Right-thinking people seem to agree that Premier Doug Ford’s plan for Ontario Place is a dud. It’s a sellout to commercial interests. It’s a squandered opportunity to create more parkland. It’s a waste of Toronto’s precious waterfront space. It’s an expensive, gaudy boondoggle. The most that critics can find to say about it is that it’s better than plonking a casino next to the lake.
Right-thinking people can be wrong. The plan promises to bring some pizzazz back to Ontario Place and draw throngs of locals and tourists down to the water.
Ontario Place opened in 1971. Built on constructed islands next to the Canadian National Exhibition grounds, it took its inspiration from the wildly successful Expo 67 in Montreal, beckoning people with a globe-shaped cinema and a string of pods suspended on stilts above the water. Visitors poured in for the popular waterpark and the concert amphitheatre. But Ontario Place lost its shine as the years went by – attendance plummeted and the province closed it down in 2012 for a big (and, it turned out, very long) rethink.
The result, announced by Mr. Ford last month, is exciting. To the relief of many, there will be no casino and no condos. Instead, the site will host three new attractions. One company, Live Nation, will rebuild and expand the old amphitheatre, keeping its famous sloping lawn where generations of concertgoers have sprawled, but adapting it to allow for indoor events in winter and in bad weather. Another, Écorécréo Group, will create an adventure park with ziplines, climbing walls and aerial obstacle courses. A third, Therme Group, will run a sort of megaspa and water park inside a giant glass house.
It looks pretty cool. You will enter through a pavilion of three transparent vaults in the form of a trillium, Ontario’s provincial flower. Local, international and Indigenous artists will create “experiential” installations there that might make use of the warmth of the sun and or the feel of the moving air. Thousands of plants and trees will give the complex a lush, greenhouse feel, a plus in dull Toronto winters. Visitors will bathe in a series of pools, walk through botanical gardens and dine on food grown on site.
And, yes, there will be waterslides. Despite the po-faced reaction, there is nothing wrong with that. Ontario Place was designed to be a stimulating, happening place, not just a pleasant lakeside park. The new plans are very much in that fun and forward-looking spirit. So is the innovative architecture and engineering. Therme says its project will meet top environmental standards.
The notion that the government is simply surrendering the site to private companies is way off the mark. The land will remain in public hands. Therme promises eight acres of public space around its project, including wetlands, biking trails and a new beach. The lovely Trillium Park at the opposite end of the site will remain, as will the pods and the Cinesphere.
Having private attractions in public spaces is hardly a new idea. Vancouver’s Granville Island draws big crowds to its market, restaurants, theatres and shops. Toronto’s Centre Island has an amusement park for kids. A leading Chicago destination, Navy Pier, boasts rides, tour boats, bars and food courts. If you go to a big-league sports event, you often find yourself in a privately owned stadium. Yet cheering on a team among thousands of others is one of the most public experiences you can have.
The new Ontario Place will mix public and private, to the advantage of both. Therme is to spend a staggering $350-million on its project, an example of private investment enhancing a public asset.
Lots of good things have been happening on Toronto’s waterfront, which is finally undergoing a renaissance after decades of abandonment and neglect. A series of creative new parks are springing up. The Port Lands at the east end of Toronto harbour are being reshaped and reimagined. Thousands of people are moving into new residential projects by the water, bringing life and motion to the area.
But the waterfront lacks a big draw like the London Eye Ferris wheel or Singapore’s Gardens by the Bay nature park – something with a bit of wow in it. The renewed Ontario Place could be just the ticket.
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