Casino and condos are out, but plenty on the table as province looks to redevelop Toronto’s Ontario Place
TORONTO—Ontario has ruled out a casino and condos at the site of Ontario Place on Toronto’s waterfront as it issues a call for development proposals, but the future of the park’s iconic Cinesphere is in question.
Michael Tibollo, the minister of tourism, culture and sport, said May 28 that the government wants to see the site turned into a world-class, year-round destination both for Ontarians and for tourists.
“We have a jewel in Ontario Place,” he said. “It just needs to be polished.”
The government will consider a broad range of ideas, from sport and entertainment landmarks, to public spaces and parks, to recreational facilities and retail space, Tibollo said.
“But I want to be clear: our vision for Ontario Place does not include residential developments or casinos,” he said.
The development guidelines do not, however, require the famous white Cinesphere cinema or the park’s futuristic pod complex to be preserved. The site’s islands are also open for development.
Community group Ontario Place for All raised concerns that significant landmarks will be torn down.
“If the government succeeds with this wholesale destruction of Ontario Place, Ontario Place could be turned into a gated entertainment community, accessible only to those who can afford to pay,” steering committee member Cynthia Wilkey said in a statement.
The province closed Ontario Place to the public in 2012 due to falling revenues at the government-owned theme park and tight provincial finances. At that time, the government said attendance had fallen from 2.5 million when it opened in 1971 to about 300,000.
Various proposals have been floated since its closure, including a year-round waterpark with a retractable roof, a casino complex and hotel, as well as residential development.
Infrastructure Minister Monte McNaughton said the government will not be putting up any capital or operational money for the project.
“It’s important that we activate and engage the private sector,” he said. “This is going to be a very, very exciting process that begins today, that wraps up on Sept. 3, so it’s a very quick turnaround, but we expect there’s going to be a lot of big names interested in putting forward ideas.”
NDP Leader Andrea Horwath said members of the public should be consulted about their vision for Ontario Place.
“It looks like Mr. (Doug) Ford is more interested in jumping on a bulldozer with a bunch of his developer buddies and making sure they can all fill their pockets, as opposed to having a real look at what Ontarians want and what Torontonians want,” she said.
Interim Liberal leader John Fraser said with the government recently announcing plans to rip up a deal with the Beer Store, other companies may be wary about entering into a contract with the province.
“I am concerned that with this they’re talking about signing another major contract with organizations and there may be a Doug Ford contingency because of all the contracts they’re legislating themselves out of,” he said.
The Budweiser Stage, used for concerts, is not subject to redevelopment at Ontario Place and the government says it also intends to maintain three hectares of park land.
Trillium Park was opened at Ontario Place in 2017, five years after it had closed, and was connected to the city by the William G. Davis recreational trail, named after Ontario’s premier the year Ontario Place first opened.
The proposal stipulations say the government prefers a plan for a comprehensive development of the whole site, but “smaller-scale creative and bold concepts may also be considered for portions of the site.”
The marinas can be reconfigured or relocated, but a marina must be maintained somewhere on the site.
Toronto Mayor John Tory said the city was notified of Tuesday’s step, “as opposed to any substantive discussion between our two levels of government.”
“As an owner of a portion of Ontario Place, the city of Toronto has a long-standing interest in its future,” he said in a statement.
Ford said in a statement that there have been several meetings between the city and the province, and taking a casino off the table is in response to Toronto’s concerns.