An advocacy group opposed to Premier Doug Ford’s redevelopment of Ontario Place on Toronto’s waterfront is taking the government to court, in an attempt to delay the construction of a large spa and waterpark and push for the release of more details about the multimillion-dollar deal.
Ontario Place for All, a non-profit organization that counts 30,000 members, filed an application with Ontario’s Divisional Court on Tuesday for an injunction that would prevent the province from going ahead with its plans for a “mega spa” on the site’s west island until a full environmental assessment takes place.
The government is conducting environmental assessments for other lands at Ontario Place, but not for the west island, arguing that the spa project is a private undertaking. But the advocacy group says in court documents that is a “false assertion” and that the government is in fact in charge of the redevelopment.
“Ontario Place for All is committed to using all possible avenues to hold the provincial government accountable for their actions at Ontario Place,” Norm Di Pasquale, co-chair of the non-profit, told reporters at Queen’s Park.
The group is also asking the court to order the release of the government’s lease and contracts with Vienna-based Therme Group, which plans to build the $350-million glass-enclosed spa facility, as well as the business case for the spa. If necessary, the group wants the court to issue an emergency injunction to prevent the government from cutting down some 840 trees, levelling the landscape and filing in portions of the lakefront to prepare the site for development.
Critics have seized on the plans to hand much of Ontario Place to Therme, which has signed an undisclosed lease reported to be 95 years in length. Ontario Place for All – along with the opposition NDP and Toronto Mayor Olivia Chow – argue the area should instead be revitalized as publicly accessible parkland.
Ontario’s Auditor-General is also conducting value-for-money audits of both the Ontario Place redevelopment, which includes a 2,100-spot underground parking garage, and plans to the move the Ontario Science Centre from Toronto’s diverse Flemingdon Park area to the waterfront.
In the court documents, Ontario Place for All argues that the lease and contractual obligations with Therme are being kept secret because they would show the project is an enterprise on behalf of the government.
“In colloquial terms … the government of Ontario, and the Premier, are ‘driving the bus’ respecting the west island redevelopment in most or all material respects,” the filing says.
The suit names the Ministry of Infrastructure, Infrastructure Ontario, and the Ministry of Tourism, Culture and Sport as respondents.
Infrastructure Minister Kinga Surma on Tuesday defended the redevelopment, saying the government is making “environmental improvements” to the site, including the creation of 50 acres of public parkland as well as adding more trees and vegetation.
“We will make sure that we improve the shoreline. We will make sure that there will be lots of activities for families to do at Ontario Place,” Ms. Surma told the legislature.
A spokesperson for Ms. Surma’s office later said site servicing to the aging and outdated infrastructure is “well under way” and that significant environmental protection work has taken place over the years.
”It is unfortunate that special interest groups would attempt to use the court system to tie up a project that has been subject to so much collaboration from our partners,” spokesperson Andrea Chiappetta said.
Therme Canada is not named in the court filing. Simon Bredin, a spokesman for the company, said Therme “will continue to work with all levels of government and our Indigenous partners to advance this revitalization project and address such challenges as the contaminated soil and the eroding shoreline.”
Ontario Place for All has also filed a request to the federal Environment Minister to designate the site for a federal impact assessment to prevent Ontario from destroying the trees. Ottawa is expected to respond by Dec. 27, according to the court filing.
Official Opposition NDP Leader Marit Stiles said she supported the call for an environmental assessment. She said she believes the spa is really a government project and that it “smacks of preferential treatment” for Therme.
With a report from Jeff Gray in Toronto