Editorial: The Case for Ontario Place

Bureaucratic processes may slow down the timeline to allow for reconsideration.

A rendering from a public consultation on April 18, 2023, shows the complete redevelopment proposal for Ontario Place. Elements of the proposal include a new beach (far left), the Therme complex (left), restored Cinesphere and Pods (centre), new Ontario Science Pavilion (centre back), LiveNation stage (centre right), and re-landscaped East Island (right).

This year, the Ontario government has continued to unfold plans for Ontario Place, on Toronto’s waterfront. In 2021, the province pledged to retain Eberhard Zeidler’s 1971 Cinesphere and Pods. But in the scheme currently going through approvals, two private developments occupy prime spots on the property: an aquatic recreational facility run by Austrian company Therme, and a 20,000-person concert venue run by LiveNation.

While the East Island will boast significant parkland and the public area encircling the Therme facility on the West Island has been expanded from its initial design, the prominence of the private facilities is still significant. In a submission to a joint City of Toronto and Waterfront Toronto Design Review Panel in late March, the Therme development occupies over half of the West Island, and its greenhouse-enclosed pools top out at 45 metres—50 percent taller than the Cinesphere. The panelists were largely supportive of the public realm master plan for the East Island, but raised concerns about the “fortress-like” Therme buildings and their “dominant scale and massing,” according to meeting minutes. “The main Therme building feels oversized for the West Island, overwhelming the proposed public realm and the existing heritage attributes, including the ‘pods’ and Cinesphere,” the panelists report. (Architects Diamond Schmitt will be resubmitting a refined design to the City in August.)

The proposal for the site as a whole includes necessary public investment—$200 million will be spent on the repair of infrastructure, erosion, and flooding damage, along with restoration of the site’s heritage structures. And initially, a suggestion that the Ontario Science Centre would occupy the Pods and Cinesphere seemed a positive fit. But this spring, the province announced that the Ontario Science Centre would be entirely relocated to Ontario Place, occupying the heritage structures and topping a new underground parking garage. The proposed Science Centre Pavilion site is a fraction of the size of the Therme and LiveNation developments, and only provides half the space of the Science Centre’s present facility. The existing Ontario Science Centre, a Centennial project completed in 1969 by Raymond Moriyama, would be demolished.

The ministerial announcement of this plan was accompanied by reference to a business case for the move, but at the time of going to press, Infrastructure Ontario had not yet been able to provide that document to me. (It seems unlikely that such a business case would have explored a full range of options. In response to a request for estimates of the costs to update the current Ontario Science Centre, the ministry responded that they “are currently developing feasibility and options for stabilization and rehabilitation, and do not have any information to share at this time.”)

In the meanwhile, the province has moved with alacrity, issuing a call for proposals for a planning, design, and compliance consultant for the relocated Ontario Science Centre, setting the stage for a P3 competition.

Bureaucratic processes may slow down the timeline to allow for reconsideration. A provincially led environmental assessment, issued in July, only covered the public realm of Ontario Place, excluding the large tracts slated for redevelopment by Therme and LiveNation. Advocacy group Ontario Place for All is appealing to the federal government to conduct an impact assessment on the entire site. 

Toronto’s new mayor, Olivia Chow, is opposed to the redevelopment, and the City owns 16 acres of land necessary to access and redevelop Ontario Place. The province has indicated that they would expropriate the land if needed, but Chow has suggested she wouldn’t give it up without a fight. “Expropriation is a blunt instrument and it takes time also because what we don’t want is to waste a lot of money in court, but that is available and hopefully we wouldn’t get to a stage where we have two levels of government seeing each other in court,” she has said.

When they were constructed, both Ontario Place and the Ontario Science Centre exemplified the innovation and sensitivity to landscape that put Canadian modern architecture on the global map. In an era when environmental sustainability is of paramount concern, Canada once again has the chance to show leadership in caring for its heritage, while crafting places that foster meaningful interactions between built and natural environments. The future of Ontario Place and the Ontario Science Centre may initially seem to be a local matter, but we would be wise to take a bigger picture of the significance of these sites, and what they are able to offer to Canadians—and the world—both now and for the future.