Science Centre woes force Ford government to shutter Ontario landmark forever

Click to play video: 'Government announces sudden closure of Ontario Science Centre'
Government announces sudden closure of Ontario Science Centre
WATCH: Ontario Science Centre shut down by Ford government over structural concerns – Jun 21, 2024

The Ford government is shutting down the Ontario Science Centre immediately and permanently amid concerns that the roof is no longer structurally sound – a drastic step announced just hours before the popular attraction was sealed off from public access.

The provincial government said a new engineering report has found “serious structural issues” with the science centre building that could materialize by the winter. The Ministry of Infrastructure recommended to the attraction’s board of trustees that the building should be closed.

The IMAX cinema located at the science centre will also close.

The news comes with hours to go before the closure takes place, with events already booked, including summer camps for children. The province said private events would still take place over the weekend but summer camps would be cancelled and reimbursed.

Click to play video: 'Fresh questions over Ontario Science Centre business case'
Fresh questions over Ontario Science Centre business case

Work to close the attraction began on Friday morning, with fencing erected around the perimeter of the site.

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At a technical briefing on Friday afternoon, officials with Infrastructure Ontario said they had received a report detailing structural issues with the building’s roof earlier in the week.

They said the decision to close the building was made “as quickly as we could move,” leading to the end-of-week announcement.

“The actions taken today will protect the health and safety of visitors and staff at the Ontario Science Centre while supporting its eventual reopening in a new, state-of-the-art facility,” Infrastructure Minister Kinga Surma said in a statement.

Infrastructure Ontario CEO Michael Lindsay — the civil servant responsible for public buildings in the province — led the announcement.

Neither Surma, the minister responsible for infrastructure nor Minister of Citizenship and Multiculturalism of Ontario Michael Ford — who would be responsible for deciding if the heritage building is demolished — were present.

“In the meantime, we are making every effort to avoid disruption to the public and help the Ontario Science Centre continue delivering on its mandate through an interim facility, as well as alternative programming options,” Surma said.

Roof panels

The issue stems from a professional engineering report, the government said, which identified issues with panels on the roof of the building.

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The report identified panels in “distressed, high-risk condition” that need to be fixed by the end of October in case the weight of snow damages them further.

Lindsay said the engineering consultants had informed him it was a “very, very significant construction job” to replace the roof.

The report, he said, would be peer-reviewed by another engineering firm in due course.

The engineering firm Rinkus Consulting Group said fully negating the risk would require replacing each of that type of roof panel at a cost of between $22 million and $40 million and that would take two or more years to complete with the facility closed.

“While the building remains safe over the summer with an enhanced process for rainwater monitoring and roof facility management, these months will be required for staff to safely vacate the building,” the government said.

Lindsay said the consultants were “unequivocal” that the building had to be empty by the end of October. He said the problems with the roof were “indisputably a health and safety issue.”

Infrastructure Ontario said work to inspect panels on the roof, after issues were reported in other buildings where the same materials were used, began at the start of the year and was completed on June 18, according to the report.

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It found some of the panels were “in a distressed, high-risk condition.”

The state of repair at the science centre, which was built in 1969, has been under scrutiny ever since a business care, prepared for the Ford government, revealed $369 million in critical and deferred maintenance over the next 20 years.

According to a separate report by the auditor general, at least 42 projects that were deemed to be critical since 2017 were not repaired and multiple requests for funding to address the repair backlog were denied over the past five years.

In 2022, Infrastructure Ontario ordered the closure of a pedestrian bridge that connects the main entrance to the exhibition halls after it was deemed unsafe. In October of that year, an extra $7 million in short-term funding was approved to keep the building open in the interim.

Lindsay said issues at the building continued to pile up.

He said issues with the building’s heating system meant it would not have been able to stay warm during the winter without repairs, while he feared the air conditioning units could also fail.

“Regrettably, the roofing panels of the Ontario Science Centre are not the only end-of-life system that we have to contend with here,” Lindsay said.

Critics furious at sudden closure

News of the abrupt closure was met with fury and skepticism from opponents of the plan.

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The group Save Ontario Science Centre, which has been rallying to preserve the building for the future, said the timing of the announcement was “awfully convenient” for the government after what it believes was a swell of opposition.

Floyd Ruskin, co-chair of the group, said he believed the building had been deliberately underfunded until there was no choice but to move the science centre to Ontario Place, where it will be part of the government’s legacy redevelopment project.

“This government has refused to fund the maintenance,” he said on Friday. “We have a crisis created by the government by not properly funding it… we don’t want to see a half-size, OSC lite.”

There are roughly 400 employees at the science centre, Ruskin said, who gathered on Friday afternoon to learn what their future will be. Officials with Infrastructure Ontario said there would be no “immediate” job losses but did not elaborate when pressed.

Ontario Public Service Employees Union (OPSEU) president JP Hornick said the union would be “happy” to work with the government to avoid job losses.

Local Liberal MPP Adil Shamji said the timing of the announcement — with just hours to go until the weekend — was no coincidence.

“This has been pre-planned. All of this happening on a Friday afternoon… when Doug Ford is hoping that this news will be buried,” he said.

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“What we’re seeing right now at the science centre is so emblematic of how Doug Ford treats public infrastructure in this province,” Shamji said.

Ontario NDP Leader Marit Stiles said the closure and move were about Ontario Place and not the science centre.

“Communities outside the downtown core deserve nice things too,” she said in a statement.

“Shutting down a world-class science and cultural institution is heartbreaking. People in Flemingdon Park and Thorncliffe Park are seeing a vital institution ripped from their community, and families across Toronto will lose out on public science education for their kids, potentially for years.”

Toronto Mayor Olivia Chow recalled the “wonder and joy” on the faces of her grandchildren as she took them through the science centre, and she said the loss is a painful one for the city.

“It’s a special place that sparks imagination and curiosity, and creates a love of science and learning that lasts a lifetime,” she wrote in a statement.

“I’m deeply disappointed that successive provincial governments have let it fall into such disrepair over the years.”

Short and long-term future

The Ontario Science Centre’s sudden closure means families who had booked children into summer camps at the tourist attraction will see their plans change dramatically.

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The government said it would reimburse those who had paid for summer camps and will arrange alternative child care at a “nearby school that will house similar programming.”

The province will also be reimbursing anyone who has a membership to the Ontario Science Centre. The science centre welcomed nearly 800,000 visitors in 2022-23, according to its most recent business plan.

Private events, meanwhile, will still be allowed to continue through the weekend.

A wedding that had previously been booked to take place this weekend will still go ahead, Infrastructure Ontario said.

Officials explained the couple had received a refund on the fees they paid and would still be able to celebrate at the science centre as planned, even now it is closed to the public.

The science centre was already set to close — although not as suddenly as the government announced on Friday — with plans to move its programming to Ontario Place.

“For more than five decades, the Ontario Science Centre has been a beloved landmark and an integral part of our community and our province,” said Paul Kortenaar, CEO of Ontario Science Centre.

The location is currently planned to open in early 2028 at its new waterfront home, with the province recently issuing a call for companies to build the new site.

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In the meantime, the province also said it is looking for a new, temporary home for the facility.

A request for proposals will be published on Monday to find a new science centre location until 2028.

Infrastructure Ontario would not be drawn on how much that relocation would cost, or how much had been budgeted for the interim site.

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