Cost of Ontario Science Centre temporary location exceeds cost of roof repairs

The time required to set up a temporary location will mean that there is no Science Centre location for two years; the RFP also reveals that a new Science Centre at Ontario Place would not be ready until 2030-2034.

Ontario Science Centre. Photo by Amanda Large

This article is a follow-up on my previous articles debunking the business case for the Ontario Science Centre’s relocation and analyzing how the engineers’ roof report doesn’t call for a complete closure.

Hot on the heels of the abrupt closure of the Ontario Science, the government’s search for a temporary location for the Science Centre began.

The Monday after the closure, on June 24, 2024, Infrastructure Ontario put out a Request for Proposals (RFP) for a 50,000 to 100,000 square foot commercial/retail space to house a temporary Science Centre until its planned new facility at Ontario Place is complete.

The temporary location, which would not be open until 2026, will put the Science Centre in a location that is significantly smaller—and likely much more remote—than its current site. It will be there for up to eight years until the new facility at Ontario Place is open—which the RFP anticipates will be in 2030-3034, not 2028 as Minister Kinga Surma asserts.

Ironically, relocating to a temporary location will also be at least as expensive—and up to three times more costly—as making the $22-$40M in roof repairs which Infrastructure Ontario cited as the reason for the Centre’s abrupt closure.

The option that best serves Ontarians (and the one that may also prove the most economical) appears to be making repairs to the Science Centre, and reopening it.

Infrastructure Ontario’s Request for Proposals (RFP) for a temporary Ontario Science Centre location states that it is looking for a space whose lease starts “no later than January 1, 2026.” This acknowledges that the possibility that there would be no physical location for the Science Centre for a year and a half following its closure in late June, 2024.

The RFP for the relocation initiates a search for a space that the document says will take up to 12 months to fit-out, with a subsequent move-in date as late as January 1, 2026. In theory, the document implies, the renovation of a space could happen more quickly and the move-in date could be sooner, but the reverse is more likely the case. Real estate and design experts I have spoken to say that for a project of this size and scope, 18 to 24 months would be a more realistic schedule for completion.

Even if the project moves exceptionally quickly, it means that Toronto would have no Science Centre for at least a year and a half, and more likely over two full years.

The cancellation and renewal clauses of the lease in the RFP suggest that the Science Centre would occupy its temporary location until at least 2030, and as late as 2034. The Ontario Governments has indicated that a new Science Centre would be ready at Ontario Place by 2028; the RFP seems to indicate that it would take up to six years longer.

The RFP’s terms also suggest that a new, smaller Science Centre would not be completed until 2030, or perhaps as late as 2034—not the 2028 date that has been publicized.  This is apparent from the RFP’s ask for a five-year lease starting as late as January 1, 2026, with the option to terminate the lease anytime after the fourth year, and to renew the lease for up to three years.

What would a temporary Science Centre look like? Overall, the new space will be a fraction of the current Science Centre’s 568,000 square feet—possibly less than a tenth of its overall size.

The current Science Centre has been critiqued for having a small ratio of exhibition space to overall space, at around 25%. An environmental scan commissioned by the Province from Lord Cultural Resources says that the median ratio of exhibition-space-to-building-space for science centres in North America is somewhere between 39 to 45%. At the most efficient end, the exhibitions in the temporary location may occupy 22,400 to 44,800 square feet of space. That’s a 61 to 85% reduction from the 153,360 square feet of exhibition space in the current location of the Science Centre.

Among other requirements, the RFP calls for a high-ceilinged space, with a large capacity for up to 5,000 visitors daily, and up to 500 parking spots—a kind of space that is rare, and expensive, in central Toronto.

While the RFP states a preference for a downtown, central location, the reality is that its requirements—a very large, high ceilinged building, with up to 500 parking spots, a bus drop-off, a freight elevator and loading dock, and the ability to accommodate up to 5,000+ visitors in peak periods—make a remote location more likely. It’s probable that the location will be at the edge of TTC boundaries. An empty big box store might fit the bill, out near Kipling or Vaughan stations, or up by the zoo in Scarborough.

According to The Toronto Regional Real Estate Board, the average commercial/retail lease rate in Toronto is $29.08/square foot, meaning that annual rent on such a space, depending on its size, would be around $1.5 million to $3 million per year—$6 to $24 million over the four to eight year term of the lease.

A property fitting Infrastructure Ontario’s specifications for a temporary Science Centre location is currently listed on MLS at 40 Carl Hall Road, near Downsview Park. The 75,527-square-foot space is listed at $17 per square foot, plus taxes, maintenance, and insurance (TMI). Assuming a TMI of $4.22/square foot and standard 5% per annum increase in the lease rate, the cost to lease this space would add up to $17 M over an 8-year term, exclusive of any construction, professional and permitting costs.

