Opinion | Ontario Place needs fresh ideas. But the latest plans carry a whiff of desperation.

There’s still time to save Ontario Place.

Recently, plans to rebuild the site appeared on the agenda of Waterfront Toronto Design Review Panel. Of particular interest is the huge spa planned by the Austrian company Therme Group.

Initial images surfaced last year when Therme won the contract and showed large glass pavilions on the lake side. There are now more views of heavy, swooping buildings that leave very little public space at the edges.

it’s huge it’s ugly And it will probably look much worse in reality. City planner Gil Meslin has pointed out that these types of operations require huge “back of house” spaces: places for trucks to enter and exit, HVAC systems, and other services. Just take a look at Disney World via Google satellite view and see how much “backstage” space it takes to run the park.

Then there is all the parking that will be needed. These realities are not represented in the images.

As a regular visitor to Ontario Place since the amusement park closed a decade ago, I have never seen it empty. Taking a cue from open water swimmers, I started swimming off the rocky beach at Ontario Place. Go there on a warm day or night and you’ll see plenty of people using the beach, even if Ontario Place security staff unnecessarily harass beachgoers on occasion as there is a No Swimming sign there, even though the Clean water non-profit organization Swim Drink Fish has approved it as a swimming spot. It is not clear if this beach will be preserved.

New ideas are needed for parts of Ontario Place, but so far, the winners are bad generational mistakes.

Everything smacks of desperation: not from Therme and its designers (they’re laughing all the way to the bank), but from Toronto and Ontario. This city and province does not have to behave desperately. There is no shortage of people pouring their money into this city, and the tourists are coming back.

It reminds me of a story from my hometown, Windsor. In 1967, the city was sold with renderings showing a futuristic riverfront hotel complex that would fuel the rehabilitation of its declining industrial waterfront and downtown. Instead, Windsor got a squat Holiday Inn, nicknamed the “plywood palace.”The building privatized a part of the seafront promenade and prevented the creation of a continuous chain of green areas until it mysteriously burned down in 1999.

Toronto doesn’t have to go down this path, but neither do many of the big companies working on this project.

Some of Toronto’s biggest urban design firms are also working on this project. The Therme spa has been designed by Diamond Schmitt Architects. Urban Strategies Inc. is working on the master plan. They are both signatories toThe architects declare”, an international movement of architects and designers who are committed to fighting climate change.

Indeed, we are in a climate emergency, but the renderings show a glass building filled with tropical plants that will need to be heated in winter and cooled in summer, exactly the kind of unsustainable structure we shouldn’t be building.

Just a few years ago, Jack Diamond even wrote an elegant defense of building a great city for the people who live here, writing: “Irrelevant provincial proposals will not restore the city to greatness: Ferris wheels on the waterfront simply will not do.”

Diamond, along with Torontonians themselves, stood up and said no to a casino a decade ago, too, and won, just as they did when Doug Ford wanted to build a mall in Port Lands or when Sidewalk Labs tried to grab too much public space. Residents can and should fight back again, but it would be nice to have allies in the design industry because there are powerful forces behind this project.

In the “Lobbyist Watch” that my colleague Matt Elliott puts together for his excellent Toronto politics newsletter, City Hall Watcher, noted this week that Therme recently hired Prime Minister Doug Ford’s former deputy chief of staff, Mark Lawson, to add to his small army of well-connected lobbyists who meet with the mayor and other councillors.

The Waterfront Toronto design panel will comment early next year and there will be a public consultation, but it must also become a political issue.

In 2012, John Tory headed up the then Liberal government’s task force on the future of Ontario Place and did a good job of brainstorming its future while also protecting it.

If Tory wants to be a strong mayor like he says he wants, he will defend Ontario Place for Torontonians. Mayoral challenger Gil Peñalosa has stated that he will make sure he remains a public park if chosen.

It’s time for Tory to take a stand too.


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