Home News Public park or private spa: cities debate the future of island oases

Public park or private spa: cities debate the future of island oases

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It was an unusually mild winter day in Toronto, but that didn’t make the icy water of Lake Ontario any less appealing. Still, Sarah Fruchtman donned her swimsuit and cap and jumped into the lake at Michael Hoff Beach.

She wasn’t alone. There were seven other people there, some sitting around a campfire. They were all part of an informal swimming group that gathers year-round at the only beach in downtown Toronto.

But their ice ceremony ended weeks later when a chain-link fence cut off the pedestrian bridge to the island where the beach is located. A sign said the pedestrian bridge is closed. The island, known as West Island, is one of two in Ontario Place and was once home to an amusement park and exhibition hall.

The Ontario government, owner of Ontario Place, is handing West Island to an Austrian spa developer on a 95-year lease to build a large “wellness oasis” with hot and cold tubs and other “aquatic recreational facilities.”

The project has drawn widespread criticism from local politicians and park users in Canada’s largest city, as the vast lake is virtually inaccessible to the public from downtown Toronto.

“I’m sad,” Ms. Fluchtman said. “It feels like some policymakers may not realize that people are really taking advantage of what we have here, and that this stuff could be developed instead of being covered over. I don’t know why something like this should be privatized.”

Ontario Place opened in 1971 as the province’s response to the 1967 Montreal World’s Fair, which became an international sensation.

Five exhibition halls were suspended between the East and West Islands, housing exhibits and films about the province, and a geodesic dome building that housed the then-novel IMAX theater, a film technology developed in Canada.

Over time, Ontario Place was home to a playground, a water park, a pier, restaurants, wooden feather rides, and an amphitheater for concerts—all connected by parkland designed by Michael Hoff, who was Canada’s most famous landscape architects.

In an article shortly after the opening, The New York Times stated:At first glance it looks like a World’s Fair. It can only get better.”

While Ontario Place attracted crowds in its early days, low admission fees and meager concession revenue made it a perennial money-loser, and people began agonizing over what to do with it long before it finally closed in 2010. The empty space on West Island was turned into a park. (Another concert venue on the island was leased to Live Nation.)

Ontario Premier Doug Ford has long wanted to make his mark on the city’s waterfront.

No one, not even critics of the spa, questioned the Ford government’s decision to use provincial funds to restore and reopen the showroom and IMAX theater.

But when the government unveiled plans by Vienna-based Therme to build a nearly 150-foot-tall commercial spa that would take up most of West Island, it didn’t get much support.

Unlike Therme’s spas in Europe, which are primarily for adults, the Ontario Place plan will add an indoor family water park. (Nude bathing, another feature at some of the company’s European locations, will be eliminated.) The company said adult admission will be about 40 Canadian dollars, or about 30 U.S. dollars.

About 840 trees on the island will be cut down, and West Island’s outdoor public space will be largely limited to the green space on the spa’s roof and the wide paths around the spa.

The beach will be demolished, but the developers of the springs say they plan to build a larger replacement beach. But the plan is for the new beach to face Lake Ontario rather than the lakeshore, creating a landscape dominated by a concrete seawall and a busy six-lane boulevard.

The City of Toronto opposed the spa proposal, with officials citing issues with its size and location. They also said the spa would replace the existing pavilion and diminish the official historic significance of the local landmark.

The provincial government’s plan to build an underground parking garage with 2,100 spaces on the West Island runs counter to Toronto’s efforts to prioritize public transit, including a new subway line that would start across from Ontario Place, provincial officials said.

Toronto Mayor Olivia Chow said she used to take her grandchildren to the West Island. “There’s not a lot of open space on the waterfront,” she said. “It’s always packed, year-round.”

In response to Toronto’s criticism, Ford pushed through provincial legislation that stripped the city of its authority over the spa project and expropriated some Toronto-owned land to build the garage.

Ford’s office referred questions about the proposal to Ontario Infrastructure Minister Kinga Surma, who said the spa would make the site “a place that people really enjoy — which is not the case right now.”

She added that the spa will make Ontario Place a more attractive destination during the winter.

“Canada is pretty cold for much of the year, and having indoor facilities for the family to enjoy is really important,” she said.

Robert Hanea, chairman and CEO of Therme, dismissed criticism that the spa will turn public space into a private playground used by fewer people.

“We’re a company that’s bringing extraordinary well-being infrastructure to Toronto,” he said in an interview. “It’s going to be accessible to millions of people and their families — people who don’t have houses, people who can’t fly south in the winter.”

He added: “I don’t think public space is just parks.”

How much the developer will pay Ontario in lease payments has not been made public.

The backlash to the project has already had an impact: Therme has lowered the maximum height of the spa and will expand the West Island using landfill to provide more public space.

A citizens group has filed a lawsuit in court challenging the project’s lack of an environmental assessment, among other issues. The provincial government responded by asking the court to dismiss the case, which argues that the law pushed by Mr. Ford eliminated the need for an environmental assessment.

“You’re looking at an urban park, a waterfront park, and it has multiple uses,” said Ken Greenberg, a Toronto urban designer and a member of the group that brought the legal action.

“It’s a question of balance,” he added, “and what they’re proposing is just upsetting that balance and putting it behind a paywall that many people can’t afford.”

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