The Ford government has tabled legislation that would give itself significant new powers to fast-track the redevelopment of Ontario Place and exclude it from environmental laws.
Part of the Rebuilding Ontario Place Act — unveiled on Monday — sets out special powers for the provincial minister in charge of the file while excluding the crown asset from key environmental assessments.
The legislation is part of a new deal between Ontario and the City of Toronto to help the city with its dire budget shortfall.
In the deal, the city will receive $1.2 billion over three years to pay for projects including transit and homelessness, while the province takes over the responsibility and costs for both the Don Valley Parkway and Gardiner Expressway.
As part of the exchange, however, the City of Toronto conceded that Queen’s Park has the authority over the Ontario Place land, paving the way for the Ford government to push its vision for the project.
Ontario Place is a legacy project for Ontario Premier Doug Ford, who wants to allow a private spa to occupy the site for 95 years, along with an expanded music venue and a new science centre.
The province has tabled new legislation, which includes significant changes to how Ontario Place construction will proceed through the planning process.
New MZO powers for Ontario Place
One of the changes proposed in the legislation would allow Infrastructure Minister Kinga Surma to issue Minister’s Zoning Orders (MZO), a tool that was once the sole domain of the Ministry of Housing.
MZOs are a powerful tool in the Planning Act that allow the province to overrule local planning requirements — such as public consultations and various studies — and fast-track projects viewed as provincial priorities.
The Ford government has faced backlash for issuing more than 100 such orders since taking office in 2018, compared to just 18 by the Ontario Liberals during their 15 years in power.
Paul Calandra, the new housing minister, recently said he would review MZOs issued by his predecessor to ensure they met his standards.
Despite the promise to review zoning orders, the new legislation gives Surma the power to issue her own zoning orders specifically for Ontario Place. Those orders — if used — would allow the project to skip the local planning process.
The changes would also let the province build Ontario Place without needing to comply with the Provincial Policy Statements, a list of provincially written rules that define good practice for building projects.
Norm Di Pasquale, the co-chair of Ontario Place for All, said in a statement Monday he is concerned the province is speeding up its plans for the waterfront site.
“Why is Ford attempting to accelerate this mega spa no one wants before the auditor general has a chance to report and ahead of the city’s regular development application process?” he asked.
Ontario Place to be excluded from other rules
The new legislation would also exclude the Ontario Place project from stringent assessment rules.
The legislation proposes that the Ontario Place lands be exempted from both the Environmental Assessment Act and the Heritage Act.
The two laws order developments to undertake detailed studies to ensure they do not have negative impacts on either heritage properties or a variety of natural features, including local wildlife.
The law would not exempt the cinespehere or the pods areas of Ontario Place from either law.
Meanwhile, the advocacy group Ontario Place for All recently launched a legal challenge against the project, calling for a judicial review into how the Ford government was treating its environmental assessment.
If the new legislation is passed and Ontario Place is legally exempt from doing an Environmental Assessment, it is unclear whether would effectively cancel out the court proceedings.
Ontario NDP Leader Marit Stiles called the move a “cynical power grab” in a statement sent to Global News. “This deal needs more scrutiny, not less. Ford should stop ripping up environmental and heritage laws, and prepare a proper environmental assessment for the Ontario Place redevelopment.”
Land to be expropriated
The province is also expected to table legislation that would expropriate the land from the city and give it $8 million in return.
Government sources told Global News the province made it “clear from the very beginning” that Ontario Place was a consequential part of the agreement.
“We need to see this project move forward. … We were pretty clear that it had to be on the table,” the source said.
Expropriation to enable site access and servicing for the redevelopment, as well as compensation, formed the final part of the agreement.