Advocates, local MPPs renew concerns about the privatization of Ontario Place
Ontario Place is seen in this undated photograph provided by the World Monument Fund,
Published Tuesday, February 28, 2023 5:26PM EST
Last Updated Wednesday, March 1, 2023 12:35PM EST
The provincial government’s plan to open a private spa at Ontario Place continues to raise the ire of those who want the 155-acre waterfront site to remain open to the public and accessible for everyone.
In early February, Ontario Place for All, a grassroots community group that aims to ensure the 52-year-old attraction remains vibrant and publicly accessible, drafted an open letter urging the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) to reconsider its partnership with Therme Groupe, the Austrian firm selected by the province to construct a spa and waterpark on Ontario Place’s West Island.
The three-page letter calls on TIFF to stand by its inclusive mission statement and act accordingly.
“A private spa is not a public good. Ontario Place was created for all to celebrate the story and future of Ontario. TIFF, which strives to enrich Canada’s cultural landscape should be particularly concerned with participating in the loss of that narrative,” it read.
In a statement, TIFF said it appreciates the “vigorous debate taking place around the future of Ontario Place,” but did not indicate any intention at this time to change course.
“As the setting of the world's first IMAX Cinema, Ontario Place is a landmark in the history of film exhibition, and holds a special place in our hearts,” TIFF spokesperson Alejandra Sosa wrote in an email to CP24.com.
“We are listening very closely to our community and to the issues that are being raised. We welcome interested community members to reach out to us directly at Loyalty@tiff.net.”
In a short statement emailed to CP24.com, Mark Lawson, Therme Canada’s vice-president of communications and external relations, said the company “supports and showcases local art and culture” around the world.
“We’re proud to partner with TIFF, a world class organization, to promote the role of art and film in creating more human, liveable cities,” he said.
“Therme Canada | Ontario Place will have something for everyone, including family attractions and nearly 12 acres of public parkland.”
NDP MPPs Chris Glover and Kristyn Wong-Tam held a news conference last Friday morning with advocates at Queen’s Park as part of their ongoing effort to raise concerns about the Ford government’s plans for the Therme Spa development at Ontario Place.
In their remarks, Wong-Tam said the company’s plan to build a “very, very large facility” that would occupy almost four acres of prime waterfront land is a step in the wrong direction, even if the province, in its development application for the new Ontario Place, said it would “give back 12 acres of publicly owned land that is already accessible.”
“This (spa and waterpark) will effectively close off publicly owned land that is accessible today. The waterfront is, of course, a public common that belongs to all of us not just for those of us in Ontario, but those of us in Toronto,” they said, adding the lack of public consultation from the province on this project is “extremely alarming.”
“So much of this land deal is cloaked in secrecy,” said Wong-Tam, adding what is known is that $200 million has been committed of public Ontario taxpayer dollars to preparing the site and potentially up to $450 million more to build an underground parking facility that is five levels deep and about 2,118 parking spots.
“We want to make sure that there's good value for money and everything that we've seen from the Ford government so far is not giving us any confidence that that is coming forward,” they said, noting Ontario NDP Leader Marit Styles has recently submitted a letter to Ontario’s Attorney General Bonnie Lysyk asking for compliance and value-for-money audits, environmental protections, and a strategic conservation plan.
Wong-Tam also wants answers from the province about how Ontarians will benefit from the deal, the terms and conditions of its long-term leases, what it could mean if this project is cancelled, and if its money well spent among other things.
Glover spoke about his “deep concerns” with the process to redevelop Ontario, echoing his Toronto centre colleague’s assertion that it lacks transparency.
“It's been shrouded in secrecy, and (the province is) playing fast and loose with the rules,” he said.
“They're exempting themselves from the required environmental assessment. They are exempting themselves from their heritage commitments and they are committing Ontarians to an estimated $650 million in investment only to hand over this property to a private-for-profit corporation.”
Cynthia Wilkie, Ontario Place for All's co-chair, said since the province issued a Request for Proposals to redevelop Ontario Place in 2019 they’ve been fighting to ensure the public is part of that conversation.
“That, of course, isn’t how it has turned out. … There has been no conversation,” she said during an interview with CP24.com, adding the province and the premier have gone out on their own and invited the international sector to participate in future plans for the provincially-owned site.
“They’ve included no one, not even the city, in their plans,” Wilkie said.
Bill Greaves, of the Architectural Conservancy of Ontario, said Ontario Place, which he noted has among other things been “widely recognized as an internationally significant example of 20th century architecture and landscape design,” is a “cherished public space” that should be treated with the “care and respect it deserves.”
“Unfortunately, the provincial government's actions over the past three years have made it clear that Ontario Place is a piece of waterfront property to be commercially developed, not as a heritage treasure to be protected,” he said.
“But the Ontario Heritage Act is clear that when it comes to sites like Ontario Place, the provincial government must act as a steward, not a developer.”
CP24.com reached out to the provincial government for comment, but we have not heard back. It should be noted that the province has not confirmed the cost of the project.
We also contacted local Coun. Ausma Malik, but she was not available to provide comment.