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Ontario Place must remain ‘family friendly’ and accessible to all, experts say. Here are their ideas

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Former Progressive Conservative premier Bill Davis is weighing into the debate to ensure a crucial piece of Toronto waterfront remains “a family place” — with no casino.

Davis, at age 89 a revered figure in the Progressive Conservative party, made the comments about Ontario Place in response to questions the Star put to thinkers, planners and politicians about the site’s future being pondered by Premier Doug Ford and his PC government.

Former Premier Bill Davis, who led Ontario from 1971 to 1985, concluded that Ontario Place should continue putting Ontarians first and “it would be a shame and a disservice if commercial gain replaced the public interest on the present site of Ontario Place.”
Former Premier Bill Davis, who led Ontario from 1971 to 1985, concluded that Ontario Place should continue putting Ontarians first and “it would be a shame and a disservice if commercial gain replaced the public interest on the present site of Ontario Place.”  (Rick Madonik / Toronto Star)

Some are calling for major development but most experts said revitalization steps to date — a walking and biking trail named after Davis in 2015 and the east island’s 7.5-acre Trillium Park — are steps in the right direction.

“Ontario Place was conceived as a family place, with attractions, entertainment, food services, play and theatre areas aimed at the family,” Davis said in a statement, adding its superb Lake Ontario location made it accessible from all directions and “genuinely family friendly.”

“While any site decades old needs renewal and investment, the core idea of a family friendly amusement and enjoyment centre, affordable for all, with perhaps a Ferris wheel, more programming for children, more interactive displays, more cultural and museum facilities, more room for sports and family, makes immense sense,” he said.

Proposals kicked around for years to revitalize the 155-acre park with iconic Cinesphere dome, futuristic over-water “pods” and man-made islands have new urgency as the Ford government says everything, including a casino, is on the table as it seeks a “world-class attraction” for the site.

Read more:

Readers have lots of ideas for Ontario Place redevelopment

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Comments trigger alarm bells over fate of Ontario Place

Before being toppled last June, the provincial Liberal government solicited but failed to choose from proposals that had to foster culture, innovation and diversity, with no condominiums and no casinos.

Last week PC fundraiser Jim Ginou, reappointed Ontario Place chair by Ford after a stint two decades ago, alarmed some people when he told Queen’s Park Briefing the site is “in complete disrepair … nothing that can be saved” so it can be rebuilt “any way that Ford wants.”

Finance Minister Vic Fedeli, speaking for the government, did not disagree with Ginou, saying: “Let’s look at (everything), let’s not have any closed doors.”

In Davis’s era, the educational amusement park was home to top entertainment and everything from hot dogs to fine dining. “From IMAX films to world class concerts, it was a leader in North American family entertainment, said Davis, honoured in 2015 with the William G. Davis Trail during the first phase of a now-suspended revitalization following the park’s 2012 closure amid sagging attendance.

“What would not make sense is a casino-centered development, priced only for the better off, surrounded by more eyesore commercial or condominium structures.”

Former premier Bill Davis says that while Ontario Place may need renewal and investment, it should remain "a family friendly amusement and enjoyment centre, affordable for all."
Former premier Bill Davis says that while Ontario Place may need renewal and investment, it should remain « a family friendly amusement and enjoyment centre, affordable for all. »  (Andrew Francis Wallace/Toronto Star file photo)

Davis, who led Ontario from 1971 to 1985, concluded that Ontario Place should continue putting Ontarians first and “it would be a shame and a disservice if commercial gain replaced the public interest on the present site of Ontario Place.”

Apart from Davis, residents of Toronto and beyond are speaking up, demanding the people’s voice be heard. Organizers of Saturday afternoon’s “Rally Round Ontario Place” have had to move the event to a bigger room, at Metro Hall. All seats were quickly reserved, with a waiting list started.

Some say any Ontario Place plan must include Exhibition Place, the bigger city-owned site to the north with TTC and GO train service near growing the Liberty Village and Fort York neighbourhoods.

As for Ford, he has in the past championed splashy development for Toronto’s waterfront, with possibilities including a casino and giant ferris wheel. Others say housing including affordable apartments, townhomes or condos could inject year-round vitality and capital funding into the mix.

