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Ontario Place report calls for a mixed-use destination, focus on parkland

A much-anticipated report on how to revitalize Ontario Place recommends transforming the outdated lakeside landmark into a mixed-use destination with residential, commercial, educational and recreational space.

Among some of the more notable recommendations in the government-commissioned report: maintaining the Cinesphere and pods and building a new entertainment venue for community events similar to the former Forum.

The cornerstone of John Tory’s report is providing recreation space with free access to the waterfront.

“No one, in our view, should have to pay admission to enjoy the natural beauty of this section of the waterfront of Lake Ontario in Ontario’s capital city,” he said.

The former Ontario Progressive Conservative leader was tapped by the province to head up an advisory panel on how to revitalize the 41-year-old landmark and he delivered 18 recommendations on Thursday. A casino was not among them.

“It will draw, we believe, a critical mass of people and bring a new level of excitement and energy to this beautiful and very unique waterfront location,” Tory said.

Earlier this year, the government shuttered most of Ontario Place for the summer as it worked on redevelopment plans and attempted to tame the province’s $15-billion deficit.

Change is desperately needed at Ontario Place, as is evidenced by the staggering decline in visitors over the past three decades. In 1980, 3.3 million people visited the park. In 2010, that number had dwindled to 327,774.

As part of his plan, Tory envisions low-rise residential development (making up 10 to 15 per cent of the land), mixed in with businesses. The centerpiece of the plan is a large swath of parkland, open year-round with free admission.

The report calls for barrier-free access to the water with a strong consideration for the needs of seniors and people with disabilities. The report suggests urban plazas, wild gardens and sports fields, and uses the term “the province’s collective backyard” to describe the vision.

Tory also recommended creating a new cultural space at the site, similar to the old Forum with its rotating stage, designed to host events all year.

Creating a research and educational institution at the site was also suggested in the 60-page report. What’s more, it urged the provincial government to remain open to private-public partnerships to fund the redevelopment, including new public-transit connections and partnering with neighbour Exhibition Place. Corporate sponsors and individual donors could play a significant role in changing the waterfront park, the report states.

All new development at the 39-hectare site would have a focus on “bold, excellent design,” environmental sustainability, blend in well with the surrounding environment and protect the public’s sight lines to the water. Tory also believes his recommendations would strengthen the site’s connection to the rest of the downtown core.

The government had said it wanted to tear down the giant white ball that has been an iconic part of the city’s skyline for four decades, as well as the waterpark. However, Tory’s report recommends keeping the Cinesphere and pods.

A summary of the 18 Ontario Place recommendations:

1. The new Ontario Place must be committed to design excellence in building, landscape and planning as well as to creative sustainability principles.

2. Protect sight lines to the water and easy public access to the waterfront.

3. Ontario Place should use a small portion of its property (10-15 percent) for residential development. Tory says make them low-rise and consider the feasibility of a hotel or resort.

4. Must be a place for people to work, not just visit. Space for commerce and business.

5. Ontario Place should have a venue like the original Forum, for a range of cultural activities. It should be designed to operate year-round.

6. Range of entertainment and cultural activities to generate revenue for operating costs of the new public space.

7. Ontario Place should position itself as an ideal site for a research or education centre of excellence.

8. Ontario Place and its waterfront must be accessible and barrier-free.

9. It needs to be open all year round.

10. Ontario Place needs to be flexible and better adapt to changes.

11. It must demonstrate leadership in environmental sustainability and design excellence.

12. It should respect and celebrate the natural landscape and historical connections with the site.

13. Future designs for Ontario Place should explore ways to feasibly include the iconic Cinesphere and pods.

14. Ontario Place and Exhibition Place should explore the potential for joint ventures.

15. To achieve its potential, Ontario Place must adopt a more flexible model based on strong private-public partnerships.

16. Explore the potential for individual donors and corporate sponsors to help invest in a shared legacy project along the water.

17. Showcase Ontario’s cultural diversity

18. Ontario Place working with the province and city should explore transit opportunities to better access the western lakeshore area.