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An aerial view of Exhibition Place in 2013, left, and crowds file through the Princess’ Gate in 1958.Gloria Nieto/The Globe and Mail

With more than one million annual visitors, the Canadian National Exhibition is a boon for Toronto, but its reputation as the country's largest fair can overshadow the other purposes that Exhibition Place serves.

"People misunderstand the grounds as just a big, vast open space. It's not," said Councillor Mark Grimes, chair of the Exhibition Place board of governors. "There's historic buildings in there, it's a very unique place and a very important property on the Toronto waterfront."

The board presiding over the 192-acre plot, not including the provincially owned Ontario Place to the south, bills it as Canada's largest entertainment venue. It hosts over 400 events annually, including trade shows, conferences and meetings that are held every week, and more than five million people pass through the historic Princes' Gates entrance to the site each year. In 2012, Exhibition Place made $4.6-million in profit for the city.

Yet, as Mr. Grimes alluded, there are people who are unsure what goes on at Exhibition Place besides the most well-known events such as the CNE, the Royal Agricultural Winter Fair, the Fall Home Show and the Honda Indy. Both Mr. Grimes and Dianne Young, chief executive officer of Exhibition Place, said they frequently get calls from people in the community who have ideas for how the area could serve a larger or wider group of people.

These ideas are sometimes one-off projects or don't fit with the board's vision, said Ms. Young, explaining that the board will soon be entering a strategic planning session to discuss ideas for the site's future. Most of the discussions will revolve around improving current facilities – for example, expanding the Direct Energy Centre, but there will be talk of new undertakings such as building a new multifunctional plaza that could contain a stage or parking spaces.

In the past, the board has rejected the idea of building residential properties on Exhibition Place.

"Our board thought it best to stick within entertainment because, if you can imagine, if you were living in a condo in the middle of this site now with the CNE surrounding you, it's going to be noisy," she said.

Construction of a resort-style hotel to be completed in 2014 and installation of grass at the six-year-old BMO soccer field are some of the board's short-term goals. As the CNE begins, we reached out to visionaries across the city from different walks of life to share their creative and realistic visions for the long-term future of Exhibition Place.

Don Schmitt, architect with Diamond Schmitt Architects
Proposes an urban park that could cost at least $100-million

There's a huge amount of new residential use around Exhibition Place with almost no park space to speak of. The opportunity with the CNE is to create a great new urban park, maybe 25 per cent of the overall area of the grounds. A 50-acre, world-stature park that could extend right in the middle of the site from the Horse Palace all the way south to Lakeshore Blvd. Have the whole park bridge right over Lakeshore Blvd. and connect with Ontario Place creating a green link connecting to the water.

A gigantic percentage of the CNE is surface parking. It should be replaced by parking structures, ideally underground, and infrastructure for better transit connectivity. For example, the streetcar which comes in just at the Princes' Gates should connect to Dufferin Street and go north along Dufferin.

Then, move the midway to Ontario Place. It occupies a huge amount of space and that just remains surface parking most of the year. It really fits with the redevelopment of Ontario Place as a public green park.

Finally, redevelop it as a mixed-use neighbourhood with residential, retail and office space, while preserving the heritage buildings on site. All those big buildings used for fairs, conferences and trade shows can co-exist happily with a much more developed, mixed-use urban neighbourhood.

Blake Hutcheson, CEO of Oxford Properties
Proposes a world-leading health-care "hub" for the space

So far, what we have heard from our citizens is what they don't want at the CNE grounds – a casino/hotel/retail complex or any such related use. We also know that due to transportation limitations and simple market fundamentals, a conventional office building or retail complex would not be economically viable without marrying these uses to a huge economic driver like a casino. However, if one dreams a bit…

In combination with Ontario Place, this whole area could become a recreational/health/wellness/preventive medicine "hub" – with parks, fields, rinks, baseball diamonds, fitness centres, spas, medical office buildings and clinics, science labs, med school lecture halls, IMAX health documentary theatres, outbuildings for lectures, meetings, conferences and symposiums and appropriate hotel accommodations. This area could showcase to the world: Canada's medical systems and commitment to these issues; Ontario's foresight; the leadership within our medical and science universities and colleges; the strength of Toronto's development and business community; and the natural beauty of Toronto and its waterfront. It could combine both commercial– and community-based uses to ensure a healthy mix between the ability to pay for the vision and the ease of access for the entire community to enjoy and benefit from it.

In combination with the above, and to help pay for it, this area could also offer some live/work housing stock (ideally rental, not condominium product, so the city could get an ongoing return) for proven contributors to these important areas, as well as to music and the arts (all tied into a "healthy" community) with significant studio and presentation space to showcase these talents.