Here is a sample of ideas people have for the site:

Jennifer Keesmaat envisions a new, direly needed convention centre — a big “signature building” decided by international design competition — at Exhibition Place and connecting that site and the rest of the city to a more natural Ontario Place.
Jennifer Keesmaat envisions a new, direly needed convention centre — a big “signature building” decided by international design competition — at Exhibition Place and connecting that site and the rest of the city to a more natural Ontario Place.  (Rick Madonik/Toronto Star)
  • Jennifer Keesmaat, Toronto’s former chief planner, notes there is much planning and data from public consultations to draw on so “we’re not starting from scratch.” The big challenge, she said, is connecting Ontario Place to transit and bustling neighbourhoods on the other side of Lake Shore Blvd. W.

“The Exhibition (Place) lands have been revitalized — there is a stadium there now, a hotel, the (Beanfield conference) centre, so there’s an incredible opportunity to plan the entire area as an event space and a destination that prioritizes access to the water’s edge as a public amenity.”

She envisions a new, direly needed convention centre — a big “signature building” decided by international design competition — at Exhibition Place and connecting that site and the rest of the city to a more natural Ontario Place, with park spaces and use of Lake Ontario.

“Make (Ontario Place) a waterfront park that is all about providing access to the water, activity on the water and is accessible to absolutely everyone in the city and the province,” she said. The entire area becomes “a tourist destination, a regional amenity (and) a space that supports the rapidly densifying areas around it.”

A casino is a “horrendous idea,” Keesmaat added, and condos have no place at Ontario Place. “There is only one water’s edge. We have made this mistake in the past already.”

Revitalization of Ontario Place was already underway under the previous provinvincial government, with possibilities including a "canal district."
Revitalization of Ontario Place was already underway under the previous provinvincial government, with possibilities including a « canal district. »  (Government of Ontario)
  • Ken Tanenbaum, a developer who specializes in public-private partnerships, led a proposal to the previous government that wasn’t acted upon to redevelop the west island with university and cultural uses, parkland, an entertainment venue and retail. Tanenbaum, whose bid involved the CNE, Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment, and Live Nation, said he expects to make a different proposal to the Ford government.

Like Keesmaat he thinks Ontario Place and Exhibition Place need to be planned together because of transit connections, and said the walk across the latter can be “lit up” with an interesting weather-shielded path through the Food Building and BMO Field.

Tanenbaum said he believes Eberhard Zeidler’s Cinesphere and pods must remain. “It’s a sacred part of Ontario Place and needs to be brought back to life but there’s very substantial capital involved in the exercise of bringing it back to life,” with modern sewer, water and power, plus shoreline restoration.

That could mean tens of millions, maybe even $100 million, even with a park-like setting, he said, and the Ontario government will “want to see a commercial engine that can create the economics that can allow that to be funded by the private sector.”

  • Ken Greenberg, a prominent planner who is speaking at the “Rally Round Ontario Place” event, said he believes in a vision he and others put forward in 2007.

Redeveloping Ontario Place and Exhibition Place could produce a “Lakefront Park” with a grand waterfront gathering place, including recreation, entertainment, major annual events, theatres, marinas, art galleries, restaurants and heritage sites, acting as a major international tourism draw.

“Between buildings and stretching across Lake Shore Blvd., attractive landscapes would be preserved as freely accessible park spaces that would extend like an emerald arm across the waterfront,” while linked parks would draw people from downtown to the east.

  • Zahra Ebrahim, a Toronto designer and urbanist, said the province should “play with ideas of how we can mix public art (and) cultural use with green space.

“We have a shot at something like (Chicago’s waterfront) Millennium Park — a great mix of public space, play space for kids, a natural escape and also dynamic and engaging public art.”

  • Phil Myrick is chief executive of Projects for Public Spaces, a non-profit planning, design, and educational organization dedicated to helping people create and sustain public spaces that build stronger communities.

“Building a casino or a mall there is a vision for 20 years and it’s a vision that brings benefits to very few people,” he said. “The kind of vision that a downtown waterfront needs should be a 100-year vision, which brings benefits to the whole city on a scale that would dwarf the revenues that a casino will make because of the value that you can bring the city when you envision a wonderful public place on the water. That’s value that doesn’t decline.

“It’s value that stays and builds and increases over time and is shared by multitudes of different actors, including of course, the city, which is looking to improve its revenues through a stronger tax base.”

Neither a ferris wheel nor casino make any sense, Ontario Place’s original architect says.
Neither a ferris wheel nor casino make any sense, Ontario Place’s original architect says.  (Rick Madonik/Toronto Star)
  • Eberhard Zeidler, the 93-year-old chief architect of Ontario Place, said he’d like to see his original concept rejuvenated and enjoyed still as the multi-use space it once was.

