In partnership with three private sector corporations, the province of Ontario has released their development plans for Ontario Place that threaten the valued components of the beloved waterfront park in Toronto: the natural environment, affordable public access, and recognition of Indigenous heritage.
The former attraction park, which is located along Lake Ontario and south of Exhibition Place has been a target of corporate interests since the park was decommissioned in 2012 when attendance fell to “300,000 from a peak of 2.5 million park visitors” (Westoll, 2021). A few years after mass public rejection of proposed casino and condo developments, the provincial government launched a call for development in 2019.
On July 30, 2021, Premier Doug Ford unveiled the revitalization blueprint that fulfills the province’s vision of transforming the 155-acre provincially owned park into a year-round tourist destination with entertainment, recreational, and leisure attractions. The redevelopment plan belongs to Ontario’s post-COVID-19 pandemic recovery to generate revenue and redefine the province’s cultural identity (Government of Ontario, 2022).
However, the plan involves relinquishing public ownership to the corporate partners: Therme Group, Écorécréo Group, and Live Nation. Therme Group is responsible for the development of swimming pools and waterslides, spas, botanical gardens, and eight acres of publicly accessible parkland and beaches. Écorécréo Group aims to build on recreational facilities, such as ziplines, climbing walls, and escape rooms. Live Nation plans to renovate the existing amphitheater into a concert venue with a seat capacity of 20,000 (Government of Ontario, 2022).
Image Source: Government of Ontario
The province has engaged in public and stakeholder engagement through a public online survey in August and virtual consultation and information sessions (Government of Ontario, 2021). However, when questioned about the projected expenditures, the provincial government remains evasive. The three corporations have collectively invested $500 million, but Ford said he is unable to give an exact figure for how much the project will cost taxpayers (Appia, 2021).
In an urbanized and densely populated city like Toronto, greenspaces are important to be preserved for wildlife and recreational uses. Ontario Place is home to a diversity of wildlife from native plants and flowers, pollinators, mammals, and birds; of the 170 bird species from community reporting, “15 species sighted are recognized on the provincial species-at-risk list” (Bouaoun, 2021). The redevelopment plan makes no mention of the environmental assessment of the area nor potential measures to be taken to protect wildlife.
In its existing operations, the urban park is free and accessible to all. Throughout the year, the park is used by Toronto residents for walking, running, swimming, playing basketball and volleyball, renting firepits, hosting picnics, swimming, paddle boarding, kayaking, or looking out at the “lake on one of the many Muskoka chairs” (Bouaoun, 2021). The recreational value will be drastically reduced when a majority of the park is operated by for-profit facilities.
The private sector partnerships for the redevelopment plan undermine public interest and access to Ontario Place. When the park opened in 1971, former Premier John Robarts celebrated the attraction park as a “place for the involvement and enjoyment of all the people of Ontario Place” and the prices reflected that statement (Glover, 2021). Back then, park visitors paid a nominal fee of $1 for adults and 50 cents for children that would give them full access to all of the park’s amenities; in 2021 dollars, it would cost park visitors $7 for adults and $3.50 for children (Glover, 2021). Conversely, when the post-redevelopment park opens, it is estimated that adult tickets to the water park or spa will be $40 (Israelson & Greenberg, 2021). In a city like Toronto that has become increasingly gentrified and unaffordable, the redevelopment plan warps the initial vision for the park from “a place for all” to “a place for those who can afford it.”
The revenue from the redeveloped park will be primarily pocketed by the three companies and there will be very little remaining for the government to reinvest in the resilience of our province and our city. Urban designer and former member of the Ontario Place Board of Directors, Ken Greenberg has proposed a redevelopment led by Waterfront Toronto, an agency with “a great track record of partnership with government and public engagement” (Israelson & Greenberg, 2021). However, an alternative for the provincial and municipal governments is to maintain the natural features and existing amenities of the park and promote community-led events in the park.
A key feature of Ontario Place that requires preservation in the face of development is the park’s recognition of Indigenous heritage. Ontario Place is one of the many sites for the Moccasin Identifier Project; the project, which was developed in collaboration with the Mississaugas of the Credit First Nation carves physical engravings of moccasins for Indigenous land acknowledgment.
Image Source: Natalie the Explorer
The future of Ontario Place must celebrate Indigenous heritage of the land, promote public access and recreational uses, and preserve the greenspace. If you care about protecting Ontario Place from the province’s redevelopment plan, please participate in future public engagement sessions and share your thoughts with your representatives.
To learn about the heritage and cultural value of Ontario Place, please check out The Future of Ontario Place. To join the grassroots movement and advocate for public access to the park, please check out Ontario Place for All.
Appia, V. (2021, July 30). These are the province’s plans for the Ontario Place redevelopment. Toronto.com. Retrieved from https://www.toronto.com/news-story/10446846-these-are-the-province-s-plans-for-the-ontario-place-redevelopment/
Bouaoun, F. (2021, August 27). Ontario Place is a special place for wildlife. Spacing Toronto. Retireved from http://spacing.ca/toronto/2021/08/27/ontario-place-is-a-special-place-for-wildlife/
Fox, C. (2021, July 30). Revitalized Ontario Place will include outdoor adventure par, indoor spa and water park. CP24. Retrieved from https://www.cp24.com/news/revitailzed-ontario-place-will-include-outdoor-adventure-park-indoor-spa-and-water-park-1.5529012
Glover, C. (2021, September 5). Op-ed: Ford government’s Ontario Place vision pits private interests against public good. Now Toronto. Retrieved from https://nowtoronto.com/news/op-ed-ford-governments-ontario-place-vision-pits-private-interests-against-public-good
Gordon-Corbiere, M. (2021, June 21). The Moccasin Identifier Project: Marking Indigenous history on the land. Spacing Toronto. Retrieved from http://spacing.ca/toronto/2021/06/21/the-moccasin-identifier-project-marking-indigenous-history-on-the-land/
Government of Ontario. (2021, December 6). Consultation: Ontario Place redevelopment. Retrieved from https://www.ontario.ca/page/consultation-ontario-place-redevelopment
Government of Ontario. (2022, February 1). Ontario Place. Retrieved from https://www.ontario.ca/page/ontario-place
Israelson, D. & Greenberg, K. (2021, September 6). The Debate: Is the Ontario Place redevelopment plan the right one? Toronto Star. Retrieved from https://www.thestar.com/opinion/contributors/the-saturday-debate/2021/09/06/the-debate-is-the-ontario-place-redevelopment-plan-the-right-one.html
Rushowy, K. (2019, May 27). Casino ‘off table’ for Ontario Place redevelopment, sources say. Toronto Star. Retrieved from https://www.thestar.com/politics/provincial/2019/05/27/casino-off-table-for-ontario-place-redevelopment-sources-say.html
Westoll, N. (2021, August 30). Provincial government launches public consultation on Ontario Place redevelopment. Global News. Retrieved from https://globalnews.ca/news/8151648/ontario-place-redevelopment-public-consultation/ Zetter, M. (2021, June 21). Indigenous learning centre opens for summer at Ontario Place. Global News. Retrieved from https://globalnews.ca/news/7968164/ontario-place-indigenous-centre-mysum-toronto/