Olivia Chow urges Premier Doug Ford to respect city planning process on Ontario Place

Toronto Mayor Olivia Chow speaks at the 2023 City of Toronto United Way employee campaign kick-off in Nathan Phillips Square. (Michael Wilson/CBC - image credit)
Toronto Mayor Olivia Chow speaks at the 2023 City of Toronto United Way employee campaign kick-off in Nathan Phillips Square. (Michael Wilson/CBC - image credit)

Toronto Mayor Olivia Chow says she hopes the province follows city planning division guidelines when it comes to its newly revised plans for Ontario Place.

"Normally, approval [comes] first and then something happens to the land, not the other way around," Chow told reporters on Thursday.

The Doug Ford government said in a news release on Thursday that it has submitted a revised Planning Act application to the city for its Ontario Place redevelopment project, saying it has made changes to its original plans for the site that reflect feedback from the city, Indigenous peoples and community members.

Austria-based Therme Canada has proposed to build an indoor water park and spa on the Ontario Place site.

Chow, however, said her top priority is to reflect the wishes of Toronto residents on the redevelopment. She said she closely monitored recent public consultations held by the city on Ontario Place and added: "There were a lot of concerns from the citizens of Toronto."

The land that contains Ontario Place belongs to the province but the city owns some pieces of it, she added. Any rezoning applications should follow city planning guidelines and process, she said.

"I just really hope that Premier Ford respects due process and works with Toronto collaboratively for this project," she said.

Chow dismisses idea of legal action against province

Chow dismissed the idea of legal action against the province, saying: "We don't see two levels of government wasting money in courts. Let's not get there."

In the province's news release, Ontario Infrastructure Minister Kinga Surma said the revised plans include the "removal of a significant amount of trees and vegetation across the site" to prepare it for construction. The province promised to plant about two trees for every one removed.

The Cinesphere at Ontario Place on April 14, 2023.
The Cinesphere at Ontario Place on April 14, 2023.

A view of the Cinesphere at Ontario Place on April 14, 2023. (Michael Wilson/CBC)

"For every tree removed as a result of redevelopment activities, approximately twice as many trees that are native to the area will later be planted to improve and increase the long-term tree canopy on site," Surma said.

"We are also engaging with Indigenous communities and seeking their guidance to ensure trees are repurposed where possible and continue to be a part of the future Ontario Place site."

Construction activities to begin this fall, province says

The minister said the revised plans include 20 hectares of free parks, more food and beverage options, waterfront programming, activity and play zones, Indigenous elements and features, proposed Indigenous educational and programming opportunities and an improved marina.

She said the plans also show how a modernized Ontario Science Centre will be integrated into an upgraded Cinesphere and pod complex. As well, the plans include an underground parking facilities and increased spaces for bicycle parking.

Therme Canada, for its part, has updated its design for the spa, based on feedback from the Mississauga of the Credit First Nation, the city and members of the public. Surma said Therme will increase the amount of park space on the West Island to nearly 16 acres, expand access to the waterfront and reduce the size of its buildings by about 25 per cent.

Construction activities are set to begin this fall to upgrade the site's existing infrastructure, including water, electrical and gas services, and work is underway on repairing the exteriors of the Cinesphere and pods, according to Surma.

"We are breathing new life into Ontario Place, creating an iconic tourist destination that will unite friends and families in Ontario and draw visitors from across the globe for generations to come," she said.

Norm Di Pasquale
Norm Di Pasquale

Norm Di Pasquale, co-chair of Ontario Place for All, a grassroots organization, says: 'I think placing a tree with a sapling is not a fair replacement. They are not going to get those trees without a fight.' (CBC)

Ontario Place for All, a grassroot organization, said in a statement on Thursday that the revised plans are still too big, too expensive and too shrouded in secrecy.

The group called the plans a "huge mistake" that will be felt by the next generation and it said it is dismayed at the announcement that a "significant" number of trees will cut down at Ontario Place over the coming weeks.

"We're talking a 95-year-lease of our public space. Our kids, our children's children will lose access to this public space. And we're still talking about erasing everything at West Island, including 850 mature trees," Norm Di Pasquale, co-chair of the group, said in an interview on Thursday.

"I think placing a tree with a sapling is not a fair replacement. They are not going to get those trees without a fight," he added.

"This was a single source contract with no consultation. We think that Ontario Place will be given away piece by piece if we don't win this battle on the front line right now."

'This is not what Ontarians want,' NDP says

Opposition parties also expressed concern at the revised plans.

NDP MPP Chris Glover, who represents Spadina-Fort York, said in a statement: "This 'new' footprint is nothing but a regurgitation of their old, recycled plan. Ontario Place is a public land cherished by generations of Ontarians. A 95-year lease that forces the public to pay half a billion dollars for a new parking garage, while handing over public land to a private luxury spa is wrong.

"Let's be clear — this is not what Ontarians want. The Ford Conservatives must cancel this lease and go back to the drawing board to engage in a fair and transparent process that truly respects the wishes and concerns of Ontarians."

Ontario Green Party Leader Mike Schreiner said in a statement: "Ontarians are right to see this for what it is: a clumsy attempt to peddle yet another poor decision made in some back room without input from the actual stakeholders — the people of Ontario. If we want Ontario Place to remain an affordable place for all, we need to lead with public land in public hands."