Two months after boaters at its marina were hastily evicted, Toronto's Ontario Place is once again in the spotlight. 

The iconic waterfront entertainment venue and park, which was decommissioned in 2012, is in need of a major facelift. That, everyone can agree on. But the once fun-filled, now crumbling, spot is the subject of an ongoing and controversial redevelopment plan -- one that’s become a heated talking point in Toronto’s upcoming mayoral election. 

Ontario Place is owned by the provincial government and overseen by the Minister of Infrastructure, Kinga Surma. The provincial government’s development application to transform Ontario Place’s West Island includes a partnership with Austrian company Therme Group to create about 12 acres of public space, botanical spaces, a new beach, biking trails, and -- most controversially -- a towering, private, 65,000-square metre waterpark and spa. 

ontario place redevelopmentRendering of Therme's proposed Ontario Place redevelopment

“Therme’s vision for this site enhances the existing publicly accessible outdoor green spaces, with the planned addition of a public beach, and biodiverse gardens of native species, art installations, and unique spaces for the community to meet,” Therme’s website reads. “These will all be available free of charge.” 

But the spa will likely cost a pretty penny to access. Plus, its footprint eats up prime waterfront land that critics say should be open to the public to enjoy. The plan continues to be met with no shortage of backlash, with concerns about the privatized elements being a cash grab and the impact of the ambitious initiative on the environment. 

The larger plan for the grounds also includes upgrading existing infrastructure, like the bridges, pods, and Cinesphere. Additionally, a new concert venue is proposed to be built in partnership with Live Nation. This all comes with a $650M tab.

In an unrelated press conference last week, Premier Doug Ford hinted that he was on board with moving the Ontario Science Centre to Ontario Place and that an announcement could as early as this week. This, he says, would open up opportunities to create more housing in the Science Centre’s current location in the Don Mills and Eglinton neighbourhood.

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“I am pleased to hear that Premier Ford and I agree on this proposal -- and that the province has been working on this for some time,” said mayoral candidate Ana Bailão in a statement provided to STOREYS. “I look forward to seeing the full details of their announcement next week. As mayor, I would approve building 5,000 new homes -- including 1,500 affordable homes -- on the city-owned land where the Science Centre’s parking lot is, and on the land outside of the ravine. We know this is possible because City staff looked into this years ago.”

The idea of relocating the Science Center to the Ontario Place grounds first surfaced during community consultations with Ontario's previous Liberal government, says Bailão. The plans were ultimately parked (no pun intended) until recently. 

Image 2Toronto mayoral candidate Ana Bailão

Bailão stresses the need to build homes near parks and transit to make life better and more affordable for Torontonians. “The Science Centre is a beloved heritage building,” says Bailão. “I look forward to working with Flemingdon, Thorncliffe, and other surrounding communities to turn this building into a community hub that serves all residents.”

But not everyone is on board. Mayoral candidate Mitzie Hunter says that the redevelopment of Ontario Place must meet four rigorous tests. 

“First, public space at Ontario Place must be preserved and enhanced,” Hunter tells STOREYS. “Secondly, it must be beautiful and suitable for both the people of Toronto and visitors from across Ontario and around the world. Thirdly, it should reflect an appropriate mix and distribution of public assets throughout the city. Finally, whatever results from the redevelopment of Ontario Place must be affordable and accessible for all families from Toronto and Ontario.”

Vmdrvh7d 400x400Toronto mayoral candidate Mitzie Hunter

Hunter says that the current proposal for Ontario Place doesn’t meet her rigorous tests. “Let’s not compound that by making any decisions like relocating the Ontario Science Centre until we are confident that is the right move,” says Hunter. “We need to add to a vibrant, accessible, and affordable Ontario Place, but not by subtracting from what people have now in other parts of the city which already are not as well served as downtown.”

Part of the reason that Ontario Place is subject to a passionate debate by Toronto residents is that it includes prime parkland and public space at a time when Toronto needs all of both it can get -- both now and in the future, as the city rapidly increases in density.

"People want public open space preserved," says Hunter. "I like to point to Trillium Park and the Bill Davis Trail at Ontario Place. My vision for Ontario Place ensures it will be for Toronto families and also a tourist destination drawing people from across the province and around the world. People from across the GTA will be watching us closely to see what we do at Ontario Place. We have to get it right."

The always outspoken City Councillor and mayor hopeful Josh Matlow wants to keep 16 acres of City-owned property at Ontario Place green and open to the public to enjoy the prime waterfront real estate. In order to develop the sprawling spa, the Province needs this land, he says. Instead, Matlow believes this should be a park. He's also not a fan of bringing the Science Centre into the equation. In an open letter to Premier Ford published last Thursday, Matlow urged the Province to reconsider moving the Science Centre and to meet with parents and community groups in the Thorncliffe, Flemington Park, and Don Mills neighbourhoods to hear what they have to say about the plan.

Meanwhile, mayoral candidate Brad Bradford also believes that the province’s redevelopment of the Ontario Place land should include ample public park space for residents and visitors alike. 

“As you know, Ontario Place is owned and controlled by the Government of Ontario,” said Brad Bradford's spokesperson Stephanie Smyth in a statement to STOREYS. “It is provincial land in the provincial capital. The redevelopment project is currently undergoing public consultation, engaging residents of Toronto and across the province about its future. The province also maintains full authority over the site with the legislative and regulatory tools to back it up. Brad will have more to say about improving green space and city services across Toronto throughout this campaign.”

In the meantime, the City of Toronto is reviewing the proposal from the Province. The public was invited to attend a meeting in person over the weekend.

While the fate of the beloved venue is clearly still up in the air, one thing is certain: this is far from the last we'll hear of the 'great Ontario Place debate.'

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