Ontario Place redevelopment must prepare to get government out of landlord business
Ontario Place looks like the set of some futurist film about an apocalyptic wasteland. The pods sit empty, the small children’s village has been shut down for 17 years, and the winter light offerings are more meagre than an average suburban street at Christmas. Tumbleweeds might as well be rolling down the unoccupied paths on the west island.
The problem is that governments make bad landlords. For proof, consider the Auditor General’s report that found the government spent $19 million in 2016-17 to maintain over 800 empty buildings. Ontario Place is just one of many neglected government properties. It received an over $2 million operating grant from Ontario taxpayers in 2016, the most recent numbers available. And operating expenses increased by more than $1 million between 2016 and 2015.
The solution for Ontario Place is to develop it and sell it. Stop stalling with intergovernmental navel gazing and get private developers building shops, restaurants, and, yes even condos, that will make Ontario Place a living community again.
The Ford government announced a comprehensive redevelopment of the site with an Expression of Interest process beginning this spring. But the Ford government has already taken two important options off the table. Ford will not consider the sale of land and will not allow the construction of residential buildings.
The prohibition on new homes for Torontonians is inexplicable – why shouldn’t people live at Ontario Place? John Tory, before he was mayor, saw the logic of having residential living as part of Ontario Place’s redevelopment. He included it in the 2012 revitalization plan that he created at the request of then premier Dalton McGuinty. Having residential living near the site makes more sense than having an abandoned government-owned amusement park that is inaccessible by transit.
On the land ownership, the Ford government’s decision not to allow the sale of land may be perplexing at first blush, but it may be the only way to avoid eternal intergovernmental gridlock.
When the province owns the land, it is still subject to a heritage designation, but the province retains a great deal of control over the development through internal policies rather than the Toronto City Council’s public process and heritage rules.
Ontario Place certainly does have historical architectural significance and some heritage protection is justified. It is a major representation of modernist architecture, complete with high-tech style avant garde mega structures such as the Cinesphere and pods. These aspects of Ontario Place are worthy of the heritage designation they already received in a provincial Statement of Cultural Heritage Value.
But we should appreciate the past without worshiping it.
For example, there are groups that oppose virtually any redevelopment that includes the private sector. But, instead of getting the park they imagine, taxpayers are stuck with a deteriorating wasteland plagued with endless indecision.
This opposition to the private sector is misguided, and ignores the original vision of Ontario Place. The 1971 Ontario Place promotional video talks about shops, restaurants and boutiques. Private businesses should be a core part of the redevelopment of Ontario Place, as they were always intended to be. Indeed, the Budweiser Stage is one of the few things that currently draws people to Ontario Place – a venue that’s owned by Live Nation in partnership with Labatt while the land is leased from the government.
The idea of making the site purely a park should also be ruled out. It simply isn’t economically viable. Even the previous Liberal government recognized this reality.
And residential living should be an option. Ontario Place’s architect Eb Zeibler and famous urban planner Jane Jacobs created a follow-up design for the area surrounding Ontario Place that saw the creation of what they called Harbour City, an island community built on reclaimed land featuring canals, a ring road, and pre-engineered building modules for housing and retail
In the meantime, the government is right to harness the private sector to bring people back to Ontario Place. The redevelopment should start immediately an eye to selling the land eventually. The government has done a poor job in managing it and taxpayers cannot afford for the site to remain neglected or to fall further into disrepair.