The redevelopment of Ontario Place is shaped by two assumptions: the public site should generate revenue, and it can’t just be a park. Premier Doug Ford has suggested that a waterfront park would not attract visitors. Who would go to such a place?
On a cold spring weekday in New York, the answer was: Lots of people. At Brooklyn Bridge Park (BBP) on the East River waterfront, a group of young men played three-on-three on a basketball court; mothers pushed babies in strollers to a playground; and inland, a group of gardeners was busy preparing the landscape for summer.
“When we were planning the park, we were told no one would come down here,” recalled Paul Seck, a landscape architect and partner at Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates. “But each summer now, it gets about five million visitors.”
There are lessons here for Toronto and for Ontario Place: Parks are popular and valuable. And the current Ontario Place scheme – in which Mr. Ford’s government would redevelop part of the site with a massive indoor “spa” – is the wrong sort of partnership.
It’s hard to imagine that the 85 acres of BBP were a working port cut off from New York. But so they were until 2002, when a city-run agency began rebuilding the site, which runs north-south, directly across the river from Lower Manhattan. Today the BBP organization runs 90 per cent of its land as public park, while the other 10 per cent holds three residential buildings, a hotel and shops, which collectively pay the park’s bills.
All this began under mayor Michael Bloomberg, whose administration pursued fiscal austerity, building housing and improving New York’s waterfront. That agenda was often criticized by progressives, and it’s not far from that of Mr. Ford, who has taken a personal interest in Ontario Place. However, the mix of public and private is carefully managed here.
Eric Landau, the current president of Brooklyn Bridge Park Corp., said that income from the private development – mostly in the form of land leases – provides 90 per cent of the park’s revenue. And yet: “We make it clear to those private entities that they don’t have a say over the park, any more than anyone else does,” Mr. Landau said. “It’s a public space.”
Mr. Seck, the landscape architect, says the presence of residents is a benefit to the park. Just as Jane Jacobs observed that having “eyes on the street” at all times reinforces a sense of community and safety in an urban neighbourhood, the same is true here: “Having eyes on the park is a key ingredient,” Mr. Seck said.
But the new development is next to the entrances of the park, inland. The two residential and hotel buildings that have the largest footprints are invisible from most places in the park. Carefully shaped topography and planting creates a variety of hills, valleys, glades and plazas, which spill out toward the water. You don’t look at what’s happening behind you, anyway.
All this stands in sharp contrast to the planned redevelopment of Ontario Place, on Toronto’s waterfront. The province has leased a large portion of the land to the Austrian waterpark operators Therme. At Ontario Place, Therme’s building would occupy 3.78 hectares – the size of a stadium – and would tower over the lakefront. It would require a half-billion dollar parking garage supplied by government. This is a kind of privatization that destroys the value of the park itself.
Toronto has the expertise to follow the BBP model. The landscape architects MVVA are working extensively there now; they’ve designed a huge network of parkland as part of the Port Lands Flood Protection Project. The first of its 80 hectares of parkland are scheduled to open next year.
And Ken Greenberg, a Toronto urban planner, contributed to the early planning of BBP. He is now a leader of the opposition group, Ontario Place For All, which is fighting to kill the Therme plan and retain a larger public presence on that site.
“There are so many parallels between the two,” Mr. Greenberg said. BBP “had the challenge of giving people access to the water, in an area where you had a huge population that was lacking it.” This is true as well in the Liberty Village neighbourhood of downtown Toronto.
Mr. Greenberg says that, while the financial and governance arrangement would be different in Toronto, Ontario Place and the adjacent city-owned Exhibition Place should be combined. Then, he said, some commercial or residential development inland can spin some cash.
“There can be revenue-generating things within Ontario Place. But those shouldn’t be the main meal or the main thrust of the place.”
Mr. Landau agreed: “Parks are to provide for recreation,” he said. “They are to be places of diverse programming, which can attract lots of different people. And after that, they should be hubs of community and economic development.”
Case in point: BBP hosted about two million tourists last year. They didn’t need a waterpark to draw them to the water.