Edward Keenan: We need to do right by Ontario Place

Edward Keenan: We need to do right by Ontario Place
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Let us take a moment to recall that it was John Tory — then a private citizen working for the then-provincial Liberal government — who developed the plan to remake Ontario Place. So when Premier Doug Ford and come up with something new, it is his old rival for the mayor’s office, once again, that he is trumping.

But let’s also recall that it is called Ontario Place, after all. The provincial government owns the joint, so it’s certainly within the premier’s remit to muck it up if he likes.

That’s what former premier Dalton McGuinty did when he suddenly and unexpectedly shut the place down to save $20 million a year in 2012, eliminating 48 full-time jobs and 600 summer positions in the process. And shuttering a few generations’ worth of childhood memories of adventure playgrounds, flume rides, water slides, and short but spectacular educational IMAX films.

As Ford recently said, it was “spectacular back in the day.” Even if it had lost much of its appeal over the years and become a shadow of what it had been, it was still difficult for many of us to see it closed.

Now, six years later, a sliver of the giant waterfront site has been reopened as a public park. The rest of it is a bit of an urban ruin.

It would be nice if someone got on with the job of turning it into something worthy. Worthy of our memories of the place, for sure, but also worthy of the public real estate it sits on.

Part of the problem with trying to redevelop it as plain old parkland is that no one lives near it, and it’s inconvenient to get to on public transit, and the parking there is expensive. Parks are really successful when they are full of people enjoying them. A park that doesn’t serve a local live-work community needs to be something really spectacular if it is going to draw people to it — like the Toronto Islands, which do have some housing but are more used as a destination for people from across the city.

Ontario Place is not that. Not yet. And honestly, it hasn’t appeared likely to become that anytime very soon.

So in principal, taking another look to make sure we’re building something worthy of the site, and that we can do it reasonably soon, doesn’t strike me as terrible.

The thing is, it’s unclear what exactly Ford has planned, and many of us are not particularly inclined to trust his instincts. In the past, he’s been an advocate of a downtown casino — and we all know casino operators and developers would drool at the prospect of Exhibition Place and Ontario Place as a giant gambling complex. As a city councillor, Ford was also vocal about his eagerness to implement a developer-driven waterfront development plan — featuring malls, monorails, and a giant Ferris wheel.

Now, if you were going to build a giant Ferris wheel as a tourist attraction in Toronto, Ontario Place may not be the worst place, honestly. But it may not be the best place, either.

The key is that whatever the site develops into should be a coherent place — possibly including some residential component nearby, some commercial development or some workplaces, but including prominently a mix of attractions, features and parkland that can make it a treasure for people from across the city and visitors from all over the province.

The previous plan at least made the case that it had developed a coherent vision for the site as a place. But that plan, presented by Tory in 2012, hasn’t exactly been realized so far.

So revisiting it, if it moves a broader reopening back to the top of the agenda, may be worthwhile. But not if it means hastily putting something there for the sake of doing it in a hurry, or because we can find money folks wanting to use it for casinos or resorts or another gimmicky self-enrichment scheme.

We aren’t going to have another site like Ontario Place to develop. Whatever we put there should serve generations of residents as a waterfront treasure — as the theme park Bill Davis opened in 1971 did. It has both a beloved legacy and a giant amount of potential to live up to. If we’re going to do something with it, let’s do it right.
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