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Canadian Urbanism Uncovered

OP-ED: Auditor general must investigate what’s going on at Ontario Place and the Ontario Science Centre

Ian Darragh argues that the City of Toronto cannot approve the current proposal for Ontario Place

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Like the flawed process to remove Class 1 agricultural land and wetlands from the Greenbelt, the Ford government’s plan for Ontario Place is also flawed, hasty, and secretive. As for the proposal to move the Ontario Science Centre to Ontario Place, there was no consultation with the communities of Flemingdon Park or Thorncliffe Park regarding the demolition and relocation of this source of pride and employment for those communities.

To protect the interests of Ontario taxpayers, Bonnie Lysyk’s successor as auditor general needs to investigate what’s going on.

The Ford government issued a news release on September 14, 2023, saying it would remove “a significant amount of trees and vegetation” at Ontario Place this Fall and start upgrading the infrastructure. It announced this construction just two days after the City of Toronto wrapped up its consultation on the Province’s revised plans, and before the City’s Planning Department had time to issue a report summarizing the public consultations or City Council has voted on the proposal. Under the previously agreed timeline, the City of Toronto had until the end of 2023 to approve the Province’s redevelopment plan for Ontario Place. By announcing it intends to proceed with construction this Fall, the Ford government is acting in bad faith.

Toronto City Council should not approve the province’s application to redevelop Ontario Place until the Therme spa and waterpark proposal is withdrawn, an environmental impact assessment of the entire project has been completed, and until leases with private companies are made public. The City of Toronto owns 16 acres at Ontario Place and should use that land as leverage to demand a transparent, planning process that respects the lake environment and the existing heritage aspects of Ontario Place and the Ontario Science Centre.

Here are the flashing red lights that the new auditor general needs to investigate:

  1. The Ford government signed a 95-year lease with Therme Group of Austria before the waterpark and spa project was approved by the City of Toronto. The lease needs to be made public so the auditor general can determine whether it is in the interests of taxpayers. What happens if Therme goes bankrupt in 10 or 15 years? Would Therme be able to sell the lease to another company so it could operate another business at Ontario Place, such as a casino? The public has a right to know.
  2. In response to widespread criticism, Therme Group submitted revised artist’s concepts for its spa and waterpark on the West Island of Ontario Place. But no architectural plans were provided at the public consultations on September 7 and 12, 2023, and the site maps were misleading because they did not show that the revised plan is still to raze and expand the entire West Island with landfill. Therme Group said it had reduced the height of its glass structures by 25 percent. But the footprint of its buildings was only reduced by 5.8 percent. The waterpark and spa will still occupy 660,280 sq. feet. That’s 10 Canadian football fields. The proposed spa and waterpark are far too large to be sited on the current acreage of West Island. That is why the current plan is to clearcut the entire West Island, raise the height of the island to protect it from flooding, and add 10 acres of fill to enlarge the West Island so there is room for a public path along the shore. The proposal would destroy the existing landscape of the West Island which has heritage status and provides habitat for migratory birds, fish and mammals, such as foxes, mink and beaver. The extent of these plans were not clear at the recent public consultations.
  3. Ontario Place was designed by a brilliant landscape architect, Michael Hough. The razing and enlargement of the West Island for the Therme megaspa would obliterate his design. Hough understood Lake Ontario’s waves and winds. He designed a pebble beach on the West Island facing south. More than 50 years later, it remains the cleanest beach on the Toronto waterfront. Therme plans to destroy what local swimmers call Michael Hough Beach and replace it with armour stone to protect the glass spa from Lake Ontario’s storms. Therme plans to construct a new beach on the West Island facing west that is near a combined sewer pipe that will contaminate the new beach with fecal matter, condoms and other waste after rainstorms. At the public consultation, the City of Toronto says it currently has no plan to upgrade the combined storm sewer. Why spend millions to build a new beach which will be closed much of the time? Destroying the cleanest beach on the Toronto waterfront would be a travesty.
  4. The Live Nation lease to manage the two stages at Ontario Place should be made public. Live Nation is based in California with a block of shares owned by the sovereign wealth fund of Saudi Arabia. Taxpayers have a right to know the length of the lease and whether there are any provisions requiring Live Nation to showcase Canadian performing artists.
  5. The Ford government abruptly announced in April 2023 that the Ontario Science Centre would be demolished in order to build housing at the Don Mills Road site. Yet the Toronto Region Conservation Authority, which owns most of the land and was not consulted, says most of the property is in a hazardous flood zone in the West Don Ravine. So housing could only be constructed on the parking lot along a narrow strip of land along Don Mills Road. I asked a senior public servant (an architect) at Infrastructure Ontario why the business analysis which compares the cost of renovating the Science Centre versus moving it to Ontario Place has not been made public? She seemed very uncomfortable with my question. She replied that it was a “government” decision not to release the report. Here we have another example of the Ford government making decisions in secret, without taking into account the input of public servants who are paid to provide professional advice. The kicker is that the Ford government is now saying the “new” Ontario Science Centre at Ontario Place will be just half the size of the current one on Don Mills Road. Why bulldoze Raymond Moriyama’s masterpiece building — which pioneered interactive exhibits and has been a model for science centres around the world?

Toronto City Council must say no to the privatization of Ontario Place. Despite minor changes, the proposed Therme waterpark and spa is far too large to be located there and will result in massive environmental damage and loss of wildlife habitat. The proposal to demolish and move a shrunken Ontario Science Centre to Ontario Place has not been clearly thought out and needs to be revisited.

Ian Darragh is a former editor-in-chief of Canadian Geographic.

Photo by Ian Darragh.

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7 comments

  1. Will whatever happens at the Therme spa at Ontario Place, stays at the Therme spa? Just like Las Vegas (old motto “What Happens Here, Stays Here”)?

  2. Ford is just an old crooked hash dealer….no idea how an idiot can be the premier

  3. Glad to seen point number one in this piece. The chances that Spa will fail as a commercial venture in the near future are not slight, and it is almost inconceivable that it will survive for the full length of the lease. What happens if, and more likely when it fails? What kind of say do the city and the province have? The plan to move the Science Centre now seems peculiarly idiotic as the Centre, hard to reach for anyone not living nearby except by car, will soon be accessible by the Eglinton line. Indeed there is even a dedicated station on the line called ‘Science Centre’.

  4. Doug Ford has a real problem with lying to public going back to his years in Etobicoke 1980s in his.politician father’s territory.
    His secretive nature,characters he promotes some have undesirable backgrounds that in past would have prevented from being in government.
    Doug Ford is a problem for Pierre Poilievre.

  5. Let’s not let the federal level off the hook – it’s such a set of stinking bad proposals, and a set of general assaults on environmental values including shrinking the Science Centre – there really needs to be a federal-level Environmental Assessment, presuming that they can finally assess all the embodied carbon in existing structures as well as the totality of embodied carbon in proposed constructs, including pavements, and don’t forget about the extra CO2 with making of cement. The federal level has been avoiding being tough on the schemes of the Ford government; hence the transit schemes becoming underway though they too are remarkably suspect for some of us. Billion dollar BoonDougles abound!

  6. Another foolish idea by the Ford government that will benefit only the 1% and leave the rest of us paying for the parking garage. Just like Harris who sold the 407, paid for by public dollars, to private interests and now is too expensive for average motorists to use.

  7. The opaque nature of the deal involving a less than transparent company and ex senior staff stinks. Ford has lost our trust. Voters tolerate incompetence in our Governments, but not corruption. Keep up the good reporting.

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