The development of Ontario Place has sucked an enormous amount of attention and energy from politicians and bureaucrats at both Queen’s Park and city hall, far surpassing the attention paid to homeless people living in tents, refugees living on the sidewalks, 10 per cent of the population using food banks, extraordinarily high rents and climate change.
This focus represents misplaced priorities, and it can be blamed on Premier Doug Ford who has had visions of his personal stamp on the Toronto waterfront for more than a decade. In 2011 as city councillor, he proposed a Ferris wheel and a floating hotel for the Portlands. Two years later he wanted a casino, but that scheme too found no support at city council.
When he became premier in 2018, he realized his dream. The very day after his majority government was elected, the firms retained to redesign the easterly portion of Ontario Place were fired. He had a scheme, but he wouldn’t say what it was.
The province apparently held a competition for the site and announced in 2021 that a 95-year contract had been awarded to Therme, an Austrian company that runs high-end spas. That’s when citizen action coalesced into Ontario Place for All, arguing that public space should not be privatized, that the proposed building — 13 storeys high — was too large, that spending $650 million of public money on an underwater parking garage was crazy and that the contract with Therme should be made public. City council became involved and promised to fight the provincial scheme.
Therme reduced the size of the building somewhat, but Ford refused to budge on most of the other issues. The Greenbelt scandal embarrassed him so much that he looked for a way of addressing the opposition to his plans for Ontario Place. An injunction sought to prevent redevelopment until the legally required environmental assessment was completed, increasing the pressure on him.
Ford’s response was to offer a new financial deal for Toronto. He and Mayor Chow announced in late November an agreement to talk further about the province taking over the Gardiner Expressway and Don Valley Parkway, removing large financial burdens from the city if finally confirmed.
There’s money from the province to help with the city’s operating costs for the next three years for the Crosstown and the Finch West LRT, other money for homelessness and new subway cars but conditional on the feds providing the same amount. This is hardly a “New Deal for Toronto,” but it helps in the short term.
The key section of the New Deal is Bill 154, which has nothing to do with money but gives the province a free hand with Ontario Place: Provincial approvals for Ontario Place redevelopment “need not be consistent with any policy statement issued under the Planning Act.” It exempts development from the Environmental Assessment Act and the Ontario Heritage Act and from all city powers including the city’s noise bylaw.
Bill 154 also states that no legal action may be taken against the government or any of its members for anything done regarding Ontario Place. The Bill was approved in a day without public hearings and without debate in the legislative assembly.
The province can proceed in spite of any laws, exempting itself from any court oversight. Extraordinary. The big bully has imposed his will, although a judicial review has since been filed alleging the bill does not comply with the rule of law or natural justice.
In early December, the province began cutting down the 800 mature trees where the new spa will go. This is what Premier Ford’s New Deal for the city looks like.
JOHN SEWELL is a former mayor of Toronto.