Toronto to study moving Ontario Place spa plan

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Michael Lewis

Special to Ontario Construction News

Toronto city council’s executive committee has unanimously approved a motion calling for a report assessing the feasibility of relocating a private spa and water park planned for Ontario Place to a site occupied by the Better Living Centre on the Exhibition Place grounds.

But while the motion by deputy mayor Ausma Malik that calls for staff to conduct the study and report back by Dec. 5 says Exhibition Place “may benefit from and provide an improved location for this use” due to its location on the Toronto waterfront adjacent to transit, hotels and other services, the CEO of the Canadian National Exhibition Association has a differing view.

In his remarks to the committee during its regular meeting Tuesday Darrell Brown said news of the proposal came as “kind of a gut punch. To lose 200,000 sq. ft. of programmable space would have a devastating effect,” he said. “We are opposed to a feasibility study for Therme on site; we are opposed to (spa operator) Therme being on site in any way shape or form.”

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Proposed public spaces and waterfront attraction: Therme Canada | Ontario Place (CNW Group/Therme Canada)

He said there is no obvious alternative location at Exhibition Place for the Better Living Centre, a heritage building that hosts consumer shows, a casino and an educational farm program. Brown noted that hotel expansion and other developments have reduced the Exhibition Place footprint with the Horticultural Building for example now leased to a nightclub. Exhibition Place is a publicly owned parcel of land that hosts tenants including the CNE, which has operated a late summer annual fair on the grounds since 1879.

And while the city has concerns with the provincial government’s proposal to redevelop Ontario Place, Coun. Malik amended her motion to specify that the CNE Association will be consulted on the feasibility assessment, with staff telling the meeting as well that the study will solely provide information and not draw conclusions.

“Any preliminary feasibility assessment will allow further feedback to be provided by the city council and the Exhibition Place board to help determine any further steps, including public engagement,” she said.

Coun. Shelley Carroll pointed out that the motion stipulates that any consideration of siting the Therme Canada facility at Exhibition Place would need to “comment on alignment with key Exhibition Place plans, the core uses of Exhibition Place and the operations of key tenants and event organizers of Exhibition Place, especially the CNE.”

In this context, “is a feasibility study kind of a waste of money,” she asked while Brown said he can’t imagine a relocation plan being approved by council if wishes of Exhibition Place and key tenants are not respected, adding that the CNE is prepared to update its business case for an expansion of programming year-round.

Discussion about relocating the Therme project has included public suggestions for other alternative locations including on the grounds the Woodbine horse racing track and casino in the city’s west end.

The focus on alternative locations stems from widespread objections to plans for redevelopment of Ontario Place, a man-made complex of three islands just off the Toronto shore in Lake Ontario where free to access greenspace would be leased to for-profit private developers according to plans by the province which owns most of the Ontario Place lands.

The majority PC government has amended its plans to add more public space but still aims to proceed with construction of amenities including a fee-based spa facility on the complex’s West Island. The Ontario Place redevelopment would involve filling in a section of Lake Ontario, building a publicly funded five-level underground garage and removing hundreds of old growth trees.

therme 3Boarding erected at Ontario Place in recent weeks has blocked sightlines on the West Island prompting worries that trees and vegetation are already being removed. City staff told the meeting the province has started building stabilization and conservation work and is preparing for site servicing.

The executive committee in other business approved with amendments the Generational Transformation of Toronto’s Housing System to Urgently Build More Affordable Homes, a plan that calls for the city to build 65,000 affordable rental units by 2030.

The plan calls for construction of an additional 25,000 new rent-controlled homes in addition to the number initially envisioned as the average wait for affordable housing in Toronto approaches ten years. Pending approval by city council the report would require senior levels of government to allocate between $500 million and $800 million per year in grant funding to the city over the next seven years along with $6.5 billion and $8 billion in low-cost financing/re-payable loans over the same period.

It requests the urgent allocation of land to develop new purpose-built affordable and market rental homes and the immediate waiving of the provincial sales tax on all purpose-built rental housing projects. It would require that at least 30 per cent of the gross floor area be allocated for affordable housing for 99 years as part of any future federal land sales; it would limit appeals of municipally initiated Official Plan and zoning by-law amendments for purpose-built rental projects and remove right of appeal for projects with at least 30 per cent affordable housing in which units are guaranteed affordable for at least 50 years.

Though ambitious in scale amid challenging conditions in the residential housing construction sector, Mayor Olivia Chow said the building plans can be realized since all branches of city government are “united in purpose” to overcome obstacles and expedite building processes.

She said municipal government – with private partners – has a role as a builder of affordable, green standard and low-cost, possibly including prefab modular units at city-owned and not-for-profit sites. Mayor Chow also suggested that “fairly deep”subsidies will be needed to provide long-term, geared to income rental housing on such a large scale.

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