Preparing such a space will be expensive. I spoke with an architect familiar with this project type, who estimated that bringing an empty commercial space up to public museum standards would cost from $200 to $300 per square foot, depending on the base building conditions, for a total of $10 to $30 million. If the government settled on a large industrial space, it would be especially costly to bring this up to public assembly standard, with modifications needed to meet requirements including fire code, exiting, floor loading, and HVAC. According to the industry expert, the cost could be as much as $400 per square foot—$40 million in all—if the location was a large, empty industrial shell building.

Standard practice would be to budget 12% on top of this, to cover the consultant fees of architects, engineers, project managers, and others involved in delivering the project, and to include a 10% cost contingency. This adds $2.2 to $8.8 million more.

The move itself is expensive, too—Infrastructure Ontario estimates that a single move to the smaller facility at Ontario Place would cost $4.9 million; a temporary space will mean paying for that move twice over. Since not all of the exhibitions could be shown in the temporary space, storage would also need to be arranged for a substantial amount of material. TRREB reports that the annual industrial lease rate in Toronto is $16.90 per square foot. Assuming that the contents of the remaining 500,000 square feet or so of building could be packed into a 20,000 square foot space, this would still add up to half a million dollars in annual storage costs.

This back-of-napkin math brings us to a one-time cost of $17-55 million dollars, plus $8 to $28 million in rent, depending on the size of the temporary space and the length of the lease—$25-$83 million in all. All for a temporary location that may be difficult to access, will not be open until 2026, may only offer 15% of the current Science Centre’s exhibition space, and will be a poor shadow of the Ontario Science Centre’s original grand digs for a long period of time—possibly the next decade.

Ironically, the space that best meets all the needs of a temporary location, including the RFP’s stated preference for a space that enables the Science Centre to “open more quickly,” is almost certainly the Ontario Science Centre’s current location on Don Mills Road.

It’s centrally located, and on the doorstep of the Eglinton LRT.

The complex’s lower building, Building C, alone contains 273,465 square feet of space, including almost all of the Science Centre’s permanent exhibitions. As I have written in my analysis of Rimkus’s engineering report on the roof, these permanent exhibitions are under a section of the building with a standard concrete roof.

RAAC roof does exist over the current temporary entrance to the Science Centre, and a temporary exhibitions hall. This area includes 11 RAAC panels classified as being high-risk, and a 2,500 square foot section of roof that is recommended for replacement in the coming year, as its EPDM membrane is in poor condition.

The cost to fix these areas? About $450,000, according to the Rimkus report.

The main exhibition areas shown on this plan—Weston Family Innovation Centre, Hot Zone, The AstroZeneca HumanEdge, The Living Earth, Science Arcade, and Valley Restaurant—have standard concrete roofs. The only areas affected by the RAAC roofs are the Rock Paper Science Hall and the Special Exhibitions Hall. These include 11 RAAC panels classified as “high risk,” which the report suggests could be repaired for $37,400. The report also notes a section of roof over Rock Paper Science Hall that contains a number of  high-risk panels, which it recommends replacing this year at a construction cost of $306,600, or $413, 910 including engineering fees and cost contingency.

For an additional $17,200, the report details, you could also replace the three high-risk panels over an area that connects to the remaining permanent exhibition areas and school spaces on the balcony level of Building C, and to the permanent exhibition areas in Building B —the popular Space Hall and KidSpark. The latter, the engineering report suggests, can safely remain open as they are not directly under the roof, but one level down.

Likewise, the Ontario Science Centre’s full IMAX theatre, along with its entrance atrium, are additions to the original complex and are topped by a non-RAAC roof.

The RFP says that “IO is evaluating several alternatives and cost is a critical issue.  Please specify any concession package to be provided by the Landlord (e.g. free rent, Tenant Improvement Allowance, etc).” The existing Science Centre is already fit-out and owned by the province, and rent on the land will continue to be a bargain at $1 a year.

As for timing?

A new location for a smaller, temporary Ontario Science Centre in a different location will likely take two years to materialize.

 The existing location was closed just under two weeks ago. It could be reopened just as quickly.


This article was edited on Thursday, July 4 to include a photo that represents the type of space that is currently available for a temporary Science Centre.


How to pay for repairing the Ontario Science Centre? Let’s start by using the money it’s taking to close it

The true cost of repairing the Ontario Science Centre is much, much less than what Infrastructure Ontario has been saying—and the proof is in its own documents

Ontario Science Centre doesn’t require full closure: A close reading of the engineers’ report

TSA issues open letter on Ontario Science Centre closure

Closing science centre unnecessary, says firm of architect who designed building

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