When he drew it up, in 1852, John Howard’s plan for the Toronto waterfront didn’t seem so far-fetched. The looping walkways and swaths of green imagined by the city surveyor from Bathurst to York streets seemed in line with the destiny of the place.
Toronto was a lakefront metropolis, after all. The era of great North American parks was dawning. Why shouldn’t the Queen City shoreline have “Pleasure Drives, Walks and Shrubbery for the Recreation of the Citizens,” as Howard put it in his proposal?
Or, put in terms the current Ontario Premier might understand, why shouldn’t it be green space For the People?
That question faces the city and the province again today, as its leaders decide what to do with the stretch of waterfront known for more than four decades as Ontario Place – formerly a family theme park and architectural novelty just west of downtown.
Much of the site was closed in 2012 amid neglect and declining attendance, and the provincial government has been trying to decide what to do with it ever since.
Now, of course, the provincial government is controlled by Doug Ford. He has strong views about the future of Ontario Place. They do not appear to include a leafy lakeside park.
When Mr. Ford was a city councillor under the mayoral administration of his late brother Rob, he proposed a crude redevelopment of the eastern waterfront that would have included a large shopping mall, a giant Ferris wheel and a monorail. At other times he supported the idea of bringing a casino to the waterfront.
Now that he has his hands on a slice of prime lakeshore real estate, he seems poised to go through with some part of this planned commercialization. The Premier has already taken several steps in that direction.
First, his Finance Minister refused to rule out placing a casino on the site. The government then passed a bill dissolving the corporation that ran Ontario Place and transferring its assets to the Crown. Last week, Mr. Ford put Progressive Conservative fundraiser and former Ontario Place chair James Ginou in charge of the site.
The writing was already well and truly on the wall before Mr. Ginou put it in all caps. He told a small political publication that Ontario Place was in “disgraceful” condition and was ripe for a complete tear-down – despite the fact that the IMAX theatre and geodesic dome known as the Cinesphere was recently renovated and reopened to good reviews.
"There is nothing that can be saved," he said. "Because it has to be rebuilt, it can be rebuilt in any way that Ford wants it to be rebuilt."
Well, if you’re going to create a pretext for doing what you wanted to do anyway, it’s almost thoughtful to be so blatant about it. Mr. Ginou is there to wield a wrecking ball and then receive fresh blueprints from the Premier. Good to know. It’s helpful to have red flags waved high and proud.
Given his track record, Mr. Ford having complete discretion over the fate of Ontario Place is alarming. His waterfront plans at city hall were ridiculous and rightly laughed out of the room. A casino would turn precious public waterfront into yet another Toronto-area site devoted to those who get a kick out of losing their money.
And now the Tourism Minister talks of making the site into a “spectacular world-class destination.” Is that another way of saying “glitzy boondoggle”?
There’s no need to overthink this. Turning Ontario Place into a park would kill two birds with one stone. In another era, it would have been a no-brainer.
Toronto fancies itself a City Within a Park, but that’s about as apt as any other self-bestowed nickname. The fact is, the country’s largest city has nothing on par with Montreal’s Mount Royal or Vancouver’s Stanley Park. Stretches of downtown are starved of any green space at all.
Meanwhile, the Toronto waterfront has been neglected for generations, separated from the city by highways, sold off to condo developers and nickel-and-dimed by politicians.
Mr. Ford has a chance to change that – and all indications are that he won’t. All signs point to his government favouring commercial development over public space.
It would be a shame if he neglected John Howard’s century-and-a-half-old dream. It would be unwise, too. Premier Ford, just imagine the billboard: “A Park...,” it could read. “For the People.”