From Land Theft To Brand Theft
The Effort To Save Ontario Place Is Toronto’s Greatest Community Design Project In A Generation
April 27, 2023
The World Monuments Fund is a global non-profit dedicated to preserving humanity’s greatest architectural monuments. According to its website, The Fund “provides a critical platform to raise awareness of and support for heritage sites of global significance that are facing pressures relating to climate change, imbalanced tourism, underrepresentation, and recovery from crisis.”
To that we may easily add ‘rampant privatization’.
The list of structures and historical sites the WMF is trying to protect include Paris’s Notre Dame Cathedral, Prague’s Old Town centre, Mexico City’s Metropolitan Cathedral, Cambodia’s Angkor Watt Archeological Park, and Toronto’s Ontario Place.
That’s right. Ontario Place. It is considered by the WMF as a ‘heritage site of global significance’, and by the Architectural Conservancy of Ontario to be a great work of mid-century modernism and public architecture that must be preserved. As downtown Toronto’s only public lakefront park – and only clean beach, by the way – it was built for the enjoyment of those Torontonians who don’t have a cottage to go to.
But it has become the site of a pitched battle between the forces of privatization and champions of the public good. The Province of Ontario has long forsaken its responsibility to preserve this heritage site, leaving it subject to decay and several attempts to monetize it since it opened 50 years ago.
In a recent CBC interview urbanist and former city planner Ken Greenberg recounted how the drive to privatize has resulted in a closed-door decision to turn nearly half the parkland over to Therme, an Austrian spa franchise, which will cut down over 800 trees and level the internationally recognized landscape design to accommodate its enormous 13 storey, 885,000 square metre, pay-to-play glass spa facility (half the size of Rogers Centre), complete with underground parking for 2,000 cars. And Doug Ford will use $650 million of taxpayers’ dollars to help towards construction.
Ken Greenberg’s home page
Said Greenberg, “We had the 2017 construction of Trillium Park, working with the Michael Hough legacy (Hough was the landscape architect for the original park, while Eberhard Zeidler was the architect of all the built structures, including the iconic Cinesphere), based on indigenous sensibility as a ‘return to the lake’. We showed what it could be (as a public space). Then in 2018 a series of provincial ministers went down there and made outrageous statements that the whole place should be trashed. I doubt any of them had ever set foot in Trillium Park.”
Just to give one example of how Torontonians have been able to enjoy free access to this very unique public asset, there is a 1,400-member group called ‘SwimOP’ (Swim Ontario Place) that uses the beach as a year-round swimming hole. In a recent deposition to Toronto City Council, SwimOP representative Dan Bowman, a resident of the west end, made a passionate plea not to replace this open area with an enclosed pay-only glass dome. Said Bowman, “Unlike a mega spa, this beach has a carbon footprint of zero. It's perfect just as it is. Don't listen to them saying that it's run down and it's prone to flooding and it has only a 50 year design life. Not true. No such thing as a beach with a 50 year design life. It's downtown Toronto's only beach and it's super clean. The water ratings are close to zero or one part per million. It's exceptional. And it's south-facing. It's like being at the ocean. And it's sheltered by 850 mature trees, all of which are on the chopping block.”
He goes on to say that by enclosing the spa, the developers are effectively turning visitors away from the lake. “In order to keep them within the privatized confines of their artificial space, the spa would merely use the lake as a visual backdrop. This is an absurd waste of resources, a huge loss of public space and the creation of a massive carbon footprint.”
A tall barrier of tropical climate denial trees completely divorces the mega spa from its natural, zero-carbon surroundings, massively expanding the carbon footprint required to heat and cool this 13-storey monster.
Torontonians must be absolutely dying to pay 40 bucks for the thrill of looking at climate denial palm trees against the backdrop of a frozen lake in the middle of February. It’s like the Canadian version of the ski hill in Dubai.
At least two opposition groups have been set up, The Future of Ontario Place and Ontario Place for All. The former, led by George Baird, architect and former dean of the John H. Daniels Faculty of Architecture and Landscape Architecture at the University of Toronto, is a partnership between the World Monuments Fund, the University of Toronto, and Architectural Conservancy Ontario. The 13-member advisory board is populated by some of the foremost architects, historians, curators, artists and urbanists in Canada. The latter is more of a platform for grass roots resistance, open to anyone who wants to join the fight.
One of several grass roots groups fighting to save Ontario Place from rampant privatization.
For its part, Therme has mounted a brand theft campaign designed to confuse and confound the public. It has hijacked Ontario Place for All’s name by changing one word to make it ‘Ontario Place for Everyone’. Its website mimics the home page of The Future of Ontario Place in its layout and typographic style. “Therme is desperate”, said Greenberg in his CBC interview. “They are conducting one of the dirtiest disinformation campaigns I have ever seen. They've created a hashtag called Ontario Place for Everyone. They've actually created full page ads in the Star and the Globe. They don't show their project. You don't see one tiny bit of the spa. What you see is the public realm, what we are advocating for, and the pretense is that's what they're providing. When in fact that's what they're removing.”
Therme’s misleading full page ads, a classic example of astroturfing and brand theft.
In an excellent Twitter thread, Gil Meslin succinctly reveals the hypocrisy being peddled by Therme in its propaganda campaign by showing us the lovely paths and beach as they already exist but not a bit of the massive glass spa they plan to plop on top of it all.
Top: home page from the Future of Ontario Place website. Bottom: home page of Therme Canada’s website. It steals the visual style of the Future of Ontario Place and the slogan of Ontario Place for All in a classic case of trolling
Of course it’s about a lot more than saving a beach. It’s about fighting for public space in a city whose population is growing in leaps and bounds, and whose downtown residential density has literally gone through the roof since Ontario Place was opened 50 years ago. It’s about building with indigenous principles, which means to design with the next seven generations in mind, not the next ten or twenty years, and to be open to ‘two-eyed seeing’ – creating with a blend of both indigenous ways of thinking and western ways of thinking. It’s about the community working to meet design challenges together rather than leaving it in the hands of a feudal, rent-seeking enterprise, a handful of unscrupulous designers and a premier who is aggressively selling off precious public assets like the greenbelt and now the downtown lakefront in a blind drive to privatize, monetize and carbonize everything in sight.
Will Novosedlik is a designer, writer, long-time contributor and editor of Applied Arts magazine. He is known for a critical perspective on the cultural and socio-economic impact of design, brand, business and innovation.