Canada Debates the Future of Ontario Place, an Island Oasis

It was an unusually mild winter day in Toronto, but that did not make Lake Ontario’s icy waters any more inviting. Still, Sara Fruchtman, wearing a bathing suit and a bathing cap, plunged into the lake at Michael Hough Beach.

She was not alone. Seven other people were also there, some gathered around an anemic bonfire. All were part of an informal swimming group that congregated year round at Toronto’s only downtown beach.

But their icy ritual ended a few weeks later after a steel mesh construction fence cut off access to a pedestrian bridge leading to the island where the beach is. A sign said it was closed. The island, known as West Island, is one of two that make up Ontario Place, home to a former amusement park and exhibition pavilions.

The Province of Ontario, which owns Ontario Place, is turning West Island over to an Austrian spa developer under a 95-year lease to build what it describes as a large “well-being oasis” with hot and cold baths as well as other “water relaxation facilities.”

The project has prompted widespread criticism from local politicians and park users in Canada’s largest city, where little of the vast lake is easily accessible to the public from the heart of Toronto.

“I’m grieving,” Ms. Fruchtman said. “It feels like maybe some decision makers don’t see that people are really taking advantage of what we have here and that could be built up instead of built over. I don’t know why you would privatize something like this.”

Ontario Place opened in 1971 as the province’s answer to Expo 67, the World’s Fair in Montreal that became a major international hit.

Five exhibition halls filled with displays and films about the province rose up on stilts between the East and West Islands, as did a geodesic dome housing a then novel IMAX cinema, the film technology developed in Canada.

Over time, Ontario Place housed playgrounds, a water park, a marina, restaurants, a log plume ride and a concert amphitheater — all stitched together by parkland designed by Michael Hough, one of Canada’s most celebrated landscape architects.

The New York Times, in an article not long after its opening, said that “it looks at first like a world’s fair, only better.”

While Ontario Place drew crowds during its early years, low entry fees and weak concession revenues made it a perennial money loser, and hand wringing over what do with it began long before it eventually closed in 2010. West Island’s open space became a park. (A concert venue on the other island is leased to Live Nation.)

Doug Ford, Ontario’s premier, has long wanted to leave his mark on the city’s waterfront.

No one, even the spa’s critics, is challenging a decision by Mr. Ford’s government to use provincial money to restore and reopen the exhibition halls and the IMAX cinema.

But there was little support when the government unveiled plans for Therme, a company based in Vienna, to build a commercial spa that would consume most of West Island and rise nearly 150 feet.

Unlike Therme’s spas in Europe, which are mainly intended for adults, the proposal for Ontario Place would add an indoor family water park. (Another feature of some of its European outlets, nude bathing, will be skipped.) The company says that adult admission will start at about 40 Canadian dollars, about $30.

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

The beach will be eliminated, but the spa developer said it planned to build a bigger replacement. But rather than facing Lake Ontario, its plan has the new beach oriented toward the shore, creating a view dominated by a concrete breakwall and a busy, six-lane boulevard.

The spa proposal has been opposed by the City of Toronto, with officials citing the size, scale and location. They also said it would overwhelm the existing pavilions, diminishing the local landmarks’ official designation as historically significant.

An underground parking garage with 2,100 spaces that the province plans to build on West Island as part of the project flies in the face of efforts by Toronto to prioritize the use of public transit, including a new subway line that will start across from Ontario Place, city officials said.

Toronto’s mayor, Olivia Chow, said she used to take her grandchildren to West Island. “There’s not enough space like that by the waterfront,” she said. “It’s really quite well used in all times of the year.”

Mr. Ford responded to Toronto’s criticism by pushing through provincial legislation removing the city’s authority over the spa project and expropriating some land owned by Toronto for the garage.

Mr. Ford’s office referred questions about the proposal to Ontario’s infrastructure minister, Kinga Surma, who said spa would make the site “a place that people really enjoy — and that’s not what it is today.”

The spa, she added, would make Ontario Place a more inviting destination in the winter.

“Canada is a very cold place for most of the year,” she said, “and having indoor facilities that families can enjoy is really important.”

Robert Hanea, Therme’s chairman and chief executive, rejected criticism that the spa would turn what had been public space into a private playground that fewer people would use.

“We are a company that brings a phenomenal well-being infrastructure to Toronto,” he said in an interview. “An infrastructure where millions of people and their families will have access — people who don’t have a cottage, people who cannot fly to the south in the winter.”

“I don’t think,” he added, “that public spaces are just parks.”

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

The backlash against the project has had some effect. Therme has reduced the spa’s maximum height and will use landfill to increase West Island’s size to provide more public space.

A citizen’s group has gone to court to challenge, among other things, the project’s lack of an environmental assessment. The province responded by asking the court to dismiss the case because it argues that the law that Mr. Ford pushed through eliminates the need for an environmental review.

“You’re looking at a city park, a waterfront park, which serves a number of purposes,” said Ken Greenberg, an urban designer in Toronto and a member of a group that filed the legal challenge.

“It’s a matter of balance,” he added, “and what they’re proposing just obliterates that balance and puts it behind a paywall that many, many people will not be able to afford.”

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