IT TAKES A DEVELOPER TO BUILD A CHILDREN’S VILLAGE. JEANHY SHIM HAS A PLAN

ILLUSTRATION BY  Frank Fiorentino

ILLUSTRATION BY Frank Fiorentino

Ontario Place was born in 1971. (FWIW, so was I. So was Justin Trudeau.) The children of the ’70s are the likeliest to have the fondest memories for the place. At least once a year, the Retrontario YouTube videos make the rounds on Facebook. “Remember the Children’s Village?!” someone will gush. That magical space, under a circus-like big top, with its forest of punching bags, its intricate tunnels for crawling, its elaborate ropes, its water park, its ziplines.

There was much more to the park, of course. But other than epochal musical memories of the Forum – that thing of beauty they tore down to build the amphitheatre – it’s the unstructured play of the Children’s Village that, in hindsight, seems most precious of all. That it was paired with the top-notch programming at the Forum meant it was win-win for every member of the family: The kids ran wild all day, and then slept on the Forum lawn while the parents took in Peter Tosh, Ella Fitzgerald or Boris Brott conducting the Hamilton Philharmonic doing Tchaikovsky’s “1812 Overture.” (For Teenage Head or the Tragically Hip, it was probably best to leave the kids at home.)

After shuttering the site in 2012, Ontario’s then-Liberal government opened the William J. Davis park on the east side of Ontario Place five years later. The next month, it put out an RFP for the rest of the 155-acre site. Applicants were told they’d hear back in the fall of 2017; as the season passed, they were told a final decision would be made after the June 2018 election. 

The incoming Conservative government pretended none of that happened, and has now put out a new, international RFP for a “world-class site.” The assumption, of course, is that Toronto – and Ontario, and Canada – is full of no-talent losers who lack any vision.

One 2017 applicant was Jeanhy Shim, a condo developer and board member of Waterfront Toronto. She was coming off a successful pilot project she called the Children’s Discovery Centre, housed in 20,000 sq. feet on the ground floor of an under-construction condo development on Strachan Avenue at East Liberty Street. It was supposed to last only four months; it ran for 14, from May 2015 to July 2017.

“We weren’t creating a place where you come once a year to be entertained,” says the former Rexdale resident, who now lives at King and Strachan with her daughter. “This was going back to what I remember about Ontario Place. If you read the philosophy behind it, by the original landscape architect, it makes sense: free, unstructured play. Creativity and innovation come from hanging out and figuring stuff out. When everything is curated – ‘You’ll do X, Y and Z and get a gold star!’ – we’re not doing our kids any favours. The values of the 1970s, in terms of child’s play, are timeless. Play is play is play. What families fundamentally want is the same.”

Shim opened the Children’s Discovery Centre as a “mid-life-crisis passion project.” She saw that 200 other North American cities had some kind of children’s museum – even London, Ont. – but Toronto did not. “When I was on mat leave 10 years ago, it was very isolating, even though I had memberships everywhere,” she says. “There’s nothing for one-year-olds at the Science Centre. No disrespect to the ROM, the AGO, the zoo – they all have their place. But it is possible to create spaces for one-year-olds.” 

Shim sold 150 memberships right off the top. She had 20 professional early-childhood educators on payroll, guiding kids and their parents through 10 themed “discovery zones” (a “campground,” a vet clinic with stuffed animals, “Eat Street,” music, art, building, etc.). Meanwhile, she continued to work her day job and took out a second mortgage. She made sure to amass data to bolster her arguments: 40 per cent of attendees came from nearby Liberty Village; another 40 per cent came from the 905; 15 per cent came every single day. “It’s now two and a half years later, and I still get parents calling me: “How’s it going? When are you opening again?” she says. 

Shim’s Ontario Place proposal was not flashy: refurbishing and repurposing existing facilities, landscaping, a common area for festivals, a play area geared toward teenagers, year-round access, and, of course, “we’d recreate the Children’s Village, using inexpensive materials, letting kids do what they naturally do: they jump, they twirl, they spin, they run.” No new buildings. Nothing extraneous. It’s a frugal plan, budgeted at $30 million for capital costs. It’s not some hippie pipe dream, either: Shim is a businesswoman who wants her project to be a non-profit, charging nominal admission for some areas of the park but generally keeping access free. “It should be run like a business – it shouldn’t be a money-loser – but this is public and should remain public. Toronto is an expensive city. We wanted to make sure a family of four could pack a picnic lunch, take the TTC here, spend zero dollars and have a spectacular time.” 

Given the signals coming out of Doug Ford’s administration, it’s unlikely Shim’s Ontario Place vision, or one like it, will come to fruition. But armed with data and experience and know-how, she’s still determined to open her concept of the Children’s Discovery Centre in some capacity, somewhere in Toronto: “People say things like, ‘Oh, this is just for children.’ No: It’s for families. For aunts and uncles. For grandparents.” Cities in Italy, Holland, Kentucky and elsewhere are realizing this. Shim cites the mayor of Bogotá, Enrique Peñalosa, who famously said: “Children are a kind of indicator species. If we can build a successful city for children, we will have a successful city for everyone.” His brother, Gil Peñalosa, runs the Toronto-based non-profit 8-80 Cities; his motto is, “What if everything we did in our cities had to be great for an eight-year-old and an 80-year-old?”

“I believe this is important,” Shim concludes. “When you focus on families and children, that’s universal. It crosses every culture, every religion, every economic group. Not that it’s about me, or that I have all the solutions, but it’s something our kids need.” 

Soundtrack to this column:24 Robbers” by Apostle of Hustle; “No More Mosquitoes” by FourTet; “Looby Loo” by Sharon, Lois & Bram; “Panda Panda Panda” by Deerhoof; “Sugar on Top” by the Dirtbombs

This ongoing online column will be about those who make it their job to make this city work. I’ll be following not only representatives at City Hall and Queen’s Park, but also the neighbours who run businesses, sit on committees, spearhead projects and light up our lives. Hit me up with tips at michael@westendphoenix.com.