A new vision for Ontario Place?

On July 26, John Tory, Chair of the Minister’s Advisory Panel on Ontario Place Revitalization, released the panel’s final report on how to transform Ontario Place into an innovative, year-round destination and landmark. 

The report presents recommendations for a new Ontario Place – “a community where Ontarians can live, work, play and discover along the water’s edge.  A new Ontario Place that is open year-round and provides open access to the waterfront — where a vast majority of its space is public parkland for individuals and families to gather.”

Below is the Executive Summary, extracted from the report submitted to Michael Chan, Minister of Tourism, Culture and Sport:

When Ontario Place first opened its gates in 1971, it was a unique destination that generated buzz and excitement from the people of Ontario. It was “a new showcase…. a new focal point….a new attitude to our lakefronts.” 

The Honourable John Robarts delivered these words 41 years ago; the Premier’s description still resonates today as inspiration for the work the Minister’s Advisory Panel undertook to inject new vitality and vibrancy into Ontario Place, and in so doing return it to its position as of one of the province’s most compelling and important assets.

The panel came together to provide advice to the Government of Ontario on how best to capitalize on the enormous potential the Ontario Place site still holds. At the same time, we focused our work on ensuring that the project’s next era learns from — and adapts to — four key trends we believe have fundamentally transformed the communities around Ontario Place and the province itself over the last four decades:

    1. Significant redevelopment projects are transforming Toronto’s waterfront.
    2. Tens of thousands of residents now live in neighbourhoods around Ontario Place.
    3. The province’s population has grown and become more diverse and older.
    4. The past few decades have seen an enormous increase in the number of recreational and leisure options available to Ontarians and visitors.

What we offer in this report is a departure from the Ontario Place of the recent past. We recommend a new course of action that will attract the critical mass of visitors, residents and workers required to turn the site into a cornerstone of the redevelopment of Lake Ontario’s waterfront.

Over the past five months, the panel has worked diligently to prepare a report that lays out a path for the transformation of Ontario Place. Our work has clustered around three sets of activities.

First, we looked at an extensive range of past studies and analyses that provided a framework and a foundation for our discussions. Second, we leveraged the expertise and experience of the panel members to garner additional insights and ideas. Finally, we have had a remarkable opportunity to hear directly from the people of Ontario at a public town hall we held this past June and through dozens of submissions and presentations by stakeholders made directly to the panel itself.

This much is clear: there is no shortage of creative and bold ideas. People care deeply about the future of Ontario Place — and how this important asset will evolve and be used by generations to come. The challenge is to move beyond their hopes to a concrete set of recommendations that can serve as a roadmap to the revitalization efforts about to be undertaken by this government and a wide range of partners from the public, private and not-for-profit sectors.

Creating a new public park — for all to enjoy

We believe that Ontario Place should be a destination that all Ontarians — as well as visitors from across Canada and abroad — can enjoy. It should be an emblematic asset that represents the entire province, from its arts and culture, to its entrepreneurship, to its education, and to its natural beauty.

Since Ontario Place occupies a unique physical location, we recommend using the redevelopment process to open up the city’s western waterfront and make it accessible to all every day of the year. Moreover, the majority of the site should be parkland — where people gather any time to enjoy the area’s natural surroundings and sweeping views of Lake Ontario and the city.

A revitalized Ontario Place should be about a mix of park spaces that offer areas for reflection and relaxation, as well as areas designed for active community play (think splash pads, skating rinks and sports). Integrated within these green spaces should be smaller pockets that surprise and delight, from gardens to urban plazas, and from public art to interpretative nature paths.

We would also like to see a central gathering area — much like the original Forum — for concerts and theatre performances, local festivals and community fiestas. This venue should be designed to operate throughout the year, and in so doing help liberate Ontario Place from its previous identity as a strictly summer destination.

Live, work, play and discover on the waterfront

To bring a critical mass of people and street-level excitement to the waterfront, we believe the renewed Ontario Place should be designed as a mixed-use area for the whole community to enjoy. This new site layout would include residential buildings — not a wall of high-rises that block access and sightlines to the water, but appropriately-sized buildings that are exceptionally designed and anchored by green-building and sustainable architecture principles.

A mix of shops, artist studios and cafés would complement the residences and inject energy into the community, as would a theatre, a hotel or entertainment venue.  In order to help draw residents as well as new commuters, we urge Ontario Place to pursue a larger anchor tenant that would add year-round workers and bring business opportunities to the new community. A learning or research facility would bring students while delivering an economic boost to surrounding communities.

A new era of collaboration

These new anchor tenants are catalysts for change, a way to spark new beginnings and add energy, excitement and innovation to the new Ontario Place. They are also an essential part of shifting the way we design, build, fund and operate the site.

This shift must include a move away from the identity of Ontario Place as primarily a public sector entity. The renewed Ontario Place can only become financially-sustainable and operationally efficient by leveraging the investments and expertise of the private sector.

From transit and infrastructure to arts and culture, the elements required to make Ontario Place a success can only come through leveraging a wide range of partnerships and collaborations. We need to encourage a much more diverse revenue stream —which could include everything from living spaces to company offices, to private donations and corporate sponsorships.

However, we do not believe that a casino should be among the attractions forming the core of the ne
w Ontario Place. We believe that Ontario Place should be a destination that celebrates Ontario and its exceptional culture, character and life. We shared this recommendation with the Honourable Michael Chan, Minister of Tourism, Culture and Sport in early June — a recommendation he has already accepted.

Critical success factors for a new Ontario Place

In many of the studies and ideas we heard there were three key principles that rose to the surface — principles that the panel believes are absolutely critical to the success of a new live, work, play, discover area and the public realm that glues the pieces together. They are: accessibility, interaction and sustainability.

ACCESSIBILITY includes making Ontario Place barrier-free to people with wheelchairs and strollers, as well as making areas of the park for everyone to enjoy. No one should have to pay admission to take in this extraordinary part of the waterfront. Sightlines to the water should be enhanced and the natural beauty of the waterfront also has to be easy to reach — and access to and from the area must be addressed in a new Ontario Place.

A new Ontario Place should foster INTERACTION — with festivals and creative programming throughout the park to draw different audiences and showcase Ontario’s arts and culture, leading practices in environmental sustainability and the province’s many business innovations.

In all that is designed for Ontario, there should be a commitment to excellence and SUSTAINABILITY.  We say be bold in creating new, urban features and developments but ensure that they complement the natural surroundings. Use sustainable materials and honour connections with the past — including the iconic Cinesphere and pods which we believe should be repurposed in a new Ontario Place.

What the future holds

Ontario Place is at a crossroads. Based on attendance numbers, the site holds far less appeal than it did 25 years ago — and whatever interest remains is dropping fast: three  million people visited Ontario Place each summer in the early 1980s and yet only 327,774 people visited Ontario Place in 2010, a drop of 84 per cent. In order to avoid a slide into irrelevance, Ontario Place needs to change — and it needs to change now.

Thankfully, through the ideas shared by Ontarians and the insights gathered through our own analysis, the panel believes that a renewed and revitalized Ontario Place is not only possible but imperative — and we believe the recommendations laid out in the following pages will provide this government with everything it needs to begin a revitalization destined to transform the Lake Ontario waterfront for decades to come.

The full report is available in pdf or accessible Word format.

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