“There is nothing that can be saved. Because it has to be rebuilt, it can be rebuilt in any way that Ford wants it to be rebuilt.”
You have to give Doug Ford’s provincial Conservative government credit for bluntness, at least — you don’t usually have to do a lot of reading between the lines to see what they’re up to.
That particular quote, conjuring images of razing the village not so much to save it as to see it reborn in Dear Leader’s image, comes from Jim Ginou, an acknowledged friend of the premier and proud conservative rainmaker who has recently been appointed to oversee the redevelopment of Ontario Place. He was discussing, in particular, what he characterized as the “disgraceful” condition of the massive public park on Toronto’s waterfront. But those two sentences could also serve, in general, as a kind of all-purpose summary of the government’s approach to many things, and seemingly everything to do with Toronto.
When your favourite tool is a wrecking a ball, every problem looks like a condemned house.
Of course, in the case of Ontario Place, it simply isn’t true that all of it is disgracefully, unsalvageably dilapidated. There’s a big time concert venue amphitheatre — renamed after a new brewery in 2017 — operating there. There’s the Cinesphere IMAX cinema, still postcard-ready after all these years and reopened after an extensive renovation just over a year ago, which looked magnificent when I attended a screening there recently. The pavilion pods have been subject to a detailed renovation plan that was put out to tender a year ago. And of course the 7.5-acre parkland section that has been named after Bill Davis just opened in 2017 after $30 million worth of construction.
I have walked around the site, and much of it is visibly corroded and neglected. No doubt much of it needs to be rebuilt, just as much of it could use to be reimagined, and virtually everyone involved hopes it will be. But it isn’t a spot where there’s nothing to salvage from its beloved (and evolving) history — there are options other than reformatting the hard drive and starting again from scratch. If one is inclined to pursue those options.
The even bigger fear, of course, is that the wrecking ball isn’t exactly the only tool at hand — that there in the otherwise empty tool box beside it is a FOR SALE sign the new government is eager to put to use. As in the case of the former Hearn Generating station, another (much smaller) waterfront site which was recently unceremoniously sold off to much civic surprise and consternation. That approach would seem to align with Ferris-wheel-enthusiast Premier Ford’s previously expressed waterfront preferences.
That fear is present in most of the objections from critics. Federal MP Adam Vaughan warns of seeing Ontario Place as a “real estate play.” Urban designer Ken Greenberg warns of a “fire sale of this public resource.”
There have been rumours of talks of potential for development of a casino on the site, which have pointedly not been denied. As a small blessing, those rumours haven’t been confirmed, either. Ford’s finance minister, Vic Fedeli, said simply in a CBC radio interview that “I wouldn’t take anything off the table.”
That Ontario Place was shuttered by the previous Liberal government and allowed to sit mostly derelict for almost a decade is a great civic shame. It would be turned into a tragedy if, at the end of that, this beautiful and storied piece of waterfront parkland was sold off to a casino developer or some similar private gimmick. That site belongs to the people of Ontario, and has both history and potential as a great Toronto public space.
There’s a big community of people who are passionate about the place, who have been involved in talking about its future, and who are eager to discuss it with Ford and Ginou. It’s up to the government representatives to defuse the fears, if they want to, by showing up for the discussion. And who knows, put away the wrecking ball for a minute and, if the discussion is right, perhaps it’s possible to find a points of agreement. Heck, I could think of worse places to locate a giant Ferris wheel, for instance.
Edward Keenan is a columnist based in Toronto covering urban affairs. Follow him on Twitter: @thekeenanwire