Building a city is usually about compromise. It’s often difficult to find a balance between new and old, beauty and budgets, and public and private interests.
But sometimes, things are less complicated. And with the redevelopment of Ontario Place, they’re quite simple: The proposal for an indoor waterpark by the Austrian company, Therme, is a disaster.
This is clear now that details of the proposal are available. Late last month, the Province of Ontario and Therme applied for city permission to rebuild the site. They submitted dozens of documents from collaborators, including Urban Strategies, Diamond Schmitt Architects and landscape architects Studio TLA.
If constructed, the waterpark will be the worst building in Toronto. Aesthetically, it is a monster. It will dramatically change a place with strong heritage value. It privatizes public land. And it consumes half a billion dollars in public money.
It is the duty of everyone who cares about Toronto – starting with staff and leaders in city government – to stop it dead.
The project includes a parking garage, funded by the province, that will accommodate 2,118 cars underground. This million-square-foot garage could cost, according to industry standards, as much as $450-million to build.
The main building complex, which Therme calls a “spa,” would be enormous. Its footprint is 3.78 hectares, or roughly seven football fields. It has the scale of an airplane hangar, and reaches 45 metres, or 13 storeys tall.
To understand the impact, look at the site now. Ontario Place, just west of Toronto’s core, includes a parking lot and two artificial islands on Lake Ontario. The West Island is only about six hectares. This would be home to Therme. The larger East Island currently includes Trillium Park and the Budweiser Stage concert venue – planned for a redevelopment and expansion.
The landscape architect was the brilliant and influential Michael Hough. The architects were Craig Zeidler Strong, led by Eberhard Zeidler. A provincial Statement of Cultural Heritage Value had called the place “a rare and intact Modernist expression of integrated architecture, engineering and landscape,” and “a remarkable and ambitious achievement of late 20th-century architecture.” The province has removed that statement from its website.
But much of the legacy survives. Today, Ontario Place is a park that attracts roughly a million visitors a year. Provincial civil servants have been running the place as greenspace and as a cultural venue, hosting festivals, live music, picnics and sports. In 2017, the province rebuilt part of the East Island with the beautiful Trillium Park; there are places to walk, roll climb and linger beneath copses of indigenous trees. The Cinesphere, until this fall, was showing movies in Imax.
And the West Island is a place for recreation and relaxation. Through the COVID-19 pandemic, I’ve visited the site regularly to walk, cycle and even swim. The pebble beach on the southwest shore has some of the cleanest water in Toronto. It is glorious. It is often crowded.
Progressive Conservative politicians talk about Ontario Place as a ruin. This is the place they’re talking about; there are bits of a log ride and silo-like exhibition buildings from the 1980s. But those stand within a nuanced landscape that is mostly intact, featuring more than 800 trees that have been growing for half a century. To one side, the Pods and the Cinesphere stand as relics of radical modernist architecture. Yet you can climb a berm, look across the lake and feel far from the city.
On this delicate ground, Therme’s waterpark would fill most of the existing West Island and obliterate much of its existing landscape. In response to criticism, the company has decided to expand the island itself and provide more publicly accessible space around the edges. (This will require federal approval.) Yet the “spa” will spill into the landscape with gates and security guards, and the building itself will dominate. It’s vast and nearly as tall as the grandstands at nearby BMO Field. You do not share space with a structure that big; you cower before it.
Therme likens its architecture to that of a greenhouse. For more than a year, the company has released drawings of the spa with viewpoints in the sky or hundreds of metres away. Seen as such, the building is a web of glass that nearly disappears.
But drawings aren’t reality. Anyone versed in the language of architectural renderings knows how this game is played. In fact, there will be less glass and more webs of structural steel. The windows will appear heavy and irregular, the glass inconsistent in colour, the trees much less verdant.
The documents submitted to the city don’t include precise architectural detail. But the outlines are clear. Diamond Schmitt has tried to sculpt the buildings into one curvy whole: an entry building on the mainland, bridge and spa. The solid surfaces in the drawings look like aluminum panel, in a champagne hue that was fashionable a few years ago. Even in the fantastical drawings, the structures seem chunky and poorly proportioned. Mr. Zeidler’s five white-painted Pods and the Cinesphere look like toys in comparison. The late architect must be rolling in his grave.
The impacts on this heritage site are serious – as indeed Therme’s heritage consultants, ERA, admit in their submission to the city. And for what? The company’s facility is essentially an indoor waterpark. Its basic offerings of a wave pool and waterslides find their closest analogue in a tourist attraction such as Great Wolf Lodge.
Fittingly, Therme’s existing and planned facilities in Europe are all on suburban and exurban sites. But apparently, what’s good enough for the boonies of Bucharest is good enough for Toronto’s central waterfront.
So what is it doing here? Why has the provincial government decided that this specific sort of attraction belongs on a downtown waterfront site? There’s no satisfactory answer to that question. The meaningful decisions were all made in private. Even the financial aspects of the deal remain opaque.
And those are serious. Whatever Therme is paying to lease its site can’t possibly cover the public’s costs.
The province has started renovating the existing buildings and upgrading the infrastructure – a $200-million effort. Then there is the parking structure. This will be five levels deep, on the mainland, and designed by BDP Quadrangle. It will be staggeringly expensive: 2022 costing guidelines from the consultancy Altus Group suggest underground parking can amount to $470 a square foot to build. That puts the cost of this garage, conservatively, at $450-million.
Planning documents also show a “science pavilion” above the parking garage. The province seems to be putting the Ontario Science Centre, or a satellite of it, at Ontario Place. This could be a fine idea. But it can’t be used to justify the garage. With the new Ontario Line subway also coming to this site, there should be little or no parking provided for public amenities.
That $450-million also points to a solution. The budget for Trillium Park was only $30-million. Right now, the province has hired landscape architects LANDinc. and Martha Schwartz Partners to rethink the East Island and the mainland. Their designs thus far are attractive and sensible, restoring ecological balance and providing social space and amenities.
That is the way to “revitalize” the site. Restore the Cinesphere and Pods, as the province is doing. Then put Ontario Place in the care of Waterfront Toronto, the agency that spans all three levels of government. Have them develop a new plan for Ontario Place together with the adjacent city-owned Exhibition Place. Put the focus on culture and nature, just as it was in 1968 when Ontario Place was born, with rich programming by artists of the province. Set a tight timeline and a budget less than $450-million. Presto: a new landmark.
But first, the city must stand up and kill the current vision. The province’s consultants try to claim that the Therme proposal is good planning. It is not, for a myriad of technical and aesthetic reasons. Local Councillor Ausma Malik, Mayor John Tory and city staff must say as much: This is wrong. It’s simple.