“History is history and what happened at one time has meaning still today, just to understand the time and the feeling of the time,” he said. “To just tear it down is to lose something. It’s the same thing as saying Rome wasn’t there.”

The purpose too as an exhibition space and urban park is still meaningful, he said. Neither a ferris wheel nor casino make any sense.

“I don’t know why you have to do something different,” he said. “It doesn’t add anything.”

His daughter, Margie Zeidler, president and creator of the 401 Richmond space in downtown Toronto and an architect, said she agrees there’s no need to start over.

“I agree it’s a disgraceful mess,” she said, noting how parts of the site have been allowed to go unused for years, but she said: “It does not need to come down. It’s not structurally a problem.”

The pods could be better used and reimagined, she said, adding it would be important to preserve the buildings.

Proposals kicked around for years to revitalize the 155-acre park with iconic Cinesphere dome, futuristic over-water “pods” and man-made islands have new urgency as the Ford government says everything, including a casino, is on the table as it seeks a “world-class attraction” for the site.
Proposals kicked around for years to revitalize the 155-acre park with iconic Cinesphere dome, futuristic over-water “pods” and man-made islands have new urgency as the Ford government says everything, including a casino, is on the table as it seeks a “world-class attraction” for the site.  (Rick Madonik/Toronto Star)
  • Toronto condo king Brad Lamb: “We need to think bigger.”

“I’d create a boardwalk, a very wide, amazing boardwalk along the waterfront. I’d commercialize it on the interior side … and I’d put bars and restaurants and stores and just a ton of stuff, and I’d make it a massive international tourist destination so that not only local Torontonians enjoyed it, but people travelled for miles to come to it and it was a fantastic experience and event.”

Lamb says the new Ontario Place should have “a yacht club, a proper public yacht club where large, lake-going vessels, 40-to-60-foot boats, can moor up. Why can’t we do that here? Why can’t you pull up to a spot with your boat from Rochester or Buffalo?”

He would make it 60 per cent park public realm and 40 per cent commercialized.

“Let’s make it a generator of revenue for the government, so it’s zero cost to the government, so that it supports itself, or, heaven forbid, what if it made a profit?”

With files from Francine Kopun and Jennifer Pagliaro

Full statement from Bill Davis

“Ontario Place was conceived as a family place, with attractions, entertainment, food services, play and theatre areas aimed at the family. With its superb location at the foot of the City, bordering Lake Ontario, accessible to highways and public transit from East, West and North, it was meant to be genuinely family friendly. Equally comfortable with Tier 1 entertainment, hot dogs, fine dining, as with folk music, picnicking, ice cream and visiting dignitaries, adjacent to sports facilities and interesting exhibits, it welcomed all. From IMAX films to world class concerts, it was a leader in North American family entertainment.

“While any site decades old needs renewal and investment, the core idea of a family friendly amusement and enjoyment centre, affordable for all, with perhaps a Ferris wheel, more programming for children, more interactive displays, more cultural and museum facilities, more room for sports and family, makes immense sense. What would not make sense is a casino-centered development, priced only for the better off, surrounded by more eyesore commercial or condominium structures.

“Ontario Place is and was a Crown Corporation so as to serve the public of Ontario — those living in the GTA and visiting from away. It would be a shame and a disservice if commercial gain replaced the public interest on the present site of Ontario Place.”

David Rider is the Star’s City Hall bureau chief and a reporter covering Toronto politics. Follow him on Twitter: @dmrider

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Anglais

‘Business as usual’ for Dorel Industries after terminating go-private deal

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MONTREAL — Dorel Industries Inc. says it will continue to pursue its business strategy going forward after terminating an agreement to go private after discussions with shareholders.

« Moving ahead. Business as usual, » a spokesman for the company said in an email on Monday.

A group led by Cerberus Capital Management had previously agreed to buy outstanding shares of Dorel for $16 apiece, except for shares owned by the family that controls the company’s multiple-voting shares.

But Dorel chief executive Martin Schwartz said the Montreal-based maker of car seats, strollers, bicycles and home furniture pulled the plug on a deal on the eve of Tuesday’s special meeting after reviewing votes from shareholders.

“Independent shareholders have clearly expressed their confidence in Dorel’s future and the greater potential for Dorel as a public entity, » he said in a news release.

