A monolith is heading for Toronto’s waterfront. Doug Ford’s Ontario government continues to advance its plan for a 700,000-square-foot private indoor waterpark and accompanying parking garage.
But Toronto’s surprise by-election raises a question: What will the new mayor think about that?
There’s every reason for Ontario Place to become an election issue. The plan from the province and Austrian company Therme would raze and privatize the West Island of the landmark park. Ex-mayor John Tory seemed happy to play along, but nobody in Toronto asked for this. And the Therme plan is bad for the city.
As it happens, the plan is working its way through city approvals. Municipal planning staff will report on the project in April. The new mayor will be elected June 26. Both staff and politicians now have an opportunity to reject the plan entirely. True, the Premier could overrule them. But they could sure create a long, public battle.
And they should. The West Island is landscape architecture of global significance. It now functions as a public park with a beach, green space and hundreds of trees. The Therme scheme would cover the entire island with an ugly shed that’s open only to those with a ticket.
This “spa” would, as Therme insists, provide publicly accessible space – but only by filling in acres of Lake Ontario around its edges. That new land would be under the management and control of Therme. Toronto’s future is as a dense, fast-growing international city that trades on its public realm and walkability. If a waterpark has any place here, it’s along a 400-series highway, not on the central waterfront.
This should be simple enough to understand for anyone who wants to be mayor of Toronto.
So what are the candidates saying? The left is not happy. Councillor Josh Matlow is strongly opposed to the Therme plan. Olivia Chow, an undeclared candidate but already a front-runner, is against it too.
Centrist former councillor Ana Bailao is trying for a middle ground. “More than $500-million of taxpayer money will be spent to subsidize this vision. … The money they are spending on this spa should be spent on public safety, better services and affordable housing,” she said in an e-mail this week.
Then there’s Mark Saunders. The front-runner from the right, Toronto’s former chief of police, served last year as “special adviser” to the Ford government on Ontario Place. He will be unlikely to argue with his political patrons, but he must explain himself. Why is this waterpark good for Toronto? Why does a huge, opaque tourist attraction belong in the heart of the city’s lakefront?
There are no convincing answers to those questions. The pitch from Therme and the province is that the plan will provide jobs, a tourist attraction and public space. On the latter, a brief by local consultants Urban Strategies says the spa “facilitates access to and around the waterfront.” Sure. Also, if you punch me in the nose and then offer me a tissue, you are facilitating access to Kleenex.
There are more technical arguments to be made; this was clear at last week’s joint meeting of the design review panels for the city and Waterfront Toronto. How does a 2,100-space concrete parking garage fit with the city’s climate agenda? What are the ecological consequences of wiping out the West Island’s plant life? Is it good heritage practice to dwarf Ontario Place’s architecture with a shed 45 metres high? And if the West Island sometimes floods, why not redesign the landscape to accept water, rather than raze and rebuild it?
If you listened carefully at this meeting, every one of Therme’s talking points was shredded. There are plenty of reasons for city staff to reject the application clearly and forcefully.
But this is a political battle. Toronto needs a vision for Ontario Place. For too long, it and the adjacent city-owned Exhibition Place have been underused: event spaces in an ocean of parking lots.
It’s time to rethink these sites, a combined 140 hectares, as part of the city – especially since they will have a station on the Ontario Line subway. They should be remade mostly as parkland, with robust cultural programming and high-quality landscape architecture. Other uses, including housing, could fill a small inland portion of the site and generate a financial return – as they do at the beautiful Brooklyn Bridge Park in New York. (Ask Toronto planner Ken Greenberg, who worked on that park and opposes the Therme scheme.)
Waterfront Toronto, the intergovernmental agency that is already doing a fine job with the eastern waterfront, can implement the vision.
Getting there will be challenging. The province continues to claim – falsely – that nobody visits Ontario Place. The Premier wants the waterpark. Therme has spent aggressively on public relations, advertising and philanthropy.
To push back, Toronto needs a mayor who knows what cities are for: to gather. It needs a mayor who understands the value of public space. John Tory was not that person. The next mayor could be.