Editorial: A Faulty Case to Relocate the Science Centre

Opened in 1969, the Ontario Science Centre was designed by architects Raymond Moriyama and Ted Teshima. Photo by Elsa Lam

In late November last year, the province released its business case for relocating the Ontario Science Centre—and it’s full of holes.

It argues that the Ontario Science Centre will require $369M in maintenance, and $109M to upgrade its exhibitions and public spaces, for a total of $478M. In comparison, it says that the cost to build a new science centre and exhibitions at Ontario Place would be $384M.

But the Ontario auditor general’s report, released in December, finds that “information provided to support the decision [to relocate the Science Centre] did not include a complete list of costs.” It adds that the Province failed to consult with key stakeholders, including large school boards in the GTA—students make up 25 percent of attendees—and had only limited discussions with the City of Toronto.

How do these problems play out when you look at the numbers?

The cost of building a new science centre, which the business case pegs at $384M, doesn’t include allowances for soft costs, including consultant and project management fees, and the cost of change orders—which amount to an estimated additional $100M.

The building’s program relies on a full floor’s worth of underground functional space, but its price tag does not include the shell cost for that floor, nor any type of parking, basement, or foundations. The 2,000-space underground parkade on which the science centre sits, and which has been estimated to cost $300M-$500M, is entirely absent.

The price tag also excludes the cost for a 150-metre-long underground link between the new pavilion and the bridge to the pods and Cinesphere—an expensive component, since it’ll be next to the waterfront and partially below water level. The price tag also leaves out exhibitions for three of the five pods, and doesn’t include most of the renovations to the Cinesphere and pods.

Diving into the $369M repair bill for the existing Ontario Science Centre, on the other hand, it seems that the number is significantly inflated. Environmental consultants Pinchin pegged the cost at $229M. This is already a generous number: the consultants note that an “adjustment factor” of 1.85 was “applied to all repair and replacement costs” as “per Client’s [Infrastructure Ontario’s] request to account for the hidden internal and external fees.” Infrastructure Ontario then applied an additional markup of 40% “to account for uncertain and rapidly increasing cost pressures.”

Taking all of this into account, the actual cost for repairing the science centre may be closer to $350M, including a generous $100M allocation for renovations and new exhibitions, while the cost of a relocated science centre could be in the $1B range.

The government’s case for relocating the Ontario Science Centre argues that the smaller facility will attract more visitors. The estimates count on laying off 53 people—one of every six people who currently work at the Science Centre. In short, they are expecting that 50% more people will visit a facility that is 45% of the size of the current Science Centre, with a significantly reduced staff managing it all.

Let’s make no mistake: the new, enormously expensive facility wouldn’t be a beauty queen. In the preliminary plans, student spaces and classrooms are in the basement. The Ontario government plans to use a public-private partnership (P3) method to procure the building—it already put out a call for a PDC consultant last summer.

There is an imperative to change course on the shuttering and relocation of the Ontario Science Centre. While we may take it for granted, there is value in taking care of what we have: a magnificent, much-loved Ontario Science Centre that is in need of some TLC. The value of such a gem isn’t something we usually quantify, but if we did—in a neutral way—it’s clear how the business case would land.

A version of the article appeared in the Toronto Star on December 16, 2023. This article is a shortened version of an analysis that was published online on December 1, 2023.