Ontario Place will no longer be a public place.
The Ontario government’s Friday announcements made that clear. The provincially owned park, created in 1968, will soon be two-thirds privatized. Nobody knows what this will cost taxpayers – but be sure it’ll cost dearly to visit any of the new amenities.
Under the newly revealed plan, the West Island, one of the two artificial islands that are the heart of the park, would house a new “urban oasis” – in other words, a water park run by Austrians – where adult tickets would start at $39 per day.
Next door, Écorécréo, a Quebec company, would offer outdoor activities such as zip lines. Its location in the Port of Montreal charges $39 an hour for quad-cycle rentals. Oh: and the privately run concert venue, Budweiser Stage, which replaced the mostly-free Ontario Place Forum, would be rebuilt bigger. Already, tickets for the Arkells next month start at $54.
You have to think about the prices, because this plan – or quasi-plan – is shaped by commercial considerations. Doug Ford’s government will transform the place into an effectively private realm. It’ll be somewhere a middle-class family might spend a day’s wages on a day of recreation, and then come back next summer.
This is not, of course, how the province is spinning things. Ford and provincial officials emphasized the fact that a portion of the site will remain as parkland, and that the central Cinesphere theatre and the Pods – the high-tech-style exhibition pavilions designed by architect Eb Zeidler and colleagues – will remain.
But what will the pods hold? Who will run them? What does it have to do with zip lines? How do thermal baths fit with a concert venue? None of this is clear.
What is clear is that the new “spa” will be very big. The company Therme confirmed their building will be about 10 acres in size, which is roughly 450,000 square feet. This, they said, will cost $350-million to construct. (Rest assured, public money will help make the water and electricity run here.)
Yes, there would be a strip of park remaining around the edge of the West Island. But the “spa” structure – designed by Therme staff with local architects Diamond Schmitt – is guaranteed to be much worse than it looks right now. The drawings for PR purposes are very unclear. They suggest vast, irregular expanses of glass, a 19th-century Crystal Palace stretched through a Photoshop filter, and some swoopy curves of reddish aluminum.
It’s safe to assume that whatever is built will be even less attractive. Architectural drawings lie. What’s light and flashy in the drawings ends up dark and clunky in reality. This structure will sit with all the grace of an oil tanker beached in a park.
And Ontario Place is a park. It is, in fact, a beautiful one. When it was designed as a park and exhibition space at the end of the 1960s, the landscape architect Michael Hough created a subtle and nuanced landscape full of hills, valleys, coves, copses and groves. It’s still there; thousands of people visit every weekend. It is, you might say, a family-friendly destination.
For years, folks at Queen’s Park have ignored this obvious fact. Ontario Place didn’t need a new business model (or three). It didn’t need a new purpose. Look at how the site is being used right now: the new Trillium Park on its east side, beautifully designed by Land Inc. and West 8, has proven wildly popular. I was there recently with my kids, climbing the rocks and skipping stones.
This is the kind of place that locals will visit weekly. Add some good live performances, a couple of good restaurants, and a world-class playground – maybe zip lines, too – and it becomes the kind of tourist destination that actually works for big, diverse Western cities in 2021. Then build some housing on the giant parking lots on the shoreline, which would pay for it all.
But that would take the politics of 1968, when even Conservatives understood the value of public amenities. Or some smart leaders who understand what actually makes cities pleasant and prosperous. Ontario is a place, right now, that has neither.
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