Ontario Place and Exhibition Place. Image via Google Maps.
There’s something we’re not saying when we talk about revitalizing Ontario Place and Exhibition Place. THEY ARE THE SAME PLACE.
In recent re-development studies, including the one for Ontario Place the province just endorsed, both Places have noted that more integration and co-operation with their neighbour is something to consider, but I’d argue that combining the two entities into one organization is essential to the future success of this massive plot of urban lakefront property. An investment in one place (say, building transit) is an investment in the other place. To more effectively attract public investment in their restorations, Ontario Place and Exhibition Place should merge into a single organization.
You could call it Ontario Exhibition Place. Or Place Place. Or something much catchier. (It must be something civic though, let the corporate name buyers get the individual venues, but the whole place belongs the people.)
With one governing body instead of two, the Places could share maintenance costs and offer a wider range of venue rental options to generate revenue. More importantly it would become the defacto destination for large-scale events in the city, become a landmark for tourists and source of civic pride for locals.
“Where should I bring the family when we come to Toronto?”
“Head down to Place Place. They’ve got everything down there!”
“Check out the awesome line-up for *insert festival here* in Toronto! Where’s all this fun stuff going down?”
“Place Place! Where else?”
Corny dialogue aside, this giant chunk of land can be where Toronto hosts really big, special stuff. Planning and facilitating that stuff can be bureaucratically, financially and psychologically streamlined if we merge the Places into one Place.
Each Place has a lot of good plans already in the works when it comes to how individual pieces of land should be used, but a big picture unification vision is missing.
National Post’s recent Posted Toronto Political Panel gets it right when they point to transit as the most important piece of the puzzle. A western waterfront LRT is in the mix for Metrolinx’s long term Big Move plans. But, in the mean time, I’d route a dozen or more of those new bendy buses per hour along Lake Shore Blvd to ferry downtowners from City Place and points east to a mini-terminal in the Ontario Place parking lot. You could get on an express to Union Station or board local service buses that would let you transfer onto streetcar lines at Bathurst or Spadina or deliver you to the south end of Parkdale and Roncesvalles. But buses or even light rail running along Lake Shore Blvd isn’t going to solve the fundamental design failure of the jewel of our western waterfront.
The missing link at Place Place is a pedestrian friendly Lake Shore Blvd. If you’re hanging out by the Princes’ Gates to snap some pictures of the photogenic arches, walking down to the Molson Amphitheatre should not be a harrowing experience. You could walk along Princes’ Blvd and hang a left on Nunavut Rd, but the point is that visitors shouldn’t regret choosing the wrong route here. All of Place Place should be integrated and easily accessible. The effect of a minor highway cutting through the two Places is that they stand with their backs to each other. A vibrant, well-groomed promenade along the spine of this destination district would unite this land into something greater than the sum of its parts.
That means broad sidewalks with room for street vendors, handsome street furniture, and traffic signals with pedestrian crossing at key intersections. Building more land bridges over Lake Shore Blvd, like some reports suggest, would be repeating the same car-focused planning mistakes of the past. It brings to mind the massive pedestrian bridges serviced with outdoor escalators in Las Vegas that make crossing the street a ten-minute ordeal. Lake Shore Blvd needs to be more than a way to get from A to B, it should be a complete street and a place unto itself.
The parking lots out front of Ontario Place are the most obvious offenders to pedestrians, but also the most obvious location to build something transformative. Any development on these lots, in addition to being everything outlined in John Tory’s Expert Panel Report [PDF], should acknowledge Lake Shore Blvd as a multi-modal street, not an expressway (#LowHangingFruit).
Another challenge is that the south end of Exhibition Place is fenced off and meets Lake Shore Blvd with a little hill. Arguably the city’s most beautiful fountain is located on the Ex lands just south of Bandshell Park, but it faces Lake Shore Blvd and thus its beauty goes unappreciated. The good news is that the solution is obvious: tear down the fences and re-landscape the hills. Imagine a broad staircase leading up to that fountain from the boulevard; a place where you could linger, watch the lake and soak up the gorgeous monument. Spending time near this stuff enriches your life and we need to build the space to do that. Plus, those steps would be the best seats in the house for Caribana.
You might have noticed my casual suggestion that we tear down the fences surrounding Exhibition Place. You’d be correct in assessing my proposal as being nothing less than a fundamental re-think of Exhibition Place’s operations. While buildings like the Liberty Grand or the Allstream Centre (Automotive Building) could remain available for private or ticketed functions, there’s no reason we shouldn’t be able to walk right up to those buildings from the street they face free of charge. And if the CNE or other big events want to charge admission to the grounds, the onus should be on them to erect temporary fencing, though I’d suggest event organizers charging admission should carefully consider where they erect their barriers. The need for Place Place to be wide open most of the time far exceeds the requirement that it be closed some of the time.
Admittedly, this is armchair planning at its most self-indulgent and there are considerably more things to consider beyond what I have addressed here. But I warn would-be critics of this idea that I have no time for complaints about car traffic being slowed down on Lake Shore Blvd. If you must drive fast, the Gardiner Expressway is so close it hurts. The city can handle its waterfront being severed by one highway, but two is too many. A Place needs a street to stand on, not a road to run through it.