Jeff Cohen, concert promoter with Collective Concerts
Proposes a green space and permanent outdoor concert venue

Two years ago, I contacted Exhibition Place and proposed to take a parking lot there and turn it into a green space. Collective Concerts would put in the grass and develop a park and a summer concert site. It would be a deal similar to the one they made with the owners of the Queen Elizabeth Theatre. Exhibition Place would give me very inexpensive rent for the first couple of years, but after that, when we'd sign another lease, it would be at market value. They said it was an intriguing idea, but I never heard back from them. I was surprised. Here's someone looking to develop something free for them. It would create jobs. They would make money, as would I. I wasn't looking for any kind of favour. It's still feasible. I'm looking for something that could hold 7,500 to 10,000 people, which is a venue size the city still doesn't have in downtown Toronto in a green space. It's sadly missing, and we miss out on shows here because we don't have it.

Chris Rudge, executive chair and CEO of Toronto Argonauts Football Club, chair of the Canadian Sport Institute Ontario
Proposes development of public-access sporting facilities
Although I tend to be in a high-performance sport world, I'm not sure that a major investment in high-performance sport at the Exhibition Place would be the best use of that land in terms of access to the greater public, unless it was able to attract a lot of events and international competitions. There are many who would see it as somewhat athletically elitist, and perhaps not the best use of that space. There is room for development of public-access sporting facilities like public gyms. It is a spectacular environment, there are a lot of buildings down there, and a lot of shows go on, but it's got to be integrated with a vision for the city.

You would have to look at what percentage of land would be appropriate to set aside for public access for sport and what kinds of sports. Should we use Exhibition Place as an environment that is able to attract the various cultural communities that come downtown and share their cultural recreation activities with the rest of the city? Rather than thinking in the context for traditional soccer or baseball, do it from the perspective of embracing the growing cultural and ethnic communities here.

Steve Diamond, developer
President of Diamond Corp., part of a group that has been looking at the potential for redevelopment of the lands.
Proposes a new neighbourhood that can serve as tourist destination
First of all, Ontario Place should be developed together with the CNE. I think you will have a better development if the city and the province would get together and come up with guidelines for development for both. We think that there's the potential to develop a new neighbourhood for the city. I think it would be partly a tourist destination, but I think it would be more of a new neighbourhood that would add vitality to the city, somewhat similar to the Distillery District. It's got retail, it's got housing, it's got some office space. It would be partly a tourist attraction, but would create a lot of nighttime activity and another destination for people in the region. And with the city's growth, we think that potential exists, and can likely be accomplished without hurting the existing CNE and maintaining large amounts of open public space. Any new neighbourhood should have a mix of all types of density to create a solid neighbourhood. You would have some low-rise housing and some mid-rise housing and some high-rise housing. The land is large enough, [but] to make it work I believe you have to include the surplus lands from the CNE. That's because of the servicing constraints, in terms of getting water and sewers down there, and transportation issues. There are two major issues. One is the cost of infrastructure, bringing sewers to the land. The infrastructure kind of stops at the gates. Also, in order to make it work, there needs to be improvements to the transportation system. In the Metrolinx plan, one of the options does show the downtown relief line ending with a stop at the CNE, and if that plan was ever put into place, then that would be a huge boost to facilitating development in that area.

Heather Dubbeldam, Principal at Dubbeldam Architecture + Design, and co-chair of Toronto Society of Architects
Proposes a redevelopment with sustainable design and landscaping

That site could be a benchmark for sustainable design and landscaping for Toronto and cities around the world. The problem with that is incredible cost.

There's a parking lot with a huge problem with water runoff when it rains very heavily. The entire site should be landscaped with permeable materials, planters, green roofs, and trees.

It should be done in such a way that it allows flexibility for festivals. You also need some shade.

If you look at all the world-class cities, their waterfronts are developed in a way that's harmonious both indoors and outdoors with a connection to the waterfront, not inward-looking buildings with no windows. It has to be something that complements the urban park they're designing to the south at Ontario Place.

Every urban park needs facilities. So, Exhibition Place could be envisioned as a connection to the site in a way that's pedestrian-friendly. It becomes a destination in connection with Ontario Place.

Exhibition Place was planned to be what it is now as an entertainment venue for trade and consumer shows. So, from that perspective, it's very successful. But there's no real integration to the city. It needs to have some life outside those events – they are usually quite short. If you look at the Evergreen Brick Works, that's a great example of how they repurposed all the buildings and created nature trails and a farmer's market. You could have parking structures instead of surface parking, do some landscaping and create hills and views out to the lake.

Mike Layton, City Councillor for Ward 19, Trinity-Spadina
Proposes an innovation centre and better transit links

We need to maintain Ontario Place as a public space, where everyone is welcome, regardless of age, culture or income. It is prime waterfront land close to Toronto's downtown that must be made relevant and more accessible.

For Ontario Place to succeed, it must function as a place of learning, discovery and entertainment, as it was intended. Ontario Place could be a place that sparks both our imaginations and our economy. Perhaps part of the site could serve as an interactive centre for innovation, where Ontario universities, colleges and businesses could showcase innovation in an entertaining way.

There is also potential if we imagine Ontario Place and the grounds of Exhibition Place together, so that we can leverage the assets of each. A centre for innovation could leverage the new hotel and the conference facility at Exhibition Place.

