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Let’s Turn Ontario Place into a 21st Century Park

by Ken Greenberg, Urban Designer, Author of Toronto Reborn and Member of Ontario Place for All

Over the past few decades, we have learned that the sharing of green spaces in dense cities is essential to our well-being as human beings and social creatures. This has increased the desire for public parks and public space, but the means to address this unmet need are still lacking. In order to close this gap, we need a new definition for parks in the 21st century and new stewardship models on how to run them.

Fortunately, a new form of urban park is emerging that is no longer separate from the city but integrally interwoven into it. As Betsy Barlow Rogers, the former executive director of New York’s Central Park Conservancy, puts it: “As the city becomes more park-like, the park becomes more city-like.” This means new activities and uses within the park, including some commercial and cultural uses while preserving its essential publicness and free access.  

These new hybrid parks that are appearing in cities around the world are being asked to play powerful new roles – improving the quality of life, stimulating the competitiveness of the local economy, healing the environment, reclaiming no man’s lands and overcoming barriers between communities.

Ontario currently has an extraordinary opportunity to turn Ontario Place into a leading international example of just such a 21st century park, particularly if it is integrated with Exhibition Place and the built and landscape heritage on the site is creatively adapted and reused.  

Ontario Place would then become a critical part of an emerging public realm on the waterfront. This consolidated “Lakefront Park” would be a grand new gathering place on the waterfront and major tourist draw, offering an expanded array of activities, including swimming, fishing, skating, major annual events, theatres, marinas, restaurants and cafes and heritage sites. Improved regional and city transit and local shuttles and trail connections would improve accessibility and encourage active transportation.  Ontario Place’s attractive landscapes would be preserved as part of a freely accessible “Lakefront Park” that would extend like an emerald arm across the waterfront.

As development intensifies on the waterfront, Ontario Place would also serve the needs of the expanding nearby population for vibrant cultural, commercial and tourism activities.  Just as Sydney, Chicago and Barcelona and other future thinking cities are planning their waterfronts, a series of linked parks would draw populations from the surrounding city to the water’s edge and create a seamlessly connected lakefront. 

A land bridge to Exhibition Place would connect Ontario Place to the fairgrounds of the Canadian National Exhibition and parking, hotels, restaurants and transit. The southern edge of Exhibition Place can be interwoven with Ontario Place and a reworked shoreline as a great park-like attraction on the water’s edge. 

If we integrate Exhibition Place and Ontario Place, we would be unleashing a new synergy on the waterfront, with attractions such as a new soccer stadium, boat races, a water park, shops, theatres and marinas. The combined site would be transformed into an exciting and re-energized public attraction on the waterfront, serving Ontarians and drawing visitors from around the world.

This new consolidated park would be powerful new image for the city and the province. 

Press Release

Ontario Place for All says it is going to fight any attempt by the Ontario government to turn Ontario Place over to private business interests.

The community group says the Development Proposal released today by the Minister of Tourism, Culture and Sport will allow developers to ban the public from any or all of the 155-acre waterfront park. It will also allow them to destroy significant heritage landmarks, such as the Cinesphere, the Pods and the recently-built Trillium Park. The only thing protected is the privately-run Budweiser Stage.

“If the government succeeds with this wholesale destruction of Ontario Place,” says Cynthia Wilkey, a member of the Ontario Place For All Steering committee, “Ontario Place could be turned into a gated entertainment community, accessible only to those who can afford to pay.”

Ontario Place for All (ontarioplaceforall.com) is fighting to preserve public access to Ontario Place, ensuring the park remains a jewel in Toronto’s system of Waterfront parks.

“Not only is the government turning Ontario Place over to private business interests,” says Suzanne Kavanagh, another member of the Steering Committee, “but it is offering the developers a subsidy, by paying all the costs of soil remediation and the necessary utilities.”

Urban planner Ken Greenberg says today’s announcement is a slap in the face for the City of  Toronto. “City Council unanimously approved a set of principles for the redevelopment of Ontario Place, that called for full community consultation, a recognition of the site’s Indigenous heritage, and it’s joint development with Exhibition Place. None of these are now going to happen.”

For more information,

Contact:  

Cynthia Wilkey – wilkeycj@gmail.com –  (416) 892-8941

Suzanne Kavanagh – suzkav123@gmail.com(647) 309-4365

Strong Support from Tourism Toronto

Tourism Toronto has released a Tourism Test that it says should guide any future redevelopment of Ontario Place. The test has six elements, that Tourism Toronto says are key to developing an exceptional visitor experience.

