City planners around the world must be filled with envy this week, as they learn of the Ford government’s plans for Ontario Place.
You can imagine the crisis that will ensue in Paris, for instance, when residents read of the plan and wonder how it is that their elected officials were never farsighted enough to build a privately owned “family-friendly adventure park” in the middle of the Jardin du Luxembourg.
No doubt a similar reckoning will occur in London, as citizens demand to know why no one has erected a giant, glass-boxed, four-season thermal spa and waterslide across the Serpentine in Hyde Park.
And one doesn’t even want to contemplate the screaming in New York, where Central Park has somehow been open for 162 years without offering “net-based aerial adventures [and] ziplines.”
Yes, heads are going to roll when the people of London, Paris and New York discover that no one thought to turn some of their most cherished public spaces into government-subsidized sites for private companies to make money.
Because that is precisely what Ontario plans to do to Ontario Place.
A “world-class destination,” as Premier Doug Ford calls his vision, means three private companies operating generic, fee-based entertainments on public land. The province will pay at least $100-million, based on a previous estimate, to remediate and service it on the companies’ behalves.
The companies are: Vienna-based Therme Groupe, which says it will spend $350-million on a waterpark and spa – entrance fees will be “under $40,” according to a company executive; Quebec-based Écorécréo, which will build the adventure park with “aerial obstacle courses, net-based aerial adventures, ziplines, climbing walls [and] escape rooms”; and Los Angeles-based Live Nation, which says it will expand the site’s existing outdoor amphitheatre into a much larger, year-round venue for paid concerts.
The work won’t begin in earnest until next year, and won’t end until 2027 at the earliest.
Mr. Ford won’t say exactly how much the government will spend on site preparations, but he did promise to put “a lot of money into it to keep the costs lower for everyone.”
Subsidizing for-profit ziplines, spas and concert venues on public land, in order to keep entrance fees down, is ridiculous. But this is not the worst thing about the Ford government’s plans for Ontario Place.
The real tragedy is that it fails to create something new and wonderful, as Ontario Place once did.
For all the troubles that led to the closing of most of its attractions in 2012, Ontario Place was at least innovative when it opened in 1971. Its three pods integrated into the waters of Lake Ontario, and the iconic domed Cinesphere, gave the site a unique modernist identity that attracted visitors.
Its downfall came because it ultimately turned into a money loser. Ontario made a number of attempts to turn things around, including the addition of a giant waterslide, but crowd numbers kept falling.
Mr. Ford and his government are now on the verge of doubling down on that failed experiment.
What Ontario should do is use these 63 hectares of publicly owned land to create – wait for it – a park. A free, public park. You know: trees, grass, flowers, playgrounds, a sandy beach, bike paths, a skating rink in winter. Because what doesn’t downtown Toronto have enough of? All of the above.
Once upon a time, Ontario Place – and the adjacent CNE – were just so much vacant land. But in a booming city they are now prime real estate, much of it given over to acres of parking, surrounded by fields of sprouting condo towers.
Toronto doesn’t need “world class” attractions to put on a tourist brochure. It needs to provide hundreds of thousands of residents of an increasingly cramped central city with waterfront greenspace.
There are plenty of smart ideas for turning public spaces into assets that will be cherished for generations. Central Park, Jardin du Luxembourg and Hyde Park are just a few examples of what visionary leadership can create. Look also at Montreal’s Mount Royal Park, or Vancouver’s Stanley Park.
But in Toronto, Premier Ford closed his eyes and saw ziplines and waterslides, and a place where private companies profit at the public’s expense. It’s a tragic failure of vision, and no one should accept it.
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