Plans to revamp Ontario Place are 'tone-deaf' and exclusionary, say Toronto residents, critics

·4 min read
A rendering of Toronto's redesigned Ontario Place provided by Therme, an Austrian company that plans to build a water park and spa there. The company retained Diamond Schmitt Architects Inc. as a local partner in the project.  (Submitted by Therme Canada - image credit)
A rendering of Toronto's redesigned Ontario Place provided by Therme, an Austrian company that plans to build a water park and spa there. The company retained Diamond Schmitt Architects Inc. as a local partner in the project. (Submitted by Therme Canada - image credit)

Exactly one year after plans were announced to overhaul Toronto's Ontario Place with a massive water park and indoor spa, among other attractions, the latest designs set to go to city council in the fall are igniting concerns of equity and accessibility for downtown residents.

"It just seems tone-deaf to what downtown people want, and it is, after all, our neighborhood," said Duane Rollins.

"This seems like another plan to take away space, livable space that we are already so short demand of down here."

The presentation, which details what the decommissioned waterfront park will look like, was released by the province last week. It is currently being evaluated by Waterfront Toronto's Design Review Panel, which will weigh in with recommendations and come to a decision early next year.

According to the plan, which is still in its design and approval phase, construction on the site will move from west to east, taking roughly 10 years to complete. The west island will house the water park with a retractable roof and a massive indoor spa is expected to undergo construction in 2024 to 2025.

Submitted by Therme Group
Submitted by Therme Group

The reopened venue is expected to boost the city's economy, and is projected to welcome five million visitors per year in addition to creating 3,600 new jobs.

Rollins says the revamp will attract people from out of town, but it is not what local residents are calling for.

"Whether I'm biking or running or walking down there, I enjoy it a great deal. I have memories of childhood from being down there … it's just a really nice piece of nature in the downtown area."

Last year, three companies were selected by the province for the redevelopment, including Austrian company Therme — which specializes in water parks and spas — as well the Quebec outdoor recreation firm Écorécréo. The third company, Live Nation, already operates the existing music venues on site.

The 155-acre waterfront attraction first opened in 1971, but was closed in 2012 after years of declining attendance.

Infrastructure Ontario handout
Infrastructure Ontario handout

Seven areas are set to undergo construction or redesigning as part of the massive project: the recreation, wellness and water park attraction area, restored pods and Cinesphere, marina, year-round entertainment complex, outdoor adventure zone, Trillium Park and programming and event zone.

In July 2021, the province said the site's most iconic features and greenspace will be preserved. At the time, the province noted it will be preserving many of the "key heritage and recreational features" of Ontario Place, including the Cinesphere, the pod complex, the marina, Trillium Park and the William G. Davis Trail.

"Therme was selected from an international competition and our plan will make Ontario Place a destination for all Ontarians again. We're creating a new public park, bigger than Trillium Park, with areas for people to walk, run, bike, and swim," a spokesperson with Therme Canada said in an email to CBC Toronto.

"It's going to be a huge draw for families and people across Ontario, and tourists to Toronto. And with our commitment to local arts and community programming, Ontario Place is going to be a showcase for Ontario with something for everyone to enjoy, just as it was when it opened over 50 years ago."

'Not for everyday Torontonians'

While assessments and public consultations are ongoing, Urbanist and mayoral candidate Gil Penalosa says the current designs present issues of equity and accessibility. He is pushing for the attraction to be moved.

"What the province is coming up with now is something that is completely isolated, all exclusionary, only for wealthy people, not for the everyday Torontonians," Penalosa told CBC Toronto.

"That same park could be north of the highway or on the parking lot of Exhibition Place. The waterfront does not add or subtract anything from the proposal of the province."

The development application will be filed with the City of Toronto in October, while the municipal election is underway. It will then go to the next council in fall 2023.

"This is public land. That means it belongs to all of us, all of the citizens. So we need to do whatever is good for all citizens. And we urgently need more space, more green areas, more free areas," Penalosa added.

Kimberley Molina/CBC
Kimberley Molina/CBC

CBC Toronto reached out to Infrastructure Ontario but did not receive a response in time for publication.

Dan Nicholson, community planning manager with the City of Toronto, said one of the key priorities for council is access to the waterfront, and he will engage in community feedback when the development application is in front of council.

In addition to the redesigning of Ontario Place, Nicholson said all infrastructure must also be replaced on the site after further assessments were done.

"It's all aged out. It all has to be replaced," Nicholson said.

"It's a very comprehensive redevelopment scheme that's going to take quite a while to unfold. We probably have two or three years of just infrastructure work on the site once the plans are more advanced, before anything actually starts to happen."

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