TORONTO – Jill Martin says Ontario Place was where she used to go to make great memories.
Her decades-long connection to the iconic Toronto waterfront park began when she was a teenager, a month after the public space opened with fireworks and great fanfare in 1971. On an outing to the park, her date gave her his birthstone ring and asked her to “go steady.” Four years later they were married, and they’ve now been together for 42 years.
Over those years, the couple returned countless times to see concerts, IMAX films, and eventually to bring their kids to Children’s Village.
“It was a place growing up, when we were dating and later had children, that we could go and afford,” said Martin. “It was a place that was unique and different – and perhaps, where dreams were made.”
Like so many people from Toronto, and across the province, who grew up in the 1970s and 80s, Martin said Ontario Place sparks intense loyalty because of those formative experiences. As the Progressive Conservative government contemplates redevelopment of the park, the 64-year-old said she’s worried about its future.
“It was supposed to be an open-air place for people in the city to get a bit of nature,” she said. “That’s how I think it should be kept…. I’m not against reconstruction, but I am definitely a proponent for a family-friendly or people-friendly place, and not just for people coming from out of town to do some big-wheel spending.”
Premier Doug Ford’s government is currently asking for ideas to redevelop Ontario Place, saying it wants to make the space that first opened May 1971 an impressive attraction.
The latest attempt to resurrect the park comes after the province closed it to the public in 2012 due to falling revenues and tight provincial finances. At that time, the Liberal government said attendance had fallen from 2.5 million when the park opened in 1971 to about 300,000.
For John Wright, having an entertainment venue at the heart of the park was a key part of its past success.
The CEO of Dart Insight and Communications spent eight years working at Ontario Place in his teens and early 20s: three years volunteering with the Boy Scout Service Corps, looking after senior citizens; and five years on the hosting staff, taking visitors through the park including the Cinesphere, the futuristic “pod” structures and the entertainment venue – the Forum.
“It was the best days of my life,” said Wright, adding that the park’s young employees from that time still stay in touch. “There was an excitement that was just warm sunshine and wonderful memories of being with people our own age.”
Wright said the Forum was the “heart and soul” of the park, drawing thousands of visitors to see high-profile acts from across all musical genres at an affordable price.
“It was celebrated as a ‘people’s park’ but it became an incredibly diverse meeting point where the marketing and entertainment was brilliantly managed,” he said.
Wright said the beginning of the end for Ontario Place was when the Forum was closed in early 1990s in favour of the new privately-run amphitheatre that did not physically connect to the established facility.
“When the amphitheatre went in and the Forum closed, there was no reason for people to go any further into the park,” he said. “You had a much larger music venue, but why go in and hang out?”
The areas of Ontario Place that the government is proposing to redevelop include the mainland, its islands, the pods and the Cinesphere.
The government’s parameters say they won’t consider proposals that require operating grants or capital investments for planning, design or construction from the province, proposals for any residential uses, or any land sale.
The premier recently downplayed the possibility of a casino being built in the space, saying he wants the park to be “family-friendly.
“We’re working with the stakeholders, we’re working with our partners and I think we’re going to do something just incredible,” Ford said. “But we aren’t moving forward with anything without proper consultation with all stakeholders.”
Jeff Balmer, a University of North Carolina architecture professor who was born in Toronto, has created an online petition on Change.org calling on the government to preserve Ontario Place with much of its existing structures. The park is one of the most “striking and culturally significant” works of modernist architecture in the city, he said.
“The existing Ontario Place buildings, including the Cinesphere, pods, and the archipelago of small interconnected islands are a significant landmark of 20th century architecture in Canada,” he said.
Balmer said the chief architect behind the park’s design, Eberhard Zeidler, is internationally celebrated for his work. The space should be protected as an architectural and urban landmark and not re-developed by private interests as a casino or condos, he said.
If restored to its full potential, it can serve as a reminder of a kinder, gentler past, Balmer said.
“I remember full well the incredible impact that Ontario Place had on kids and parents of my generation,” he said. “It was innovative, imaginative, and most importantly, economically accessible – a showcase for all Ontarians.”