Twenty years ago, casinos were illegal in Canada. Windsor, desperate to remake itself, led the way for gambling in Ontario, and – kaboom – the city's reputation went from cold to colder, exactly like a slot machine.
Now, though, half of Torontonians seem hooked on the idea.
If you want to play with the big fellas, take the time to understand the rules. Make no mistake: Casinos are meticulously planned and designed to captivate. The lugubrious man cave with its dizzying jolts of neon and shrill slots is the classic, high-testosterone model. These days, Las Vegas also offers the casino hybrid, combining gambling with a strip joint, say, or a family-fun circus.
Most recently, Roger Thomas, the head of design for Wynn Resorts, has unveiled a casino designed with a laser-sharp focus on women. Welcome to the casino's cameo as wellness spa – a safe haven! – with white leather furniture and sparkling marble floors. This is the kind of airy playground a casino-happy Toronto can expect to luxuriate in – where time is lost and people gamble more than they had ever planned.
The assault on Toronto to buy into the casino deal has been aggressive. Last month, there were five public consultations, as well as online voting arranged by the ever-solicitous city. Paul Godfrey, chairman of the Ontario Lottery and Gaming corporation (OLG) – who in previous careers championed the ugliest of the city's concrete armadillos by way of the Metro Convention Centre and the dumb-faced Metro Hall – has said that downtown Toronto is OLG's first choice for a casino.
My goodness, is that intended as a blessing or an insult? What may come as news to Godfrey, 74, is that the overbloated casino template, one that the OLG is demanding must handle some 4,000 parking spaces, is an antiquated version of urbanity. Despite the conceptual loveliness of its white marble interiors and lotus blossoms floating in water, a casino has no place in a city fighting – and struggling – for a vibrant urbanity. Programmatically, it's all wrong.
Shake down the bugaboo of casinos – our urbane fear of playing the slots next to potbellied truck drivers in Nickelback T-shirts – and unpack the latest in its sumptuous playground design: You'll find Medusa lurking behind the colourful, hand-blown chandeliers and garden conservatories.
"Playground design is airier, and generates higher levels of pleasure, so that you'll want to stay longer," Karen Finlay, a professor at Ontario's University of Guelph, and director of the Problem Gambling Research Lab. She estimates that some 300,000 people in her province are seriously addicted to gambling, meaning they'll lie to their family or steal to support their habit. "The wealth and entitlement that the baby boomer feels," she adds, "is a perfect match for the beautiful sanctuary of the casino."
My vote for most beautiful sanctuary: Monte Carlo Casino, initiated to buoy the treasury of the local royalty, and designed as a beaux-arts mansion (1881), in part by Paris Opera House architect Charles Garnier. Because the grand villa, with its welcoming canopy, occupies a modest footprint next to a sweeping plaza with restaurants that spill out onto public terraces affording direct views to the waterfront, I applaud that casino's urban grace. Foreigners arriving by luxury ships or jets are welcome there, though locals are prevented from gambling. I guess that's called looking after your own.
The problem with almost every other casino in the world is that it's designed to be inward looking. Great cities pour people out of buildings and into streets and parks. But check the proposed mega-casino plan by Oxford Properties Group; once three office towers and the north convention centre are demolished, the developer proposes 22 acres of continuous underground convention space – underground is certainly not the way to activate windswept Front Street – with a park that stretches over the railway lines south of the convention centre, into a zone where people do not naturally flow. The casino – about the size of the Art Gallery of Ontario – will be framed within a hotel complex flanking the western end of the site.
Compare that hermetic experience of urbanity to another epic project that Oxford is currently working on across the border: the 26-acre Hudson Yards, a mixed-use development that recently started construction on the west side of Manhattan, where open green space will connect directly to the Hudson River, and where commercial and residential towers will integrate with a school and a major cultural space. Facilitating gambling addiction is nowhere to be found on the program – that's because Mayor Michael Bloomberg has said no to casinos for Manhattan. (The New York Times has reported that Resorts World Casino, which opened last year in neighbouring Queens, reports regular incidents of rage-filled gamblers punching slot machines when jackpots go cold.)
A few days ago, MGM Resorts International announced a partnership with commercial real-estate giant Cadillac Fairview to potentially develop and operate "a destination-style, integrated resort complex," perhaps on the grounds of the Canadian National Exhibition. One-stop shopping is critical to any mega-casino development, so that revenues are generated and maintained within the complex. Don't expect visitors to wander north to support the artists' studios and indie fashion boutiques along Queen Street West. Cue the buses carrying voracious gamblers into the CNE, something I've witnessed at Casino Rama, a sad gambling hall operated by the Rama first nation, within an easy drive of Orillia, Ont., or, if you're keen enough, Toronto.
In all of these plans, what could date Toronto badly is the requirement for those 4,000 parking spaces. Consider that other cities with mobilized leadership (New York, Chicago, Paris, London, Singapore) are marginalizing cars to make room for new public transit, more citizen fitness and short-haul car rental.
The City of Toronto's public consultations and online voting have now closed; some time in April, the vote will go to city council, which will decide whether the casino will be coming. Bizarrely, a specific hosting fee – the city's cut for hosting the proposed behemoth – has still not been released to the City of Toronto. Meanwhile, online gambling is on the rise; large-scale casinos in Macau and Atlantic City are in serious debt. If Toronto would yank its head out of the man cave, it would realize that many other places – Hong Kong, Rome, New York, and most of Russia – have rejected the seduction of the casino.
Toronto is a city that suffers increasingly from a scattered vision about its own urbanity – and so we blow, sadly, according to the whims of poker-face corporations. A casino undermines everything we should value about city life. It's a gamble we can't afford to make.