  • An iconic new landmark
  • Year-round destination
  • Embrace the waterfront
  • Retain heritage elements.
  • Multi-modal access.
  • Jointly planned with Exhibition Place

Ontario Place is clearly one of the most important opportunities in Toronto to create something truly new and compelling that will attract new visitors from around the world,” says Andrew Weir, Executive Vice President, Destination Development at Tourism Toronto. “The Government of Ontario has begun a process to seek ideas for Ontario Place’s future and we are bringing a tourism lens and expertise to that discussion.”  

Overwhelming Support from Toronto City Council

Last week, Toronto City Council unanimously endorsed the fight to keep Ontario Place as a publicly accessible jewel on Toronto’s waterfront. Every Councillor at Tuesday afternoon’s meeting supported a motion by Mayor John Tory that established a strong City policy on the proposed revitalization of Ontario Place.
 
The good news is the City’s policy aligns with the principles adopted by Ontario Place for All. It calls for the City and the province to:
  • restore the purpose of Ontario Place as a showcase and destination for Ontario;
  • enhance public access to the full-length of the Ontario Place shoreline, and protect its natural heritage features;
  • develop a mix of non-residential uses and activities that reflect its waterfront location;
  • include Ontario Place on the City of Toronto’s Heritage Register;
  • link Ontario Place with Exhibition Place in order to realize the natural synergies between the two sites;
  • consult with Indigenous peoples, including the Mississaugas of the Credit First Nation; and
  • improve transit access to, from and between Ontario Place and Exhibition Place.
Most importantly, Mayor Tory argued that any decision by the Ontario government has to be done through a fully-transparent public process, that is responsive to the broader community. “I am really hopeful that the province will, in a genuine way, adopt a different approach that what has been done in the budget. That was unilateral, that was retroactive, it was done without consultation.
 
The Councillor for Spadina-Fort York, Joe Cressy, was key to developing the City’s position on Ontario Place and ensuring the unanimous support of his fellow councillors.“If you want to reimagine Ontario Place, it has to be led by and driven by clear principles based on public policy and public interest. We have been proactive in articulating a series of principles related to public access, connection to the waterfront, heritage preservation, expansion of parkland, arts and culture with year-round animation… I have been blown away at the thousands of Torontonians and Ontarians who have responded on his, from the Ontario Place for All organizing group, just ordinary residents who come out to town halls.
 
The City’s move supporting an accessible future for Ontario Place has already had an impact. Infrastructure Ontario was expected to release its expected Request for Expressions of Interest (REOI) last week, giving developers direction as to what the Ontario government sees as the future of Ontario Place. But Ontario Place for All has learned that, under pressure from the Mayor’s Office, that REOI has been delayed until the end of the month.

Ontario Place for All would like to thank Mayor Tory, Councillor Cressy and City Council for their leadership and strong support for Ontario Place.

Things are heating up at Ontario Place

Next week will see two pivotal events that could determine the future of Ontario Place, and whether it remains an Ontario Place that is for all of us. It could be a classic good news/bad news situation.

First, starting Tuesday, Toronto City Council will meet to decide its position on the province’s plans to redevelop the site. The first of two reports going to Council will propose the City work with Queen’s Park to develop a strategy to jointly plan the future of Ontario Place and Exhibition Place in a collaborative, co-operative and consultative manner with all stakeholders.

The second report lays out the guiding principles that City staff believe should govern the revitalization of Ontario Place.

Ontario Place for All fully supports the reports going to City Council. We believe they align fully with our principles and are the best way to ensure a future for Ontario Place that includes all of us. Joe Cressy, the City councillor for Spadina Fort-York deserves a lot of credit for making this happen.

More ominously, next Thursday, the Ontario Government is expected to release its Request for Expressions of Interest, a more detailed outline of what it wants to see at Ontario Place. This document will give developers broad guidelines on what they should propose for the 155-acre waterfront park.

Ontario Place for All is very concerned that this Request for Expressions of Interest is going to open up Ontario Place to widespread commercial development. The government’s promises to consult with stakeholders now appear hollow.

So next week the battle to preserve Ontario Place as a 21st Century Park will officially begin, and we need to rise to the challenge. While we been quietly organizing and preparing for this event over the winter, now is the time that Ontario Place for All needs your help.  

We are planning to hold a number of events this spring and this summer, to emphasize the widespread opposition to what the Government has said it is going to do, highlight the existing beauty and vitality of this dynamic waterfront park, and to show how any changes to Ontario Place can benefit all Ontarians, not just developers.

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