Last weekend, this newspaper published an opinion piece by Donald Schmitt and Gary McCluskie of Diamond Schmitt, the architectural firm leading the design of the new waterpark and wellness retreat at Ontario Place.
They began by lamenting that the debate over the project had degenerated into a shouting match, creating “so much heat, it’s hard to see the light any more.” By providing a few facts and arguments, they hoped to turn down the temperature a bit.
If the comments that quickly appeared below the online version of the piece are anything to go by, their attempt was not a roaring success. Reader after reader lined up to denounce them.
“Complete garbage,” thundered one, saying the provincial government was surrendering a treasured public asset to a private company. “Please go away with your awful design and stupid, outdated opinion. The people of Toronto do not want your monstrosity spa here!” said another. “Go somewhere else to ruin their waterfront,” offered a third. You get the idea.
We all have a right to our opinions, of course, and anyone who writes in a newspaper can expect to draw some flak, but the architects deserve a fairer hearing. Mr. Schmitt is a respected veteran whose mark is on many leading Canadian buildings, from the renovated National Arts Centre in Ottawa to the Emily Carr University of Art + Design in Vancouver. Mr. McCluskie’s projects include the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts in Toronto and St. Petersburg’s new Mariinsky Theatre.
They make three main points. First, the waterpark doesn’t gobble up all of Ontario Place. It is only one part of the transformation of the artificial archipelago, which has been shuttered since 2012 after visitor numbers dropped off and it fell into disrepair.
The waterpark will rise on the West Island and will include a walking trail, a beach and new headland. Trillium Park, the lovely public space on the East Island, will remain. So will the globe-shaped Cinesphere and the pods on stilts that were trademarks of the old Ontario Place.
Second, it would not be such a bad thing to have a big draw at Ontario Place. It was originally designed to be more of a playground than a simple park, with attractions that would come to include movies at the Cinesphere and a “wilderness adventure” ride featuring a twisting watercourse.
The new waterpark, which opponents insist on calling a luxury spa, will bring visitors down to the lake year-round. That’s an obvious plus in a city with a cold climate. “Is public recreational space defined only as grass and trees?” ask Mr. Schmitt and Mr. McCluskie. “Could a recreational and therapeutic warm-water environment for an estimated 7,000 people a day actually be seen as a social respite in Toronto’s months of windy and winter weather?”
Third, there is nothing wrong with mixing private enterprise and public space.
In fact, at a time when governments are struggling to pay for all sorts of necessities, from health care to transit, it is a very good thing to see private investment flowing into public spaces. An Austria-based company, Therme, is putting many millions into the West Island, not just for the wellness project but for the new beach, walkway and parkland.
Another company, Live Nation, will pay for a big expansion of the popular concert space on the East Island, which will include not just outdoor but covered seating.
The snipers on the comments thread say Mr. Schmitt and Mr. McCluskie are hardly objective. Their article, said one, was no more than propaganda from Therme’s paid architects. It’s true, of course, that as the lead architects they have an interest in painting the project in a positive light. But with their reputations and the standing of their whole firm on the line, it seems unlikely they would involve themselves in the creation of a monstrosity. In fact, they may produce something quite beautiful.
Before Toronto writes off the project as an offence against all that is holy, it should at least take the time to hear them out.