Source says Premier Ford ready to tap Austrian, L.A. and Montreal companies to redevelop Ontario Place

Source says Premier Ford ready to tap Austrian, L.A. and Montreal companies to redevelop Ontario Place
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Waterfront advocates are sounding alarms over leaked news that the Ford government has chosen an Austrian spa resort developer, a Quebec outdoor recreation firm and concert giant Live Nation to redevelop Ontario Place.

Premier Doug Ford’s government refused to discuss the outcome of a secretive selection process that city officials and waterfront advocates have likened to a black box rather than transparent consultations about vital city waterfront.

But a source with knowledge of the plans confirmed to the Star that Ford’s cabinet has chosen: spa resort developer Therme; California-based Live Nation, which already operates the site’s Budweiser Stage; and Montreal-based Écorécréo that offers family recreation, including high-rope courses, in Quebec.

The Star is not identifying the source who is not authorized to disclose the winners, which were first reported by The Globe and Mail and are expected to be announced soon, along with some form of consultation process.

The choices “seem both disappointing and underwhelming,” said Cynthia Wilkey of Ontario Place for All, an advocacy group that has long pushed for open dialogue on remaking the iconic family amusement park closed in 2011.

“We haven’t heard any details, it appears to have been leaked out without any context,” Wilkey said. But, she added, relying on two foreign-based firms and a Quebec company that offers attractions similar to those already in parts of Ontario “does not suggest some great vision.

“It’s disappointing in that they have not listened to the City of Toronto and the thousands of Ontarians who have asked for the future of this important and significant site to be developed collaboratively.”

Coun. Joe Cressy, whose ward includes Ontario Place, said he has been told nothing by Ontario officials despite their pledge to work with the City of Toronto to co-ordinate redevelopment of provincially owned Ontario Place and adjacent city-owned Exhibition Place.

“Ontario Place represents 155 acres of publicly owned land, on the waterfront, in the heart of Toronto. It deserves a grand revitalization. It also deserves a public process to determine its future,” he wrote in an email.

“It’s long past time that the Province makes public — and consults the public and the city — on the proposals they’ve received. It’s time for this back room process to end.”

Officials in the offices of Ford and Tourism Minister Lisa MacLeod refused comment. In an emailed statement, tourism ministry spokesperson Denelle Balfour said the province is “encouraged by the response we’ve received through the Ontario Place call for development.

“While the process is still ongoing, we are committed to working with the city of Toronto and others to facilitate additional engagement as we move forward in our pursuit to bring Ontario Place back to life as a spectacular year-round destination for all Ontarians to enjoy.”

More than two years ago the Ford government launched a call for redevelopment proposals to turn the site into a world-class, year-round destination both for Ontarians and for tourists, with no ongoing public operating subsidy required.

Proponents were offered a virtual blank slate, except no casinos or condos.

Amid a backlash from heritage experts , the province later promised to safeguard the geodesic domed Cinesphere IMAX theatre and overwater pods — two defining features of the park designed by renowned architect Eberhard Zeidler and opened in 1971.

The companies apparently entrusted with the future of Ontario Place did not respond to Star requests for interviews about their plans.

Here’s what we know about them:

Aziza Chaouni, an architect and University of Toronto professor fighting to protect the Ontario Place legacy of Zeidler and landscape architect Michael Hough, said the site needs public input, a master developer and a conservation management plan.

She questioned why an Ontario company wouldn’t be chosen to provide eco-friendly outdoor activities. Also, a Therme spa on the park’s west island would raise concerns about its environmental footprint, the cost of upgrading sewer, water and power to the site, and continued public access to shoreline that needs costly remediation.

And Chaouni was skeptical about the Ford government claims that after announcing preferred participants it would consult Ontarians and the City of Toronto that owns a slice of the site and “waterlot” access to the three artificial islands.

“Any consultation at this point, I’m sorry to say, would appear to be bulls---,” she said. “It’s just checking boxes unless the Ford government is committed to preserving the social fabric of the place and its great architectural value.”

Toronto deputy city manager Tracey Cook told city council in June that talks between city and provincial officials, aimed at co-ordinating redevelopment of Exhibition Place and Ontario Place, were going well.

But the former longtime Toronto police officer admitted she had been told no specifics of the province’s plans. Mark Saunders, the former Toronto police chief hired by the province as its Ontario Place adviser, met recently with some city councillors but divulged no details.

Mayor John Tory, in an email, told the Star: “I’ve said publicly many times that I want to see something spectacular at the provincially-owned Ontario Place site and I continue to hope that it can be complementary to any revitalization of the City-owned Exhibition Place.

“We have agreed with the Province on a way we can work together with a focus on co-operative planning and public consultation.

“I understand the province is eager to announce further details as soon as possible and then we can undertake that consultation with the public.”
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