive as ever.

That is a problem. “The discussion has been largely about the size and scale of the building,” Toronto chief planner Gregg Lintern said in an interview after the meeting. “That’s the central struggle that we are having with this proposition.”

The province has agreed to let this project move through the city’s planning apparatus, but the clock runs out at the end of the year. So a possible standoff between city and province is coming soon.

The issues are not getting any smaller. In August, Therme said the waterpark was now 25-per-cent reduced “in volume,” a claim unchallenged by local press. This turned out to be spin. At last week’s meeting, city planning official Colin Wolfe revealed the new design is in fact 5.8-per-cent smaller than the last one. Its “gross floor area,” which is how you conventionally measure a building, is still 660,279 square feet, or about 12 football fields.

It’s the same old spa, still stadium-sized – just shorter. It continues to destroy and replace the entire West Island at Ontario Place, which is the heart of the park’s internationally significant landscape architecture.

Therme is now pledging to put so-called “park space” on the roof of the building, and to enlarge the island itself even further into Lake Ontario.

But is that space really “park”? Who will run it, use it, and control it? Infrastructure Ontario official Ross Burnett explained that the outdoor space is leased to Therme but will be operated by the government, and made public 24-7. There’s a commitment to this in Therme’s lease, he said – but that lease remains secret.

None of this is worth the paper it’s allegedly printed on. Toronto has many examples of “privately owned public space” that, over time, become less and less public.

Confused yet?

Therme wants you to be. The company, its partners at Infrastructure Ontario and their consultants, including planners Urban Strategies and architects Diamond Schmitt and ERA, have been selling and spinning, pushing forward a project that no one has asked for (except Premier Doug Ford) and which has huge negative impacts.

So let us clarify. The province’s plan for Ontario Place includes new parks on the East Island (desirable), an expanded concert venue (acceptable), a giant public parking garage (indefensible) and the move (unconscionable) of the Ontario Science Centre into a smaller facility.

Finally is the (abominable) private waterpark on the West Island. This is the heart of the problem, the one thing that cannot possibly fit. It should be treated separately from the rest.

The city’s planners cannot honestly conclude that the building is appropriate in scale for this highly significant place. There is no way heritage planners can earnestly approve the complete destruction of an important 12-acre landscape. There’s no way the 2,500-space concrete parking garage complies with the city’s climate goals.

Everyone knows this, I think. But city staff seem compelled to keep talking regardless. The province has a lot of power. “Every application is a negotiation,” Mr. Lintern told me. “You don’t always get everything you want.”

That’s how things usually get done in Toronto: Haggling. But here, it’s the wrong approach. Ms. Chow just ran on a platform to save Ontario Place. Mr. Ford is politically weak. It’s time for a standoff. The city has political leverage – if its planners and politicians have the guts to stand up and claim it. Planners: Just say no.