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Ford government submits revised plans for Ontario Place as it says work will start in fall

The Doug Ford government has formally submitted a revised application to the City of Toronto for the revamping of Ontario Place, saying it believes it has addressed many of the concerns with the original proposal, and that work is expected to begin on the site this fall.

“So in the resubmission is our belief that we addressed a lot of the concerns that have been expressed to us over the last few months,” Infrastructure Minister King Surma told in an interview.

The project has faced heavy criticism from community groups and local politicians over a large parking lot being proposed for the site and the loss of public space to a large spa and water park being built by Austrian company Therme.

In a release Thursday, the province said work will begin this fall on the removal of “a significant amount of trees and vegetation from across the site” to prepare for construction, as well as work to improve gas, water and electrical infrastructure.

Surma said she believes the province has addressed concerns over public space in the resubmission.

“In order to improve accessibility and public space, we’ve made changes to the bridge which connects the mainland over to the Therme facility. We’ve changed the bridge now to include a public park all along the roof of it on either side, which ultimately increases the public space by four acres,” Surma said.

“And this was done in partnership with the First Nations communities to make the trail, the public park boardwalk on that bridge, reflect the Credit River. We’ve also reduced the overall size and volume of the building as well.”

Therme has said it’s reduced the size of the building by 25 per cent, but critics have said that figure is much lower.

“So the footprint remains the same and the footprint is the space in which people will have access to, but in terms of the actual size and height of the building, it has been reduced,” Surma said.

Asked about reports that the lease agreement with Therme is for 95 years, Surma did not give the exact figure, but did confirm it is a “long-term” agreement.

“It is a long term lease and the reason why it’s a long term lease is because this particular partner is investing very heavily into the site,” she said. “They will be injecting the site with hundreds of millions of dollars in order to have a beautiful public realm space for shoreline improvements to protect the island flood mitigation efforts, to protect the island from flooding as well.”

“And as a tenant, they will also be contributing to annual maintenance of the site, which has not happened in the past, which one could argue that that’s one of the reasons why the site fell into disrepair. And so now we will have a wonderful tenant that will be contributing to the annual maintenance of the site.”

According to the province, the new submission features approximately 50 acres of “free parks, public, and green spaces for everyone to enjoy” as well as additional food and beverage options, waterfront programming, activity and play zones, and Indigenous elements and features. The province said it is also working on a modernization plan for the marina to include. waterside cafes, year-round restaurants, and entertainment.

“The plan also shows how the new, modernized Ontario Science Centre will be integrated with the preserved and upgraded Cinesphere and pod complex, as well as an underground public parking facility that will serve visitors across the site and will include increased spaces for bicycle parking,” the province said in a statement.

Asked why the province is still including a large parking structure when it is also spending billions to build a subway which will have a stop at the site, Surma said there will always be some people who need to drive.

“Whether it’s the zoo, or Wonderland or Exhibition Place — all include parking. We want this to be the most accessible site for people,” Surma said. “We’re building the subway line, the Ontario Line, that will connect people and people will be able to take the subway there and get off at Exhibition Place. That being said, there will always be people that need to drive, whether they’re seniors or a mom with three kids. There will be people that will need to drive to the site in order to enjoy it.”

Signs advise people about ongoing construction on fences separating Trillium Park from the West island of Ontario Place Sunday June 4, 2023. (Joshua Freeman /CP24)

Surma said criticism that the province has plowed ahead without proper public consultations on its plans are “very inaccurate” and said nearly 10,000 people have participated through surveys or in-person consultation. She dismissed criticism as mostly coming from “one special interest group” and said she thinks most people want the government to redevelop the site.

City staff, who have in the past expressed strong concerns about the redevelopment proposal, will now take a look at the revised submission. The provincial government has said in the past that it would not let the municipality stand in the way of its plans. Surma said Thursday that the province is working with the city, but would not say exactly what it would do if the latest proposal is rejected.

“We’ve worked very closely with the City of Toronto as we do all of our infrastructure projects. We’ve made a resubmission that I believe addresses a lot of comments made by city staff,” she said. “We’ve worked with that on them. And we will continue to make best efforts to work with the City of Toronto.”

A report released earlier this summer said the province could expropriate city land for the project if the council does not transfer it willingly.

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