Ontario Place not a write-off but an unpolished gem to protect

Don’t believe the hype — Ontario Place west island is a nature-drenched dream

DOUG FORD’S BIGGEST ENEMY in his attempt to hijack Ontario Place and hand it to Austrian developers is a sunny day.

As concerned residents gather by the hastily constructed and indefensible Ford Fence on the lush western grounds on Ontario Place on a recent Sunday afternoon, the green, water-lapped lawns are an inviting, urban paradise that feels a lifetime away from the distinctly urban and packed Lakeshore Boulevard, which is especially congested today because of a Gardiner and DVP closure for a charity bike ride.

As people crowd into Toronto’s limited spaces in Trinity Bellwoods and other parks, this beachside beauty invites use. And plenty of people are using it today, not just to demonstrate but to hang on the beautiful beach, swim in the cleanest water in the city, relax in a seemingly endless supply of lakeside Muskoka chairs, cycle, run or cuddle on the lawns, as a sprinkling of couples does.

And the Ford Fence sits like a big “Fuck You” from the premier, cruelly slashing through the points-of-pleasure and slicing off waterfront access for the thousands of Torontonians who don’t have cottages to hustle off to, like the premier is so fond of doing.

This is the first time I’ve been in the “closed” western portion of Ontario Place in years. Like too many others, I bought the narrative that there was “nothing” here, its best days behind it, etc. Over the pandemic, friends reported seeking refuge by the water, but I relegated this news to the desperate-times-require-desperate-measures file.

Boy, was I wrong. When I first arrive, crossing the now rusting white bridge to western Ontario Place from the massive CNE parking lot, it is instantly kind of thrilling; suspended above stalled traffic, the massive Cinesphere dome sits in front of me in a lush setting of lapping lake water and green lawns sprouting hearty, 50-year-old trees.

Geese and boaters move below once I get above the water, a couple holds hands and walks along a trail that rings the west island. I am instantly transported from a claustrophobic urban vibe to a relax-and-breath calm, which washes over me like the waves spreading across the rocks that ring the path below.

On the island, I cut through the West Common and its trippy, retro signage that looks like it’s lifted from Montreal’s Expo ’67. Miraculously, the washrooms work, don’t stink of piss and there’s not a used syringe to be found .

Everywhere I look, there’s an expanse of water, a slash of green and a relative quiet so pure that the sounds of birds dominate.

More birds and boaters float along the waters that make a cove, and a beautiful ceremonial bell sits atop a hill above, the bell was designed by Richard Moriyama who designed the Ontario Science Centre, which is also under attack by Ford.

The only thing detracting from this idyllic scene is the slash of fencing that Ford and his vandals have stuck in the middle of pathways that link the east and west side elements of Ontario Place. I am astounded the fence remains up and spend a lot of time contemplating my own direct action, such thoughts currently on hold as groups like Ontario Place for All offer other paths to preservation as they continue to fight for this beautiful place.

Steps away, I come across a gorgeous, hidden (to me) pebble beach teeming with people enjoying the cleanest water on the city’s lakefront. This beautiful beach would be destroyed to create Fort Sweat. Like any waterfront city, water access is cherished and it is impossible to imagine any logic that would destroy this treasure.

Above the beach, Moose Hollow is a meeting place, stocked with comfy Muskoka chairs and surrounded by mature trees, all slated to be torn down for the giant Sauna-torium. Over 800 trees would be destroyed, replaced by a massive, energy-sucking beast on the waterfront, this action being pushed as the air is literally filled with the smell of burning forests — what century is this again?

One of this city’s biggest urban sins, for generations, has been to constantly undervalue the waterfront, creating barriers to this treasure rather than embracing it as “world-class” cities do. Industrial uses and the railway yards long formed a wall between the citizens and the scenery. The Lakeshore and the Gardiner slashed through Parkdale and created yet another barrier to the beach. And the Harbourfront selloff of public land for condos in the ’80s was another crushing blow to lakeside access for the city.

We are wisely spending hundreds of millions on the east side of Toronto with a visionary re-naturalizing of the Don River and creating acres of parks and waterfront access. For a fraction of that cost, and pennies compared to the cost of building a giant parking garage at Ontario Place as a half-a-billion-dollar gift to the Austrian spa developers, the west islands of Ontario Place could be gently refurbished to create a spectacular urban park.

Ford always claims to want to grow tourism; a gorgeous beachside park will draw tourists to this city, just as it does to other cities. No one is hopping on a plane to come to Toronto to sweat it out in a cookie-cutter spa similar to others all over the world.

Ontario Place for All has an impressive park plan for the space that will maximize free public usage and preserve natural aspects that are now over 50 years old. The plan deserves to be considered, as do other ideas that embrace this unique site rather than crush it.

If former Progressive Conservative premier Bill Davis had signed a 99-year deal when he opened Ontario Place back in the ’70s, as Ford is eager to do with his spa meisters, there would still be 47 years to go! Saving Ontario Place is a generational issue; if we fail to protect the waterfront, this nine-storey scar will smash beachside access for generations, a mistake that will literally haunt our children’s children.

Even with his parliamentary majority, Ford has been forced by public pressure to back down regularly: most recently, farmers forced him to retreat on reducing rural lands protection. Ontario Place can be one more back down — and win for the province. Even Davis, with his massive Queens Park majority, was forced to stop construction of the Spadina Expressway by public pressure, something that would have torn an asphalt wound through the city.

One of the most powerful things to do remains simply to use it! Occupy Ontario Place this summer. Stroll it, beach it, bike and bring friends. In addition, Ontario Place for All is holding regular events throughout the summer to demonstrate that this unpolished gem is not a write-off as Ford and his cabinet ministers claim, and yes, there very much is a beautiful beach.

The destruction of Ontario Place for an energy-sucking, elitist blight-on-the-beach would be a crime, Ask yourself, are you prepared to be a passive accessory to this crime or a Crime Stopper? All it takes is a walk on the beach to start helping preserve Ontario Pace for all.

Voting for a new mayor next week —a mayor who will join in this fight — is also a great first step. Olivia Chow, Josh Matlow, Mitzie Hunter and Chloe Brown have all been the most vocal about protecting the park.

Watch NEXT’s event listings for Ontario Place for All events all summer. Occupy Ontario Place this summer. If we use it, we don’t have to lose it.