Opponents of the plan to redevelop Toronto’s Ontario Place depict it as a dastardly plot to steal prime public land from the masses, turning it over to a private international company for the construction of a “luxury spa.”
That has things completely backward. The whole point is to bring the masses back to Ontario Place, which the government closed in 2012 after years of decay and declining attendance. One of the draws is to be a giant waterpark and, yes, spa that will include waterslides, thermal baths and steam rooms in a lush, glassed-in enclosure, open year-round. Revised plans were released this week and they look pretty great.
Though the critics may turn up their noses, ordinary people flock to such attractions, whether it is Great Wolf Lodge in Niagara Falls or the Biodôme in Montreal. The Ontario Place project is just an updated version of this fun-for-the-whole-family approach, with wellness and water as its focus.
It is not at all unusual to put such an attraction on a prime waterfront site. London has a giant Ferris wheel, called London Eye, on the bank of the Thames, opposite Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament. Chicago has Navy Pier. Jutting out into Lake Michigan from the city’s famously green waterfront, it includes shops, bars, fast food, movie showings, fireworks displays and an amusement park with, you guessed it, a Ferris wheel. Vancouver has Granville Island, the old industrial site that boasts a popular food market, artists’ studios, theatres, a waterpark for kids and shops of every description. It’s busy all the time.
Nor is it unusual to put public money into the infrastructure that makes these attractions viable or to give long leases to those who invest in projects on public land.
If the Toronto project were going to be plunked in the middle of a big, grassy public park, that would be one thing. But Ontario Place has always been more active playground than passive green space. Over the years it has hosted a waterslide, bumper boats, a giant kids play structure, a wilderness-themed ride, a bustling marina and of course the golf ball-shaped Cinesphere.
Toronto has a long tradition of waterfront amusements. People used to flock to Hanlan’s Point on Toronto Island to see a famous diving horse. Sunnyside just down from Ontario Place was a great big amusement park with a roller coaster and flagpole-sitting contests. The modern waterfront has no such draw. It could use something splashy to pull people down to the lake.
If it is parkland you want – and who doesn’t? – Toronto’s waterfront actually has loads of it: the long lakeshore strip where the Sunnyside rides used to be, the lovely Humber Bay parks that stretch out into the lake, the string of creative new parks along the central waterfront, not to mention the green grass and quiet lagoons of Toronto Island Park. Much more green space is to come with the rerouting of the Don River mouth on the east side of the harbour.
Ontario Place itself has a wonderful new park on its eastern edge, Trillium Park, and the developers of the spa and waterpark promise more when they build their project on the West Island. They say that, after public complaints, they have increased the amount of public parkland by a third, adding pathways and gathering places, open to everyone. They have also scaled back the physical size of the project, distributing the indoor space into a number of pavilions rather than one big building. That should (but won’t) quiet the critics who say that the project would block views and overwhelm the site.
All going well, the result will be an Ontario Place that is the best of both worlds, with lots of active things to do, like visiting a revamped concert venue, but plenty of room left over for walking, swimming, boating and just looking out at the lake.
The idea that the new Ontario Place will be some kind of private retreat for the rich simply doesn’t hold up. If history and the experience of other cities are any guide, it will be a big hit among the very people its critics claim to champion.