The Ontario government is looking to redevelop Ontario Place into a “world-class” entertainment attraction, sparking renewed debate about whether a casino could be part of the prime Toronto waterfront property’s transformation.
On Friday, Tourism Minister Michael Tibollo announced that the government will open an “expression of interest” process this spring to seek development proposals for the 155-acre site.
“We’re going to bring Ontario Place back to life and make it a spectacular, world-class, year-round destination to visit in North America,” Mr. Tibollo said in a statement.
“Our vision for Ontario Place will make it an impressive attraction that could include exciting sport and entertainment landmarks, public parks or shopping. We could also have places for recreation, for people to come together and to hear great music at the existing amphitheatre.”
Neither Mr. Tibollo nor the newly appointed chair of the Ontario Place board, Progressive Conservative fundraiser James Ginou, were made available for interviews on Friday. The government also said it is seeking feedback from the public before proposals are reviewed.
According to details posted online, areas that could be developed include the iconic Cinesphere cinema and pavilion pods, which overlook Lake Ontario, but not the Budweiser Stage area, which has an existing lease. Residential uses for the site will not be considered, the government said, and it intends to maintain 7.5 acres of park land on the site.
Asked if a casino could be a possibility, the Premier’s office said the process is in the early stages, but nothing within the parameters of the posting is off the table. However, there have been no formal discussions with the province’s private gambling partners about an additional Toronto casino, which would need to overcome significant hurdles to proceed.
Toronto Mayor John Tory said in a statement he hopes the city itself can put forward some ideas for the site but cautioned against including a waterfront casino. He also wants the province to preserve the existing architecture, such as the Cinesphere.
“I do believe that whatever changes are made should ensure Ontario Place is a year-round attraction that focuses on culture, music and recreation. Whatever the future of the site, it should be respectful of the fact it is located on the only waterfront we have, something we have learned to treasure,” Mr. Tory said.
“While I welcome this discussion and a push to revitalize Ontario Place, I remain opposed to any proposal that would see a casino established on the site.”
NDP MPP Chris Glover said Premier Doug Ford is trying to “get his hands on Toronto’s waterfront so he could follow through on his casino and mega-mall dreams.” He urged the government to pursue public consultations to create a vision for the site that is family-friendly.
“The property belongs to the people of Ontario, and Doug Ford’s treating it like it’s his private property,” Mr. Glover told The Globe and Mail. “You don’t want a giant windowless casino taking up the waterfront.”
Advocates connected to the waterfront were aghast at the province’s move, noting that it left little parkland and appeared to allow developers to tear down heritage structures on the site.
Cindy Wilkey, the vice-chair of Waterfront For All, noted that only a small part of Ontario Place had to be preserved as green space and that the site’s Trillium Park could be moved elsewhere on the grounds.
“It appears that the province is not at all intending to maintain this as a public place, with public access,” she said. “A developer could say … ‘We’re going to put something on the waterfront, you know, a club that people can’t access unless they pay.’ That would seem to be permitted.”
Architect and urban designer Ken Greenberg, who is part of the still coalescing group Ontario Place for All, called the province’s move “a fire sale,” and said he was shocked by both the loss of public space and the potential loss of the original buildings.
“All of the iconic elements of Ontario Place – the Cinesphere, the pods – all of the legacy could be demolished and replaced with whatever,” he said.
“Not that long ago, people were talking about tearing down Union Station, St. Lawrence Market and Old City Hall,” he added. “I think sometimes it’s difficult for us to look at 50-year-old buildings as opposed to 150-year-old buildings and realize their value and the loss that would come if they disappear.”