Skip to content

Canadian Urbanism Uncovered

LORINC: Clear-cutting the rules at Ontario Place

The Ford government repealed all the environmental rules governing the Ontario Place redevelopment. But will Therme's $350 million project survive a shift in the location of the parking garage?


Read more articles by

What with all the giant numbers that got tossed around with the unveiling on Monday of the Ontario-Toronto new deal — $7 billion! $9 billion! $1.2 billion etc. — very little attention has been paid to a much more footnote-ish number: of the 18 pages in the legislation tabled yesterday to enable all of this uploading and downloading, no fewer than 13 are dedicated specifically to a “schedule” entitled the Rebuilding Ontario Place Act (2023).

For all the legislative verbiage, ROPA, if I may coin an acronym, can be distilled to something like this: in it, the province re-gifts itself powers it already has, enlarges loopholes it had already created, and effectively guts the provisions of any kind of environmental or heritage oversight as they might apply to this tiny yet contentious corner of Ontario.

We can talk about how Infrastructure Ontario is planning to clear-cut the trees on the West Island. The new law clearcuts inconvenient regulatory undergrowth, and, what’s even better, does so retroactively, just in case every last legal pebble hadn’t been removed from the runway, at one end of which Therme, the Austrian spa developer, has been waiting for clearance from the tower so it can take off.

It’s difficult to think of another instance when a government made the conditions for a private sector company quite as easy as Ford’s Tories have done in this spot. Subsidies? Check. Enabling infrastructure? Check. Regulatory approvals? Well, if you want to call them that, check.

As far as I can see, ROPA also kicks the struts out from under the Ontario Place for All lawsuit, the gist of which was that IO hadn’t obeyed the province’s own environmental assessment rules. Given that those rules have been reverse gutted, the logic of the application seems to fall apart.

Hard to imagine how Therme could now fail to deliver what the premier so desperately craves: a giant water’s edge monument to his time in office, which will sit there like a misshapen glass boulder for time immemorial, or at least until that moment off in the middle distance when all and sundry realize that this edifice is simply too expensive to operate in a climate crisis.

So is the fight over? Maybe, but let’s talk about the 2,100 space, five-storey underground parking garage for a moment. You know, the one that will cost half a billion dollars.

The province and the city put out a ten-page document on Monday outlining the whole deal. In it, the City acknowledges “[t]he Province agreeing to change its current planned location for parking at the Ontario Place site and work with the City to establish an alternative parking solution at Exhibition Place that will improve public access to the shoreline at Ontario Place and could reduce the overall area needed for parking [italic added].”

About a month ago, Mayor Olivia Chow floated the idea of using the Better Living Centre site for the spa, and it appears that the deal struck this week may see that spot become the parking garage (whether above or below grade is not so clear).

To fully grasp the significance of this move, it’s worth briefly revisiting the history of the garage. The original 2019 Call for Proposals made no mention of new parking; in fact, bidders were told they’d have to make do with whatever was on or near Ontario Place. Then IO — or someone! — selects Therme, and suddenly we’re talking about indoor underground parking.

Why? Look outside. Go outside. Do you want to spend four hours in a tropical indoor aquarium and then go out, with wet hair, into the cold, the snow and the wind to find your car? Which is to say, basically any time between November and April.

No way. Indeed, the underground garage guarantees climate-controlled access directly to the spa’s main entrance, i.e., the heavily criticized ticketing pavilion that will provide an end-to-end indoor experience for wellness seekers.

Without the connected garage, I seriously doubt Therme’s business model will, uh, hold water. Which is why the government, and its enablers in the Therme Canada front office, found religion about this ridiculous amenity after IO closed the bidding on the Call for Proposals.

What does a 2,100-space parking garage at the Better Living Centre look like? Terrible, or expensive. Or both.

I suppose it’s theoretically possible to build some kind of covered and even heated walkway/tunnel, across the CNE grounds, over/under Lakeshore, and to the front door of the spa. But this thing would be at least 250 metres long, and would hardly qualify as a terrific user experience. Heck, it wouldn’t be much closer than the terminus of the Ontario Line, which will surface in front of BMO Field if and when that megaproject is ever completed.

This feels like an opportune moment to bring up the Ontario auditor-general’s pending value-for-money probe into the Ontario Place deal, one element of which will surely be the cost of the garage relative to other options and other provincial investments. Consider, too, that the province is running a deficit and a recession seems to on its way.

How does a half-billion-dollar parking garage fit into that constellation of forces?

Maybe Ford & Co. have said to themselves, let’s put the damn thing above grade on land we can get as part of this deal, and cut our losses. Or maybe Ford & Co. are saying to themselves, the spa will be so damn wonderful that a bit of a schlepp for the wellness folk won’t be too much to ask.

Who knows? For what it’s worth, I asked Therme Canada if it had any comment about the change in the parking, but the company’s spokesperson didn’t reply. Nor has Therme said anything at all in public about what should have been a huge deal. As I said, who knows?



  1. I thought Lorinc would offer an answer for the question posed in the dek, but he doesn’t even try. The dek is literally just a summary of the article. Very underwhelming read.

  2. The megaspa project involves dumping 10 acres of landfill into Lake Ontario to enlarge the West island of Ontario Place so the stadium-sized spa will fit onto an enlarged man-made island; and to clearcut 1,500 mature trees. No township in Ontario’s cottage country would allow the dumping of such a huge amount of landfill into a lake. 
    As John Lorinc notes, the Ford government has tabled legislation that will exempt this project from all provincial environmental and zoning regulations. 
    However, the proposed redevelopment of Ontario Place will impact several areas of federal jurisdiction:
    1. destruction of migratory bird habitat
    2. destruction of fisheries habitat — a federal permit is required
    3. impact on a navigable international waterway — the International Joint Commission (Canada-U.S.A.) has some jurisdiction over Great Lakes’ environmental issues
    Since the Ontario Government is now exempting itself from undertaking any environmental review, there is one last hope. Please email the federal Minister of the Environment and ask Steven Guilbeault to launch a federal environmental impact study: 
    Honourable Steven Guilbeault
    Minister of Environment and Climate Change Canada

  3. Yes, pressure on the federal level for a more thorough Environmental Assessment, right now, before trees are clear-cut. But it needs to go well beyond what is suggested to the climate emergency, and thus include the embodied energies of both existing and proposed buildings/infrastructures, including concrete. As we’ve had a record forest fire season this last summer that seems to have maybe doubled our national emissions, clearly making us the worst in the world on a per capita basis, deliberate pyrotization as a climate policy is bad. Anything emailed should also be copied to at least Mr. Singh, but also to the provincial opposition. And maybe this would be a good time to bring up the idea of disallowance of bills as that’s a power at the federal level, though mostly unused.