City Of Toronto Archives
The defining moment at the July 26 presser to announce the findings of John Tory's advisory panel on the future of Ontario Place: the man of the hour, Tory, doing a slow burn as NDP MPP Rosario Marchese raised the spectre, in a scrum with reporters, of developers erecting a wall of condos on the shuttered waterfront park.
On its face, Marchese's appraisal may seem a little over the top. Tory's panel actually recommends giving over no more than 15 per cent of the 39-hectare site to residential development.
But condos form only part of the "live, work, play" space Tory's panel envisions. A hotel and resort have also been thrown into the mix as possible anchors for the site, despite plans to build a hotel on the Exhibition Place grounds across the street. A revamped forum, a possible educational institute, shops and other venues that "amuse and delight," to use Tory's words, have also been floated as part of the recommendations. Sounds palatable.
But Marchese, who represents the area that includes Ontario Place, is right to be leery. The deck was stacked in favour of private sector investment from the get-go, it seems. Tory's plan is clearly premised on private investment leading the way.
Tory said during Thursday's press conference that his advisory team went into the future-visioning exercise anticipating no government money in any redevelopment plans.
In fact, Tory's report states categorically that "the renewed Ontario Place can only become financially sustainable and operationally efficient by leveraging the investments and expertise of the private sector."
And we're not just talking about corporate naming rights and well-meaning philanthropists picking up the tab. Tory's report makes a more ominous reference to "a shift away from the identity of Ontario Place as primarily a public sector entity."
It quotes from the Drummond report on the province's "current fiscal reality" (read: we're broke, folks) to make the argument for public-private partnerships. Those could include the non-profit sector, but let's not kid ourselves. It's big biz that has the kind of coin that Tory's talking about to remake Ontario Place.
The devil in this proposed revamp is in the fine print.
Exhibit A: Tory has expressed a personal preference for saving architect Eberhard Zeidler's iconic Cinesphere and related pods, but only if the structures can "feasibly" be included in redevelopment plans.
Exhibit B: Things get trickier on the western half of the site, where Tory proposes locating the residential development. There, Tory's report makes no recommendations on water lots over the lake that were never developed when the park was built back in the 70s, leaving the possibility open to more residential development than even he envisions.
Tory's attempt to put the future of Ontario Place in the hands of private interests should raise alarm.
Private investments in waterfront development have a poor track record. There are more mistakes by the lake than we care to count. These projects have not only cut people off from the water, but also forever undermine innovative growth on huge stretches of the lakeshore.
In addition, questions still remain about the province's reasons for closing the waterfront attraction in the first place in 2010, when it was still turning a marginal profit despite poor attendance.
Was it a case of utter neglect? Lack of investment? A provincial government not interested in partnering with the Ontario Place board to make the park a success? Or all of the above?
Provincial plans were afoot only a year earlier, in 2009, to return the site to its former glory, "to revitalize Ontario Place as the flagship of a new era in Ontario tourism," according to a report by the Ministry of Tourism and Culture.
At the time, the world's first freshwater biodiversity centre was being contemplated for the site, as well as twinning Ontario Place with nearby Fort York and the Exhibition Grounds to create a "permanent, global world's fair."
That idea was championed by Liberal MPP Glen Murray while he was with the Canadian Urban Institute. Other worthwhile proposals have included moving the Ontario Science Centre to the Ontario Place site.
It's unclear what Tory's report will mean for the future of the park. Michael Chan, the Minister of Tourism, Culture and Sport, issued a statement before Friday's press conference stating that the government "is committed to ensuring that future generations of Ontarians have access to the water's edge."
But bankers and developers have been circling ever since the park was closed. A Request for Information issued by the Ontario Place Corporation to test interest in the site attracted some 35 development proposals - none of which can apparently be shared with the public for proprietary reasons, according to one provincial government spokesperson.
There is room for improvement on the site. Parking lots and administrative offices take up far too much precious space.
Tory's report makes reference to shifting tourism interests to explain Ontario Place's precipitous decline, blaming the emergence of theme parks in the 905 like Canada's Wonderland and Wild Water Kingdom for its shrinking attendance.
The reasoning seems facile. The government's and park board's inaction no doubt contributed to its fall from grace, but there are also factors beyond Ontario Place's control: the continued economic slowdown, transportation and access issues, the fallout from the G20 mayhem in 2010, not to mention cuts to its advertising and operations budget.
Yet despite the resulting drop in gate numbers, $12.9 million in revenues and a net profit of $237,000 was generated in 2010, Ontario Place's last year of full operation. Not gangbusters, mind you, but certainly showing some potential for improvement before the province closed the gates.
Who knows what the future might have held if the Liberals, as well as the previous Harris government, had intervened to stop a decline that's been two decades in the making?
Neighbourhoods around the site have experienced exponential growth due to condo intensification, so the population base that was never there before now exists to help Ontario Place make a go of it.
There are financial obstacles, chief among them the lack of public transit to the site, which could cost in the area of $100 million to remedy. Millions more will need to be spent on repairs.
But what of the huge public investment in Ontario Place? When it was built back in 1971, Progressive Conservative premier John Robarts called it a "spiritual home, a touchstone of stability, a place where people come, see and reflect upon their society that has been created in Ontario."
Robarts must be rolling in his grave.