ILLUSTRATION BY  Frank Fiorentino

ILLUSTRATION BY Frank Fiorentino

What Ontario Place needs to become a “world-class destination” is something it’s had all along

For almost 50 years, Ontario Place has thrived in our imagination. It hasn’t always thrived in reality, as declining attendance figures over the past two decades show. That’s why the Ontario Liberals shuttered it in 2012, only one year after spending $100,000 to build a state-of-the-art water slide that was never used. 

For many, Ontario Place is just an idea, a hazy memory of our youth, a beautiful retro-futurist vision as you drive in on Lake Shore from the west. It’s not necessarily somewhere most people think of going. Full disclosure: Other than concerts and my cousin’s wedding at Atlantis, I haven’t explored Ontario Place since the Forum shut down 25 years ago. 

Now, because of dithering Liberals and putzes like me, all those ideas, memories and visions could meet a cold, corporate reality. The new man in charge of Ontario Place is Doug “Ferris wheel” Ford; he has the provincial prerogative to do what he likes. He appointed James Ginou to be the new chair of Ontario Place’s board of directors – a man who previously held the same position during the far-from-fruitful years of 1997 to 2003, a man who told QP Briefing that the site was “disgraceful … there is nothing that can be saved. Because it has to be rebuilt, it can be rebuilt any way that Ford wants it rebuilt.” (Let’s hope Ron Taverner doesn’t start using the same language.)

On Jan. 19, the province put out an international call for proposals that include “sports, entertainment and retail.” Maybe that’s the Ford family’s dream of a casino. Maybe it’s a Ghermezian-style megamall. Maybe Paul Godfrey will finally get the NFL stadium he’s always wanted. Whatever it is, only 7.5 acres of the 155-acre site is slated to remain parkland. Bite it, greenies. “It’s like developing Niagara Falls and saying, ‘You don’t have to keep the falls,’ ” Toronto architect Michael McClelland told the Toronto Star.

In calling for new proposals, Ford is actually falling in step with decades of government dithering. Redevelopment proposals date back to two years after the park opened: There were 21 different studies between 1973 and 2004. There is no shortage of ideas. There are economically viable plans in place to turn the site into the greatest urban public park in Canada, plans that are “not shovel-ready, but thought-ready,” urban designer Ken Greenberg told the Waterfront 4 All rally on Jan. 12. And now there’s yet another RFP? WTF.

The Cinesphere at Ontario Place, circa 1970.  Courtesy of The Archives of Ontario

The Cinesphere at Ontario Place, circa 1970. Courtesy of The Archives of Ontario

Within months of closing the site in 2012, the Liberal government commissioned a report from – let’s see here, who wrote this thing… oh look, John Tory! There were a lot of solid ideas – it categorically ruled out a casino – but many people balked at the plan to have residential units on 15 per cent of the land, as well as the $200-million bill (half of which was for a streetcar extension). So another report was commissioned, one that travelled the province for consultations, giving the citizens of Wawa and Kingston a chance to chime in (bilingually, of course). The resulting 2014 report led to what is now the widely acclaimed Trillium Park and William B. Davis Trail on the eastern edge of the site. The other 2014 ideas look remarkably similar to what the likes of Waterfront 4 All are talking about now: a family-focused, child-friendly place, with a large common area for festivals, fairs, etc. – which sounds exactly like Ontario Place in 1971. (Both the 2012 and 2014 report have been removed from the Ontario government website.)

Prior to now, the biggest threat to Ontario Place was the opening of Canada’s Wonderland in 1981. That pricey amusement park’s attendance numbers eventually reached those of Ontario Place’s peak: three million visitors a year. But Ontario Place, which at its lowest point attracted one-tenth those numbers, was never meant to compete with the likes of Canada’s Wonderland. It’s supposed to be an alternative. It’s a waterfront respite from a city of concrete. It’s the best combination of Harbourfront and Toronto Islands: greener than the former and more accessible than the latter. It should be an affordable option for families who don’t want to shell out at least $150 every time they go to the ROM, Science Centre or the zoo. Then there’s the population density of the area: “Families of four living in a condo need space like this for spiritual health,” says Walter Kehm, architect of the $25-million Trillium Park, which opened on the site in 2017, to wide acclaim.

Was Ontario Place mismanaged for years, falling behind modern times? Maybe. But the bones of a great park are all there. Trillium Park is a wonderful start. As was the In/Future art festival of 2016, at which ArtSpin staged 100 art projects from 32 international institutions, reimagining the geography and history of Ontario Place, an ephemeral act of magic that still inspires rhapsodic reverie two years later. Toronto Biennial’s Patrizia Libralato told the Waterfront 4 All rally that “international artists could not believe we were sitting on something so special.” 

The success of Millennium Park in Chicago (at least five million visitors a year) and the Forks in Winnipeg (four million visitors a year), to name but two examples, provides ample evidence of the massive economic boost that a park like this – without any corporate razzle-dazzle – can have for the region. “If all you care about is money, this is the best investment,” said Greenberg. There’s no need to resort to snake-oil salesmen peddling casinos and megamalls.

Councillor Joe Cressy gave a rousing speech to close the Jan. 12 rally: “When they came after the Portlands, Code Blue was formed, you fought back and you won. When they wanted jets on the island airport, you formed NoJetsTO and you fought back and you won. When they wanted a casino in downtown Toronto, you formed No Casino Toronto, you fought back and you won … We [the city] own part of the land. If you want to get from the land to island, you cross the water, and we own that. If we have to sit in that water to defend Ontario Place, we will.”

Nice speech. (Seriously.) But the difference in all those instances is that the Liberals were in provincial power at the time, and they were worried about winning downtown Toronto ridings. The Conservatives, on the other hand, risk zero political capital in selling off Ontario Place – unless Etobicoke decides it cares. 

Maybe if we just give Ford his goddam Ferris wheel he’ll leave the rest of the park alone, and in the hands of people who actually care about it. 

But act now: Offer ends soon.

Soundtrack to this column: “Got Til it’s Gone,” by Janet Jackson; “A Common Disaster” by Lee Harvey Osmond (playing the Horseshoe Jan. 25); “None of Your Business Man” by Fucked Up; “Born in the Water” by the Tragically Hip; “La fin des saisons” by Salomé Leclerc

This ongoing online column, WEP’s first, 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.