To make this possible, we need to build better transit connections between Ontario Place and the rest of the city.

We can do this by extending a streetcar loop, finally building the western waterfront LRT, and maximizing Go Train service. There are endless options, but first we need to get Torontonians to the table to help develop a long-term vision that can build the supporting infrastructure needed and the province must be prepared to invest in the site.

Most important, it must be maintained as a public space accessible to all.

Lola Sheppard, Architect at Lateral Office, and Associate Professor at the University of Waterloo
Proposes large public space with new programming

Part of the reason the Exhibition Place feels empty unless there's an event is because everything is such a huge scale. The question might be, what are programs that actually need a big space but would also be alive all the time? Certain sports maybe, or a food truck patio or a beer garden. It would be interesting to look at the schools or city camps in the neighbourhood and see what amenities they need.

Several architects have considered ideas for large public realms that would allow for many different events like a market or food festivals, to pop-up events to open-air cinemas that might coincide with festivals. Create infrastructure with trees and shade and lighting that would allow such events, and access to the water through watercrafts like kayaks, canoes and small sailboats, which is lacking.

Precisely because there are so many buildings, most Torontonians, myself included, don't really know what all the buildings are or what the programming is. The space is largely parking, and some stretches of green – but that's sort of ambiguous with no clear reason to be there. One could imagine open-space programming that might activate it on a more regular basis. The layout is hard to comprehend for a pedestrian. Making signage and wayfinding would help create places versus just space. There should be an exercise in making the public aware of what is currently happening. But I also think: How does one make it more inviting and what would be required to make people come at other times when there isn't something going on?

May Wong, executive director of Omega Foundation and board member of the Canadian Urban Institute

Proposes a new marketplace/tourist destination

I think we are missing the opportunity to use Exhibition Place and Ontario Place as a tourist destination. You go down there when the Ex isn't on and if you're not with a conference or a trade show, you really do just notice the parking lots. What would it look like if it became a marketplace, whether it's food and cafes, or pop-up shops, or boutiques? My hope would be that Exhibition Place and Ontario Place combined would become a destination where residents or visitors to the city would say, "Let's go down to that district and spend a really fun day." I think market stalls would make a lot of sense because there are parking lots. They do have to work as parking lots part of the time. It's a beautiful place, especially some of the old buildings there. I love to visit them and I wish that I had more reason to. Certainly the bent that I put on it is around accessibility to the public and what makes the space engaging. We need to provide people with things to do. It can just be so lively if you animate the space.

Barry Fenton, CEO of Lanterra Developments
Proposes combination of retail, resort and year-round entertainment

One of the best examples is Chicago. They have acres and acres and acres of pretty interesting parcels of playful land. And I think if I was to do something with the Exhibition, I would try to replicate that to a certain extent, but I'd want to animate it more.

The Exhibition is about 190 acres I think, and they've done some public-private partnerships between Allstream and the BMO Field and Liberty Grand, but it needs a lot more animation. And I'm not suggesting for one minute that you sprinkle it throughout with high-rise development, because that's really not what you want here. What you want to see is a large facility that allows you to play – whether it's summertime, wintertime, springtime. I'm not suggesting a casino, but playful retail to bring people to the area, more of an amusement park concept. I would look at doing something like Great Wolf Lodge in Niagara Falls, where there's lots of animation and they have lots of cool restaurants and those types of facilities.

I would look to do something like a large theatre – at Ontario Place they can do outdoor concerts, but you should be able to enclose them in the wintertime so you can do them all year round. One problem with the Exhibition right now is it is kind of off the beaten track to a certain extent. So you're going to want to provide some parking. You're going to want to provide perhaps tram systems from the downtown to the CNE.

I would also integrate something similar to what they do in Florida at Universal Studios – they have timeshares and the ability for people to actually stay close to the facilities. I would look at it more like a combination of downtown waterfront Chicago, Hard Rock retail, and Great Wolf Lodge. Almost like a Niagara Falls, but more accessible. And keep a lot of green space, there's a beautiful waterfront down by Exhibition Place and I don't think people appreciate it. You have to create something that people can access all year round. From a financial standpoint you'd need to have private public partnerships.

Ed Sonshine, CEO of RioCan Real Estate Investment Trust
Proposes selling some land to allow for an urban park

There are some buildings there that I think are useful, serve a purpose, like the Allstream Centre. The rest of it – saving some historical buildings – I would take some land at the edges and sell it off, so that [it] doesn't cost the taxpayers any money, because I think you can do it very easily. You'd have to sell very little land to cover the cost of what I'd like to see there, which is a huge park that would go from the middle of the Ex all the way down to the water to include the old Ontario Place. You've got so many people living in downtown west and down along the lakefront – the whole area there just continues to explode. And I'm not sure they have any big park system. We're starting to live in a very urban environment – that's the way it's going to be, and you can't have too much green space. And here's space that the city and the province already own. And I guess it's been fully and finally settled there isn't going to be a casino down there, which I'm quite happy about, and I just think a big park would be great.

These interviews have been condensed and edited.