A theatre showcasing the work of local playwrights. A giant organic vegetable garden. A series of art studios. A world-renowned research facility.
The blue-sky ideas for Ontario Place abounded Saturday during a standing-room-only event at Metro Hall, where non-profit group Waterfront for All hosted a rally to share ideas for the park’s future and reflect on its unique importance to residents.
Amid the positive tone and memories associated with the waterfront public space — first dates, open-air concerts, movies at the Cinesphere — was an acknowledgment that Ontario Place is “at a critical decision point,” as urban designer Ken Greenberg put it.
“Let’s not underestimate the vulnerability of this particular moment,” he said, noting the recurring suggestion that the entire park needs a “big bang” revamp, rather than simply an improvement on what’s already there.
A razing of the park does not appear to be off the table, according to comments made by Jim Ginou, the new Ontario Place board chair and a friend of Premier Doug Ford. Ginou, who will oversee the park’s redevelopment, told QP Briefing this month that the park’s current state is “disgraceful.”
Since the 155-acre park opened in 1971, Ontario Place has been celebrated as a beloved waterfront public realm that showcased Lake Ontario and drew crowds for concerts, movies at the Cinesphere and more. But when low admission led to financial problems, the previous Liberal provincial government in 2012 closed its main attractions, including its storied movie theatre.
Recent years, however, have seen improvements, including the reopening of the Cinesphere after renovation and the opening of a parkland section that features a 1.3-kilometre trail named after Bill Davis, who was premier when Ontario Place opened its doors.
For these reasons and more, it’s a “myth” that nothing’s happening on the site, Greenberg said. He emphasized to the crowd that improvements should build on existing assets, and should strengthen the idea of the park as a waterfront public realm, accessible to all.
“There’s a whole array of things that could happen … with clever use of what we find on the ground, taking inspiration from the original creation,” Greenberg said.
Mark Mattson, an environmental lawyer and president of water charity Swim Drink Fish Canada, called Lake Ontario “the most valuable” body of water in Canada, with nine million people drinking from it. There is more industry, business and real estate development happening on the lake than anywhere else, he said.
“People downplay Lake Ontario. Well, let me be very clear: this is the most important water body in the country, and we need people to …connect with it, to understand it, and this is an opportunity for that type of experience,” Mattson said.
He cited as an example Kingston’s newly opened Gord Edgar Downie Pier, which was unveiled last year and has unlocked the city’s waterfront for residents and visitors, enabling them to wade, jump or even flip — “a Canadian thing to do” — directly into the water.
“The same thing could be done here, which would ultimately get more people down to Ontario Place,” he said, noting the water samples done on the site show it’s clean.
Suzanne Kavanagh, a director of the newly created Waterfront for All organization, said Saturday’s event was intended to be proactive.
“We’re not militant. We don’t have a petition, because we don’t know what we’re up against,” she said.
However, Ginou’s recent comments about Ontario Place set off “alarm bells,” she said, and served as an incentive to organize those who support the park and want to enhance it.
“We’re saying, don’t blow up the gem — polish the gem,” she said.
The bigger picture concerning the future of Ontario Place is about access to the water, said city Councillor Joe Cressy, who represents Spadina—Fort York. Over two generations the city lost the waterfront to industrialization, the railway and the Gardiner Expressway, “but we are finally starting to reclaim the waterfront,” he said.
“If you want to build a great city, you invest in waterfront revitalization. And what’s the opposite of waterfront revitalization? Mega-malls and casinos,” Cressy said, referencing concerns about what the Ford government might propose for the site.
Attendee Beverley Thorpe said she is concerned about the future of Ontario Place, a park she walks through regularly for “spiritual rejuvenation.”
“I think Toronto is sitting on a gem, the lake itself,” she said. “I would love to see how we could celebrate the lake more here.”
With files from Jennifer Pagliaro and Edward Keenan
Wendy Gillis is a Toronto-based reporter covering crime and policing. Reach her by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her on Twitter: @wendygillis