You can’t get something for nothing.

That’s the realization Coun. Mike Layton came to upon reading John Tory’s 55-page plan for revitalizing Ontario Place last month and that’s the feeling he can’t shake now that Minister of Tourism, Culture and Sport Michael Chan has promised that the province will move ahead at “lightning speed” in implementing Tory’s vision, which would transform the 41-year-old amusement park into a state-of-the-art “urban park” using revenues collected from residential development on the site, something Chan referred to as the "economic driver of the project" during a August 15 press conference.  

“As you are probably aware Ontario Place has lost its way,” Chan said at the time. “We are going to rebuild it.”

Residential development was in fact a key point in the Minister’s Advisory Panel Report.

Also among the plan’s 18 recommendations are a commitment to improve public transit to the site and develop a closer partnership with nearby Exhibition Place while also building a new public concert venue, a state-of-the-art hotel, a research or education centre as well as restaurants, cafes and shops to attract the masses.

Follow this link to read the full report.

The problem, as Layton sees it, is that without a financial commitment from the province over and above the $5.5 million they have already pledged for an environmental assessment, the 155-acre waterfront lot has a better chance at becoming another “wall of condos” than it does at becoming anything else.

“If the province doesn’t invest in it they are not going to get what they want,” Layton said during an interview with from his city hall office. “They will get a wall of condos if they open that door and as a neighbourhood and a city we will have to fight it.”

Tory’s report rules out building a casino on the site and calls for only 10 to 15 per cent of Ontario Place land to be made available for residential development, saying that development should be strictly low-rise in nature, but Layton said the plan may be a case of “wanting the world” with no way of paying for it.

The rookie councillor for the downtown Trinity-Spadina ward said the $100 million required to extend the streetcar loop from Exhibition place alone, something the report calls for, demands “massive” residential development.

He said that cost would never be bored by the city, given the lack of residents currently residing in the area, and wouldn’t be covered by Section 37 funding as Tory previously mused.

Section 37 of the Planning Act permits the city to authorize increases in permitted development height and density in return for money to provide community benefits to the area. In the past, Section 37 funds have gone towards funding a new playground or public garden or the widening of sidewalks. But according to Layton, Section 37 funds are never a cash windfall on the scale of the one needed to improve public transit to the area.

“How are we going to fund $100 million?” Layton asked, giving the example of a 15-storey building in his ward that provided the city with just $1 million in Section 37 money. “You would be building 60-storey buildings and 60 of them, which goes against what Mr. Tory said about about not building a wall of condos. We would literally be land filling to build more and more condos on the waterfront.”

Airport may not allow for high-rises

Though much concern has been raised about the potential for highrise buildings, that concern may be misplaced.

The western point of the site that’s been earmarked for residential development runs directly adjacent to the runway at Billy Bishop Toronto City Airport and as a result, highrise buildings would likely run into road blocks, Geoff Wilson, President and CEO of the Toronto Port Authority, told

“There are some limitations and we have conveyed that to them (the province),” he said. “If we can accommodate the building we will work to accommodate it, but in general terms a highrise immediately on the waterfront would be an obstacle to the airport.”

Wilson said highrise development on the western point of Ontario Place wouldn’t necessarily directly interfere with the flight path of planes but would interfere with what he referred to as the “missed approaches” of planes.

“Missed approaches are just smaller areas to the left and right of each approach, so additional space for the aircraft to go around if it wants to take a second pass at the runway due to weather or any other obstacle,” he said. “It could come into play as a mitigating factor against tall buildings.”

A mitigating factor that comes as little reassurance to Rosario Marchese.

Marchese, the NDP MPP who represents the downtown riding that Ontario Place is located in, told that he’s concerned residential developers will successfully push for a larger chunk of Ontario Place land given the height restrictions.

“This is about condominiums and they will build those condominiums, and because those condominiums will be directly in the runway of airplanes they won’t be able to build as high, so developers will say we need to build more to make this profitable for us and they will look to find other public land to do so,” he said.

Marchese said the speed with which the provincial government endorsed Tory’s plan – they responded within three weeks – indicates to him that they had always intended to offer the provincially owned land to private developers.

“Mr. Chan supported Mr. Tory’s recommendations in a jiffy, in lightning speed and I am concerned more so today than ever in the past,” he said.

Opposition wary

When Tory initially rolled out his findings during a Queen’s Park press conference on August 15 he said that residential development on Ontario Place land should be done with a strict set of rules and “great discipline” on behalf of the government and suggested that if done right it could make the site vibrant all year long.

“Any new projects must respect and enhance the natural beauty of the area,” he cautioned at the time.

Now that the province is moving ahead with the plan, though, many in opposition are debating whether the will of developers may trump principle.

Progressive Conservative Tourism critic Ted Chudleigh said he is in favour of limited residential development on the site, calling the notion of using private sector funding as opposed to taxpayer dollars a “Conservative” idea,  but Chudeligh questioned the provinces ability to regulate that development. 

“Having control over something and owning something are of course two different things and it is a great concern when you think that a political party is going to be running this thing,” he told

Chudleigh said the province would be better served establishing a board of directors to oversee the revitalization of Ontario Place .

“You need a good mix of people that are not afraid to stand up and express themselves and in doing that the integrity of the project would be protected,” he said.

Cost unknown

Tory’s plan did not include a price tag but the redevelopment of Sugar Beach, a tiny 2 acre site near Queens Quay and Jarvis Street, cost about $14.3 million in 2009.

A revitalized Ontario Place, at 155 acres, would likely cost hundreds of millions of dollars more.

Coun. Layton speculated that neither the sale of some Ontario Place land or development fees would bear that cost.

“You can’t just say we are going to put a bunch of condos out there and it is going to be funded by development dollars,” he said. “It doesn’t work that way.”