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People use a walking path near Ontario Place's Cinesphere, in Toronto, on Sept. 29.Christopher Katsarov/The Globe and Mail

Last week, I went to the park. Borrowing a Bike Share ride, I rolled along the Martin Goodman Trail from downtown and into Ontario Place.

At the park’s eastern end, I cruised through copses of serviceberry and silver maple before I came to the shore of Lake Ontario. From here, my ride took me past the mid-century utopia of the old park, the dome of the Cinesphere theatre hugging the water, Eb Zeidler’s white exhibition pavilions hanging from masts above the lake.

And then I landed on the West Island of the site. A path took me past a calm, sheltered beach, around some swells of hillside that the site’s landscape architect Michael Hough sprinkled with mature conifers and willows. As I rounded the end of the island, the Toronto skyline came back in sight; I took a pause in the shuttered “village” of shops and cafés and wished there was somewhere to get some soda. But then I returned to the shore nearby, reflecting – not for the first time – that this was among my favourite places in the city.

It’s a shame it is about to be destroyed.

Ontario Place right now is a public park. Despite years of neglect, it remains a beautiful place rich with potential.

Instead, under a plan pushed by Premier Doug Ford’s office, it is largely doomed. For years, the Ford government has claimed the 63-hectare Ontario Place is a ruin. Last year, the province announced detailed plans to rebuild.

Ontario Place redevelopment faces new hurdles after private partner exits

These included an expansion of Live Nation’s current concert venue in the middle; outdoor recreation programs, since cancelled; and a new indoor waterpark and “wellness destination” by the Austrian company Therme. The latter, according to Therme, will have a minimum ticket price around $40; it could be in construction by 2024.

And that Therme facility, built at great public and private expense, is going to devour the West Island.

The company claims that it is “creating a new public park.” And it’s true that project includes a strip of public parkland and a newly constructed beach. But this public space will be a residual strip around the edges of a massive, $350-million building that is private, and that is likely to have a hulking visual presence.

People use the pebble beach on the north shore of the West Island on Ontario Place for recreation and relaxation. Despite years of neglect, Ontario Place remains a beautiful place rich with potential.Christopher Katsarov/The Globe and Mail

The park is being designed by capable landscape architects, New-York based Martha Schwartz Partners and locals LAND Inc. But, to borrow an idiom from landscape architects, it will be parsley on a pig.

The pork roast in this metaphor is the waterpark building, being designed by local architects Diamond Schmitt. The province has been highly secretive about what this will look like. But in the vague drawings released for publicity purposes, it has evolved. Last year, the waterpark building looked like an update of a 19th-century crystal palace, all clear glass and palm trees. In a recent presentation to the public agency Waterfront Toronto’s design review panel, the building had acquired a new skin of red aluminum.

And it will dominate the West Island. The precise details aren’t clear, because the province has chosen to keep them secret. But later this month, Queen’s Park plans to make the design public and begin a process of engagement with the City of Toronto. Then the details will emerge.

A battery-powered train of four attached passenger cars passes through Ontario Place in July, 1973.

Such as: How will members of the public even access this park, when a new bridge is being built to bring customers into an above-ground entrance to the Therme building? Where will the projected three million waterpark visitors a year park their cars? And who will pay for the construction of any underground parking, which in Toronto can cost up to $100,000 a space?

The city may not have much power. This project has momentum, and Mr. Ford is personally committed to it.

But city leaders should advocate for an alternative: Make Ontario Place a provincial park – which does not require any added parking. Add new green space on the East Island, as the Kathleen Wynne government planned to do four years ago. And keep the West Island intact, adding some small performance venues to bring the best of the province’s creative energy in one place. Bring in some restaurants and a larger staff to provide robust year-round programming.

It’s true that Ontario Place now needs work. The West Island still holds exhibition buildings from the 1980s and the remnants of, ironically, a water ride. But with the right programming, good architects and landscape architects could update the site as something truly fantastic and truly Ontarian. Millions of people could get there with a $3.25 transit ride.

That’s the vision that Toronto’s government should pursue here, in keeping with the site’s public legacy and prime waterfront location. In the meantime, I’ll enjoy the park while it lasts.

People enjoy the view from the shoreline of the West Island on Ontario Place on a clear Thursday evening.Christopher Katsarov/The Globe and Mail


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