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Doug Ford government submits Ontario Place revamp to city, says work will begin this fall

Opposition group vows to continue the fight against the redevelopment, including by legal means if necessary.
Sept. 18, 2023
Rob Ferguson, Ben Spurr

The Ford government has submitted revised plans to the city for the controversial redevelopment of Ontario Place, but despite more play zones, green space and a promise to replace trees slated for removal, critics say the changes don’t address fundamental flaws with the project.

Mayor Olivia Chow said Wednesday residents have “a lot of concerns” about the development and she expects to discuss the issue with Premier Doug Ford at a meeting with him next week.

Infrastructure Minister Kinga Surma said Thursday the province has listened to “feedback” from the city, Indigenous and local communities and stakeholders in the updated development application that features 50 acres of free parks in addition to a $350-million Therme spa for paying customers and the relocated Ontario Science Centre.

She said construction will begin this fall to upgrade water, electrical and gas lines to the site, which will require the removal of “a significant amount of trees and vegetation.” Surma pledged “approximately twice as many trees that are native to the area will be planted to improve and increase the long-term tree canopy.”

There will be more food and beverage options, waterfront programming, play zones and Indigenous elements along with related educational opportunities, she added.

“The plan also shows how the new, modernized Ontario Science Centre will be integrated with the preserved and upgraded Cinesphere and pool complex, as well as an underground public parking facility that will serve visitors across the site and will include increased spaces for bicycle parking.”

In response to criticism from the city and the public, Austria-based Therme said it will shrink its spa building by 25 per cent, including a smaller glass tower that will be 22 metres high instead of 45. The company says a family of four would pay between $68 and $78 for 3.5 hours at the spa with waterslides and other attractions.

The updated plans from Therme will increase free, open space on the west island to 16 acres, Surma said.

Ontario officials don’t need the city’s permission for the redevelopment on provincial land, but say they are submitting the changes under the Planning Act as a courtesy to the city, which could block a land swap needed for the redevelopment.

Chow told reporters she hoped something could be done to protect the “beautiful and majestic” trees at Ontario Place’s West Island, which she visits often to paddle board or watch the sunset.

The mayor suggested it would be premature for the province to start work at the site before the city approved its application.

“Normally, approval first and then something happens to the land, not the other way around,” she said, calling on Ford to “respect due process and work with the City of Toronto collaboratively.”

Asked whether the city would consider legal action to block the province’s plan, Chow said residents “don’t want to see two levels of government wasting money in courts.” But she conceded that if she were planning litigation, “I’m not about to reveal it in public.”

Norm Di Pasquale, co-chair of Ontario Place for All, vowed his group would continue to fight the proposal. He called the revised submission “a slightly better version of a bad plan” that would still give over public space nearly equivalent in size to BMO Field to a private company.

He said his organization will “use advocacy, direct action and if necessary, legal action” to stop the province from removing the trees.

Coun. Ausma Malik, whose Spadina—Fort York ward includes Ontario Place, expressed doubt that the province was listening to residents’ concerns. News of the resubmission came just two days after the city’s latest public consultation on the plan, which “does call into question whether the community feedback from this latest round has genuinely been considered,” she said.

“We’re still looking at something that’s quite massive and outsized and dominating the West Island in a way that doesn’t keep it public and accessible, that doesn’t fit on the waterfront as it stands right now,” she said.

At Queen’s Park, New Democrat MPP Chris Glover (Spadina -- Fort York), cast doubt on Surma’s promise to transplant some of the hundreds of trees that are being ripped out for the spa, destroying habitat for birds and other species.

“I’ve never heard of replanting 50-year-old mature trees,” he told a news conference. “They’re going to be obliterating every living thing on the west side you just can’t replace that immediately.”

He and Green Leader Mike Schreiner compared the redevelopment of Ontario Place to the $8.3-billion Greenbelt land swap scandal plaguing Ford.

“This is similar,” Glover added. “It’s an attack on our environment.”

Schreiner said in a statement the deal with Therme is “a clumsy attempt to peddle yet another poor decision made in some back room without input from the actual stakeholders -- the people of Ontario. If we want Ontario Place to remain an affordable place for all, we need to lead with public land in public hands.”