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opinion

What will be the future of Ontario Place? The 155-acre waterfront site on the edge of downtown Toronto is going to evolve, and the Ontario government needs to choose how.

One option is a large redevelopment by a private consortium. Three groups are reportedly in the running. One of these is OPlaceCo, a consortium that brings together Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment, Kilmer Group, concert promoter Live Nation, construction giant Ellis-Don and the architecture company Partisans. Live Nation holds a lease on the Ontario Place concert venue Budweiser Stage.

The other option is to make it, mostly if not entirely, a park. And there is a strong case that this is the smart thing to do.

Ontario Place has been an important file for the Doug Ford government, because Mr. Ford has taken a personal interest in it. Unfortunately, his government has brought its usual approach to public assets, asking: How can this thing generate cash?

At the same time, during a press conference on Monday, Heritage Minister Lisa MacLeod described Ontario Place as “iconic.”

An iconic cash cow. That’s a contradiction. The government is moving forward with some kind of redevelopment led by private companies. The 155-acre site, which comprises artificial islands and vast swaths of mainland parking lot, is a large canvas. It is also adjacent to the Toronto-owned Exhibition Place.

“The site needs a curated solution that keeps the place lively year round,” said Ken Tanenbaum, vice-chairman of Kilmer Group. “For now, there are 5.5 million people who step into Exhibition Place each year, and we need to give them a reason to come early and stay late.”

Mr. Tanenbaum did not speak specifically about the details of the OPlaceCo proposal; he has committed to keeping details confidential while the province is making its decision. However, he said that the site “must be considered together with Exhibition Place,” and pointed out that the two sites could become a “Union Station West,” as the planned Ontario Line subway intersects with the GO Transit station at Exhibition Place.

In this context, he said “a variety of smaller uses makes sense, and you need someone to curate them.” Mr. Tanenbaum is an experienced developer; his father, Kilmer chief executive officer and chairman Larry Tanenbaum, is also a co-owner of Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment.

Their group seems likely to link Ontario Place with Exhibition Place, and co-ordinate events and retail, particularly with BMO Field, where MLSE’s Toronto FC play.

Another rumoured contender for Ontario Place is Austria’s Therme Group, which operates “wellness resorts.”

So is the future of this site in events and entertainment? If so, the OPlaceCo bid at least would bring some sophistication. Kilmer has a strong record as developers; Partisans is an ambitious architecture company that has been working on Ontario Place for years.

But the heritage architecture – the exhibition pavilions on stilts known as “pods” and Cinesphere theatre – is a considerable legacy. Designed by Eberhard Zeidler, they are masterpieces of high-tech architecture, and of national significance. The landscape, too, by landscape architect Michael Hough, is special; the West Island remains largely intact.

The site has complicated technical challenges; the soil conditions, shoreline, water and sewage and electrical servicing will require significant investment before anyone builds anything big. This is probably why no business deal to remake the site has happened yet. There is no magic bullet.

What about keeping the islands as open space, and making them a park? Urban designer Ken Greenberg, of the group Ontario Place for All, thinks that’s exactly the right approach. Particularly during the COVID-19 pandemic, there is a shortage of green space in downtown Toronto, he says. There is a specific area “where the population is increasing dramatically, and the city is talking about purchasing expensive land for parks.” This is true. At least 50,000 people live in walking distance of Ontario Place right now.

“And here we have a huge piece of land in public ownership that possesses park-like qualities, incredible architectural legacy and a connection to the Martin Goodman [cycle] trail,” Mr. Greenberg said.

Many people have been using Ontario Place simply as a park, me included. Given that the attractions are closed and the place has gotten years of bad press, I have been surprised to see crowds of people there each time I visit. The recently reconstructed Trillium Park, at one end of Ontario Place, is routinely crowded. It was a parking lot 10 years ago.

Mr. Greenberg and consultants HR&A have studied the idea of a large park, and calculate that the economic benefits of green space outweigh those of a private attraction.

Mr. Ford may want to see some sort of Ferris wheel; but the biggest urban tourist draw of the past decade was the High Line, in New York, a park where there’s nothing to do but people-watch. Could Ontario learn from that?