Ontario’s Infrastructure Minister is defending a move to use new legislation to fast-track the contentious redevelopment of Ontario Place and says a study that justifies relocating the province’s science centre to the site on Toronto’s waterfront is set to be released Wednesday.
Kinga Surma said Tuesday that legislation introduced this week is needed to accelerate the Ontario Place project, which would allow Austrian-based Therme Group to construct a large spa and waterpark on the provincially owned site – where the government also intends to build a new home for the Ontario Science Centre.
The bill would grant Ms. Surma the power to issue what are known as minister’s zoning orders (MZO), which can trump city planning approvals and even the province’s own environmental or planning policies. It would also allow the province to expropriate nearby city land needed to access the site.
The legislation would also exempt the area from environmental assessments and heritage laws, changes that appear targeted at a legal action launched recently by local activists with the group, Ontario Place For All, which argues the site should be a park. The bill includes other clauses meant to insulate the government from lawsuits.
Speaking to reporters at Queen’s Park, Ms. Surma said the government has already commissioned numerous environmental studies on Ontario Place, an amusement park shuttered after years of declining attendance in 2012. (The proposed spa and waterpark has not been subject to a full environmental assessment, however.)
“Government feels comfortable now that we’ve done everything possible and we just have to make a decision and move on and start with construction,” Ms. Surma said.
“We have been talking about what to do with Ontario Place since before I was born,” the 36-year-old minister added.
Ms. Surma also said Michael Lindsay, president and chief executive officer of the Crown agency Infrastructure Ontario, will on Wednesday release the business case for moving the Ontario Science Centre from Toronto’s diverse Flemingdon Park area to Ontario Place – a report the government had suggested it could release months ago.
In a CBC interview in April, Ms. Surma asserted that moving the science centre is cheaper than paying for repairs to its current 52-year-old building. But she has declined to offer any details about the costs.
The bill on Ontario Place introduced on Monday was the result of a new deal on cash-strapped Toronto’s finances struck by Premier Doug Ford and Mayor Olivia Chow. They agreed to have the province take responsibility for billions of dollars in maintenance costs for two major Toronto expressways. And although Ms. Chow, who campaigned against the spa, said her position is still that Ontario Place should be public parkland, she acknowledged that the city lacks the power to fight the plan.
An MZO could make the province’s existing application to have the city approve the spa plans moot. Therme has already made a series of changes to attempt to address concerns from city planners about the size of the glass-enclosed building and the blocking of views of Ontario Place’s existing heritage structures. A Therme spokesperson, Simon Bredin, also said in an e-mail that consultations have resulted in more “free waterfront space, trails and parkland.”
But a Dec. 31 deadline for approvals in the province’s contract with Therme, and the potential for millions of dollars in penalties for missing it, meant an MZO was always likely. Even if Toronto approved the project in time, activists fighting it could file an objection at the province’s land tribunal, potentially delaying it by years. MZOs, which the Ford government has used before to aid developers, pre-empt any such challenge.
The issue of moving the Ontario Science Centre to Ontario Place has also been controversial. As part of the deal with Toronto, the two governments have agreed to discuss maintaining some sort of science-based programming at the existing building for the local community. But it was unclear what form this would take, or how the aging facility would be maintained.
Opposition NDP Leader Marit Stiles vowed to continue fighting the Ontario Place plan and demanded that the government unveil its reported 95-year lease with Therme. She called the moving of the science centre an attempt to “legitimize” the construction of a “mega luxury spa.”
The Ontario-Toronto financing deal also promises hundreds of millions in new funding for homeless shelters and subway cars, but only if the federal government pays a share.
Speaking to reporters in Ottawa on Tuesday, federal Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland was noncommittal about new money for Toronto, saying her government was already providing “many times more” to Canada’s largest city than its predecessors.
With files from Bill Curry in Ottawa