Ontario Place plans need a ‘rethink’ says advocacy group

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Ontario Construction News staff writer

The provincial government should rethink its plans for Ontario Place and consider a preserving more of the waterfront park as public space, says a report released by the community advocacy group Ontario Place for All.

The Feb. 2 report was written by real estate and economic development consultants HR & A Associates and makes a case for public use of the spaces and against commercial redevelopment as has been proposed by Infrastructure Ontario.

Ontario Place for All is calling on the government to use the report to develop a new vision for Ontario Place that “respects the heritage and cultural history of the site.”

The report argues that private-sector redevelopment provides just short-term profits but loses the economic and cultural benefits that maintaining the public space would bring.

“Ontario Place has more sustainable long-term value as a high-quality, public space that will create diverse benefits for the regional community,” the report says.

Ontario Premier Doug Ford has made it clear that he wanted to see private-sector redevelopment of the site, scrapping the former Liberal government’s plans to remake the once-futuristic park adjacent to Exhibition Place on the waterfront with a new waterfront trail and park.

Ontario Place For All, however, has advocated against commercial redevelopment of the 25-acre park that includes the iconic Cinesphere theatre, and in the report, titled ONTARIO PLACE — The Value of Toronto’s Public Space, supports that argument.

“The government now has a chance to fix its mistake and start over with its plans to spoil the iconic park on Toronto’s waterfront,” the group wrote in a media release.

With the process to select a winning redevelopment proposal delayed, “the government should use the opportunity to rethink its approach to the idea.”

To assist in the “rethink”, Ontario Place for All released a framework for a reimagined Ontario Place – produced in conjunction with HR & A Associates – international parks’ experts. Ontario Place, The Value of Toronto’s public Space proves the focus on private sector redevelopment “delivers only short-term profits at the cost of longer-term benefits,” the group argues.

The report says Toronto has benefitted from a new vision for the city’s waterfront that used existing heritage landscapes, prioritized the public nature of the spaces and accommodated a wide mix of activities and diverse communities.

“When compared to public use spaces, commercial uses will typically create short term improvements at the expense of long-term enduring benefits,” the report concludes.

In contrast, public spaces create neighbourhoods, increase social interaction and residents’ sense of belonging.

Public spaces “are a key reason companies and workers locate in Toronto,” the report says. “Local amenities are particularly important for employees in the knowledge economy sector and increase the attractiveness of working in Toronto by 33 percent.”

While the report offers no specific proposals, it argues that accessible public spaces are a key reason that businesses choose to locate in the city.

Ontario Place for All spokesperson Cynthia Wilkey said the report is being made public to put pressure on the government for a “rethink.”

“We put it out there and we continue to hope that we might be able to convince some of the people who advise the Premier and who maybe have a more expansive view of economic development in an urban context,” she said.

Wilkey noted that it was just last fall that the World Monument’s Fund put Ontario place on the list of the 25 most-endangered cultural heritage spots in the world, and she said that the publicly accessible space is important to Torontonians and all Ontarians.

“There are a lot of people who have fond memories of Ontario Place and see that … in addition to being an important local park, it needs to continue to be a draw for people who are visiting Toronto and who see it reflecting the values of Ontario — not some pay to play entertainment complex which I think is what this government wants.”

Ontario Place For All is asking the government to use the report “as a foundation for a new vision for Ontario Place, one that respects the heritage and cultural history of the site.”

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