Fifty years ago, Ontario built fanciful and lavish sites of knowledge and culture: the sparkling waterfront landscape of Ontario Place, and the concrete caves of the Ontario Science Centre. If you grew up in Southern Ontario, you have magical memories of these places.
Now, Premier Doug Ford is preparing to ruin them both.
The Ford government announced a plan on Tuesday to move the science centre to the waterfront at Ontario Place. A science museum had been rumoured for years – but rather than the science centre expanding into a second location, its current building will close.
The planned Ontario Place redevelopment was already terrible, a caricature of how a suburban conservative thinks about public space: waterpark! Endless parking! Its only positive attribute was the renewal of the park’s buildings by Eberhard Zeidler. Now that comes at a cost: stealing jobs from an underserved neighbourhood and gutting another modernist landmark, Raymond Moriyama’s 1969 Ontario Science Centre.
This week’s announcement is meant to distract. Mr. Ford wants to reduce the heat on the controversy of the moment: the proposal by Austrian company Therme to build a waterpark on the West Island of Ontario Place, destroying the existing landscape by Michael Hough. Nobody seems to want this except the Premier and Therme. Several serious candidates in the Toronto mayoral race, led by Josh Matlow, are fighting it.
But the Ontario Science Centre news doesn’t change the Therme plan. It keeps the new spa in place – still huge, closed-off and ugly. Full credit to local architects Diamond Schmitt and planners Urban Strategies.
The science museum will occupy a new building on the mainland, above the new 2,100-space underground public parking garage. Architects BDP Quadrangle are responsible. The total size of the science facility appears to be about 200,000 square feet – less than half the size of the current centre.
Eleven kilometres northeast, Mr. Moriyama’s magnificent Ontario Science Centre, a city-designated heritage building, faces an uncertain future. On a visit this week, the building appeared to be in good shape: Despite years of iffy maintenance, its board-formed concrete walls maintain their tough beauty, and the galleries were busy. However, a pedestrian bridge that reaches across a ravine, a crucial passage for visitors, has been closed for “repairs” for more than a year. It looks as if the government is letting it crumble. Once, you strode into the place like a god; now you ride a shuttlebus down the back driveway.
Provincial officials at Tuesday’s media conference announcing the plan claimed that the building needs a lot of repairs, and the province doesn’t want to pay. The Premier implied that it would be demolished – though no firm plans were stated.
Who will take care if it? What purpose will it serve? That is unclear. The Ford government is interested only in adding housing on its parking lots, which stand at the junction of two future rapid-transit lines. Fair enough. Yet even here there’s a whiff of injustice. The surrounding areas of Flemingdon Park and Thorncliffe Park are dense apartment neighbourhoods, with a predominantly low-income population, and they’re getting an intense flood of new development already. This disrupts the lives of thousands of people who aren’t well-connected at City Hall or on Bay Street. Mr. Ford’s plan would add a few thousand more homes to the pile.
Mr. Ford wants this neighbourhood to do the work of adding new housing – something he won’t impose on prosperous parts of the city – while taking away the Ontario Science Centre and its 800 jobs. It’s a blow to the area’s economy and its prominence in the city.
But Mr. Ford would concentrate more jobs, spending and tourist activity – all of it heavily car-oriented – in the downtown. Does this make any sense? Will tourists want to visit a waterpark before a concert and after the science museum?
Not likely. The whole effort reeks of strategic communications and small-government zealotry. Rather than repair a beloved museum, condemn it. Rather than repair a beloved waterfront park, hand it over to the private sector. Then brag about the modern new facilities you’re building.
The right thing to do with the Ontario Science Centre is clear: Keep it open and restore it. The right thing to do with Ontario Place is also clear: Make both islands into destination parks, count on the new subway to bring visitors, and keep the entire site public.
But Mr. Ford is doing none of these. For him Ontario Place “is prime, prime real estate,” as he said at the media conference. Could it be more? Do we want it to be more? We used to.