What should we do with Ontario Place? Here’s one heretical suggestion

OPINION: The future of the waterfront attraction is up in the air. If we want it to survive, writes John Michael McGrath, we may need to let the past die
By John Michael McGrath - Published on February 12, 2019
Ontario Place panorama
Ontario Place, which first opened in 1971, faced declining attendance numbers throughout the 2000s. (iStock.com/GBlakeley)



Doug Ford’s Progressive Conservative government has announced its first major change to Ontario Place, and it’s worse even than the premier’s harshest critics could have imagined: it’s another Cirque du Soleil thing. The performance, Alegria, will be on from September to November.

Cirque du Soleil is fine (really, it’s fine), and, undoubtedly, the ample parking that is the dominant geographical feature of Ontario Place will make it easier for people who have yet to see a Cirque show to attend. But the banality of the announcement is reassuring in its own way: this is the kind of announcement any government could have made.

Because of Ford’s history, there are plenty of people who think his government can’t possibly have good intentions when it comes to Ontario Place. As councillor, he proposed to blow up the Waterfront Toronto-led planning process for the city’s Port Lands (giving rise to those notorious Ferris wheel and monorail jokes). But recent history shows that Ontario Place’s nominal defenders hardly have a sterling record, either.

A brief refresher: in 2012, the Liberal government, faced with a daunting budget deficit, announced it was closing Ontario Place. This was the right call: even free admission to celebrate the amusement park’s 40th anniversary in 2011 barely changed the long-term trend of declining attendance, and the corporation was looking at escalating operating and capital costs. Beyond that, it’s just difficult to justify the need for a publicly owned and operated amusement park in the 21st century.

And then Ontario Place got caught in a political no-man’s land. Then-finance minister Dwight Duncan envisioned its hosting a casino, but he left provincial politics in the aftermath of Dalton McGuinty’s resignation; Kathleen Wynne put a halt to the casino talk, but she didn’t seem to have any strong sense of what she wanted to see there instead — although, in 2014, she did rule out any housing development (“no condos at Ontario Place,” in the shorthand of the day). That pledge helped the Liberals win two downtown Toronto seats from the NDP in that year’s election.

Winning the election, however, seemed to mark both the beginning and the end of Liberal interest in Ontario Place. A fraction of the land was devoted to a new park — including a trail named after former premier Bill Davis, which we appreciate here at TVO — and the Cinesphere was renovated, but the future of much of the rest of the site remained in limbo. Ontario Place originally opened four years after Montreal’s Expo 67 — only two years after construction had begun in 1969. In the four years that passed after they won their last majority, and the six after they announced its closure, the Liberals managed to do far less.

The point here isn’t that either the Liberal party or Wynne is solely to blame for Ontario Place’s current state. Rather, it’s that Ontario Place is up for grabs now because nobody has been able to agree on what should come next and then actually implement it. The Tories might be able to break that pattern, but, at the moment, it seems safe to assume that anything they can do quickly won’t be dramatic (see Cirque du Soleil, above), and anything dramatic won’t be done quickly.

(One big obstacle to any hasty action is that they’ve insisted that they aren’t going to spend taxpayer dollars to do anything.)

If the Tories are serious about making major changes to Ontario Place, let me offer up this heretical suggestion: protecting the status quo there isn’t worth taking to the barricades, and my fellow Torontonians should be open to (gasp) some kind of private business there if need be. A casino is a hornets' nest the Tories would do well to avoid for pragmatic political reasons alone, but there are plenty of other possibilities. It may not be an amusement park anymore, but the original vision of Ontario Place was based on the assumption that there needed to be an actual attraction there, not just the vacant green space activists are so quick to demand.

And we need to be willing to let the past die. The Cinesphere was neat when it opened, I’m sure, but it’s hard to see what the compelling provincial interest should be in a publicly owned IMAX theatre. Maybe somebody will come up with a creative proposal to maintain and reuse the theatre and pods — maybe not. Dogmatic assertions that they be preserved in the name of built heritage were exactly what led to paralysis under the Liberals, and they made no sense then, either. The architecture of 1971 may not be perfectly suited to the needs of 2019, much less 2020 or 2030, and it’s okay for things to change.

What comes next? Frankly, I’m all ears. I like Toronto Star columnist Martin Regg Cohn’s proposal to move the Ontario Science Centre south to the shoreline. That would, incidentally, free up a huge lot adjacent to the Eglinton Crosstown for redevelopment and potentially net the province a tidy windfall — if the government were able to avoid the same public-land-disposal complications that have plagued Ontario Place. But private businesses are certainly worth listening to as well. My biggest priority would be improving the east-west connections with existing multi-use paths on the waterfront and the north-south connections between Ontario Place and Exhibition Place.

It would be better for everyone if, instead of arguing about what doors we want to close at Ontario Place, we could argue about which doors we want to open.

Disclaimer: The author’s father, John McGrath, has volunteered for the non-profit advocacy group Ontario Place for All. His views are not reflected in this article, nor has the author spoken to him about the article.

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