Ford government uses new powers to sidestep Toronto’s say in Ontario Place plans

Click to play video: 'Ford government budgeted more than $2M to promote Ontario Place redevelopment'
Ford government budgeted more than $2M to promote Ontario Place redevelopment
WATCH: Ford government budgeted more than $2M to promote Ontario Place redevelopment – Dec 7, 2023

Ontario’s infrastructure minister is turning to a powerful tool recently granted to her to sidestep Toronto’s planning process and push ahead with the government’s controversial, signature redevelopment of Ontario Place.

In a statement Friday afternoon, the province said Kinga Surma had issued an enhanced Minister’s Zoning Order to “ensure the Ontario Place rebuild continues without delays.”

Minister’s Zoning Orders (MZOs) allow the provincial government to avoid large parts of the local planning process — including negotiations over the height of buildings and some studies — through a unilateral decree from Queen’s Park.

Until the end of 2023, MZOs were something only the housing minister could use. Recently introduced legislation, however, extended that power to the infrastructure minister, specifically at Ontario Place.

Click to play video: 'Lack of transparency on Ontario Place: NDP'
Lack of transparency on Ontario Place: NDP

A source with knowledge of the project told Global News that issuing the MZO was a key stage in the process, with the order effectively replacing the entire local planning process.

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Although some issues like site servicing will still need to be completed, the order puts the province’s plan for a spa, concert venue, science centre and parkland at a point where it can move forward.

In August 2023, Therme — the Austrian company with a 95-year lease to operate a private spa at Ontario Place — announced revised designs for its buildings and a new, expanded parkland commitment.

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The new designs released in the summer included nearly 16 acres of public space, up from 12.5 acres, including 3.4 acres of parkland and trails on top of the waterpark building.

The source said the MZO issued Friday formalizes things like the amount of public land and green space the project will include. It also green-lights the technical requirements from Therme and Live Nation to build a waterfront spa and a new 20,000-capacity music venue on the public land.

As a result of the zoning order, Toronto city council will no longer be able to weigh in on technical elements of the project as it does on other buildings that go through the local planning process.

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Ford government obligated to build parking garage at Ontario Place

The Ministry of Infrastructure did not address questions from Global News on Friday.

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In response to queries about which parts of Ontario Place would be advanced by the MZO or what obstacles the province felt it was facing that required the powerful zoning tool, a spokesperson said that “the Minister’s statement stands.”

A source said the MZO — which the government is required to post publicly for consultation — will apply to the entire site.

“To ensure the Ontario Place rebuild continues without delays, our government made an enhanced Minister’s Zoning Order (eMZO) to provide development permissions for new and existing land uses at Ontario Place,” the government’s original statement said.

“The eMZO is a land use planning tool that will allow the province to maintain site plan control for portions of the site and make much-needed improvements to the publicly accessible open space on the East Island as part of the rebuild of Ontario Place. The eMZO will also allow for expanded public spaces and parks on the West Island.”

A spokesperson for Therme said it was Ontario, and not the private company, that was handling the zoning and planning work for the project. That decision, they said, came after a deal between Ontario and Toronto that saw the city stand down its opposition to the project.

“We will continue to work with all stakeholders and levels of government as the renewal of Ontario Place moves forward,” Therme said.

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Ontario Place for All, an advocacy group leading an ongoing court challenge against the plan, said the government’s decision to use an MZO to advance the controversial construction set a “terrible precedent” for future projects.

“Ontario Place for all is disappointed that the MZO process is being used to steal city owned land at Ontario Place and place it into the control of a private MegaSpa for 95 years,” co-chair Norm Di Pasquale said in a statement.

Ontario’s auditor general is currently conducting investigations into both how the Ford government has used MZOs and its redevelopment of Ontario Place.

NDP Leader Marit Stiles accused the government of “wasting” public money with the plan.

“This entire scheme reeks, and the Auditor General’s report can’t come soon enough,” she said.

“Ontarians deserve to know why is this government moving forward and using unprecedented powers for the sake of building a luxury spa that no one asked for.”

— with a file from The Canadian Press

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