Dorel’s board of directors, with Martin Schwartz, Alan Schwartz, Jeffrey Schwartz and Jeff Segel recused, unanimously approved the deal’s termination upon the recommendation of a special committee.

The transaction required approval by two-thirds of the votes cast, and more than 50 per cent of the votes cast by non-family shareholders.

Schwartz said enhancing shareholder value remains a top priority while it stays focused on growing its brands, which include Schwinn and Mongoose bikes, Safety 1st-brand car seats and DHP Furniture.

Dorel said the move to end the go-private deal was mutual, despite the funds’ increased purchase price offer earlier this year.

It said there is no break fee applicable in this case.

Montreal-based investment firm Letko, Brosseau & Associates Inc. and San Diego’s Brandes Investment Partners LP, which together control more than 19 per cent of Dorel’s outstanding class B subordinate shares voiced their opposition to the amended offer, which was increased from the initial Nov. 2 offer of $14.50 per share.

« We believe that several minority shareholders shared our opinion, » said Letko vice-president Stephane Lebrun, during a phone interview.

« We are confident of the long-term potential of the company and we have confidence in the managers in place.”

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Anglais

Pandemic funds helping Montreal businesses build for a better tomorrow

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Many entrepreneurs have had to tap into government loans during the pandemic, at first just to survive, but now some are using the money to better prepare their businesses for the post-COVID future.

One of those businesses is Del Friscos, a popular family restaurant in Dollard-des-Ormeaux that, like many Montreal-area restaurants, has had to adapt from a sit-down establishment to one that takes orders online for takeout or delivery.

“It was hard going from totally in-house seating,” said Del Friscos co-owner Terry Konstas. “We didn’t have an in-house delivery system, which we quickly added. There were so many of our employees that were laid off that wanted to work so we adapted to a delivery system and added platforms like Uber and DoorDash.”

Helping them through the transition were emergency grants and low-interest loans from the federal and provincial governments, some of which are directly administered by PME MTL, a non-profit business-development organization established to assist the island’s small and medium-sized businesses.

Konstas said he had never even heard of PME MTL until a customer told him about them and when he got in touch, he discovered there were many government programs available to help his business get through the downturn and build for the future. “They’ve been very helpful right from day one,” said Konstas.

“We used some of the funds to catch up on our suppliers and our rents, the part that wasn’t covered from the federal side, and we used some of it for our new virtual concepts,” he said, referring to a virtual kitchen model which the restaurant has since adopted.

The virtual kitchen lets them create completely different menu items from the casual American Italian dishes that Del Friscos is known for and market them under different restaurant brand names. Under the Prasinó Soup & Salad banner, they sell healthy Greek options and their Stallone’s Sub Shop brand offers hearty sandwiches, yet the food from both is created in the same Del Friscos kitchen.

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Anglais

Downtown Montreal office, retail vacancies continue to rise

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Some of downtown Montreal’s key economic indicators are heading in the wrong direction.

Office and retail vacancies in the city’s central core continued to climb in the fourth quarter of 2020, according to a quarterly report released Thursday by the Urban Development Institute of Quebec and the Montréal Centre-Ville merchants association. The report, whose first edition was published in October, aims to paint a socio-economic picture of the downtown area.

The survey also found office space available for sublet had increased during the fourth quarter, which may foreshadow even more vacancies when leases expire. On the residential front, condo sales fell as new listings soared — a sign that the downtown area may be losing some of its appeal to homeowners.

“It’s impossible not to be preoccupied by the rapid increase in office vacancies,” Jean-Marc Fournier, the former Quebec politician who now heads the UDI, said Thursday in an interview.

Still, with COVID-19 vaccinations set to accelerate in the coming months, “the economic picture is bound to improve,” he said. “People will start returning downtown. It’s much too early to say the office market is going to disappear.”

Public health measures implemented since the start of the pandemic almost a year ago — such as caps on office capacity — have deprived downtown Montreal of more than 500,000 workers and students. A mere 4,163 university and CEGEP students attended in-person classes in the second quarter, the most recent period for which figures are available. Border closures and travel restrictions have also brought tourism to a standstill, hurting hotels and thousands of local businesses.

Seventy per cent of downtown workers carried out their professional activities at home more than three days a week during the fourth quarter, the report said, citing an online survey of 1,000 Montreal-area residents conducted last month.

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