Advocates are urging the city to reject revised plans for a private spa complex at Ontario Place, saying the proposal amounts to “vandalism” of an public iconic park.
The Ontario government announced Friday it had submitted a development application to Toronto to create what the province describes as a “world-class, year-round destination” on the 155-acre site of the waterfront amusement park, which opened in 1971 and was shuttered in 2012.
At the heart of the proposal is a $350-million recreational facility on Ontario Place’s west island — to be built by Therme Group, an Austria-based “well-being resorts” company — that was announced in 2021 as one of the winners of a call to develop the provincially owned property.
As part of its updated proposal, Therme (which has indoor resorts in Germany and Romania) says it will build nearly 12 acres of new public space at Ontario Place including parkland, gathering places and a downtown beach. It will also rebuild the shoreline to protect the park from flooding and erosion, and create new wetlands and aquatic habitats.
The additional public space is a nod to criticism from community groups and elected officials who have objected to the Ontario government leasing valuable public land on the lakefront to a for-profit company.
Mark Lawson, Therme Canada’s vice-president of communications and external relations, said the company amended its plans after consultation with the public, the city, and the Mississaugas of the Credit First Nation.
“Based on what we heard through that process, we figured there would be some changes … and those included alterations to the building size and alterations to the public space,” he said.
Lawson said the company’s proposal will make the site “a space for all” and lives up to the province’s vision for an inclusive Ontario Place.
“We’re confident that millions of families every year will get joy out of using the facility.”
The province’s plans for Ontario Place site also include an expansion of LiveNation’s Budweiser Stage concert venue, and the refurbishment of its famous Cinesphere and pod structures. The government predicts the redevelopment will create thousands of new jobs and, once it’s complete, attract four to six million visitors a year.
While the government says that more than two-thirds of Ontario Place will remain open to the public, Therme anticipates it would charge about $40 for full-day access to its spa facility, which would be housed in a towering glass-walled complex designed by Toronto’s Diamond Schmitt Architects, complete with indoor and outdoor pools, saunas, waterslides, botanical gardens, and “well-being therapies.”
Cynthia Wilkey, co-chair of the Ontario Place for All group, said the company’s business model means the facility will be financially out of reach for many residents.
“This is not something that ordinary Torontonians are going to use,” said Wilkey, whose group wants the city to reject the development application and “stop the vandalism of Ontario Place.”
“I don’t know why we’re giving public land to a commercial franchise,” she said. “If the province really thinks is something that we need, put it by the airport.”
Local city councillor Ausma Malik (Ward 10, Spadina-Fort York) said she also wasn’t won over by Therme’s pledge to include more public space.
A major source of concern for her is the public cost of Therme’s proposal. Infrastructure Ontario’s November update estimated the cost of readying the property at up to $200 million, while the Globe and Mail reported the province could also foot the bill for a 1,000-space underground parking garage at the site.
Spending that amount of money “to subsidize a private spa and water park is just a terrible use of our public tax dollars,” said Malik.
“We could actually invest our money to build an accessible public park that’s available to everyone to use and enjoy. So is the green space that they’ve shared in this new proposal sufficient? It’s not.”
Andrea Chiappetta, a spokesperson for Infrastructure Minister Kinga Surma, declined to answer questions about how much taxpayers will contribute to the spa facility.
But in a statement Friday, Surma said the province plans to share a preferred design for Ontario Place’s public spaces for consultation in 2023.
Surma said the province is committed to working with all parties involved “to revitalize Ontario Place and create an iconic, unique space that will bring friends and families together right here in Ontario, while also attracting tourists from around the world.”
Correction — Nov. 29, 2022: A quote attributed to Ausma Malik (Ward 10, Spadina-Fort York) erroneously referred to Therme’s proposal as a public spa and water park. It would be a private business.
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