Ontario's auditor general is set to conduct value-for-money audits of the Ford government's contentious Ontario Place redevelopment and its decision to relocate the Ontario Science Centre to Toronto's waterfront in Ontario Place.
The probe was confirmed Friday by the auditor general's office. A spokesperson for the auditor general's office told Canada’s National Observer that as these audits are currently in progress, no further comment can be made at this time.
The audits were applauded by members of Ontario Place for All, an advocacy group that wants to ensure Ontario Place redevelopment follows the core principles of waterfront revitalization.
A proposal to construct a private spa on what is currently a popular picnic and park area on Toronto's West Island waterfront, known as Ontario Place, is particularly controversial. The mega-spa complex by the private Austrian resort developer Therme has raised similar concerns to the behind-the-scenes Greenbelt deals recently criticized by Ontario's auditor general and now under investigation by the RCMP's sensitive crimes investigation unit.
“This is tremendously positive news. We at Ontario Place for All, along with a significant portion of the public, have consistently felt that there were numerous issues with the agreement involving Therme's mega spa that did not stand up to scrutiny,” said Ken Greenberg, an urban designer, city building advocate and Ontario Place for All member.
The Ford government's Ontario Place plan has faced substantial public opposition, primarily over the loss of green space and the secretive long-term lease land transfers to Therme. In addition, the updated development application allocates approximately 16 acres of public parkland on the West Island for a new beach, boardwalk and cycling trails.
The decision to lease the land to Therme was made behind closed doors and presented to the public as a done deal.
According to information obtained by Global News, Therme has been granted a 95-year lease agreement with the Ontario government. The company asserts the lengthy contract is essential to recover its multimillion-dollar investment.
While both Therme and the Ford government have refrained from publicly disclosing the contract's specifics, citing confidentiality, the Austrian firm driving the project said it is injecting nearly half a billion dollars into Ontario Place. This financial commitment includes $350 million to build the 65,000-square-foot private spa and an additional $100 million designated for the portions that will remain publicly accessible.
The auditor general will investigate the Ontario Place redevelopment and the planned move of the Ontario Science Centre to a new waterfront site. Acting auditor Nick Stavropoulos will oversee both audits. #OntarioPlace #OntarioScienceCentre
Greenberg said the lease, which is in effect for four generations, essentially amounts to a sale. “It has been impossible to determine what the public was receiving in this arrangement, particularly considering that it involves arguably one of the most valuable pieces of public waterfront property in Toronto, which was handed over to the private sector without transparency.”
Greenberg hopes the auditor general's investigation will provide more clarity and transparency. A Freedom of Information request showed the 2,100-car underground garage was promised to Therme years before the official bidding process began, he said.
The bidding process itself was veiled in secrecy, with nondisclosure agreements preventing the public from knowing who the bidders were. This lack of transparency extended to business and financial plans, which remained unknown, he added.
Simon Bredin, spokesperson for Therme Canada, expressed confidence in the value of its participation in the Ontario Place revitalization, emphasizing the company's commitment to transparency with the auditor general's office.
“In 2019, the Conference Board of Canada projected that Therme’s development would boost Canada’s GDP by $352.7 million during construction and add $150 million annually after opening, in addition to contributing more than $80 million in taxes,” said Bredin.
Therme Canada expects these figures to rise after accounting for recent design changes following feedback from the public and the City of Toronto demanding more public park space, he added. “Ultimately, Therme will be investing approximately half a billion dollars to create a 16-acre public park and year-round family destination, and we look forward to sharing details of those plans with the auditor general’s office.”
The province's plan to redevelop Ontario Place includes a renovated Live Nation amphitheatre, as well as a publicly accessible park and waterfront area. The Cinesphere, which houses the world's first IMAX theatre, will be preserved under the plan. The province will contribute $650 million to enhance existing infrastructure and maintain the site's historical elements. These enhancements include a new underground parking garage with 2,000 spaces and an additional 600 ground-level spaces. But Greenberg argues there are substantive, significant reasons why this spa is unsuitable for the location.
“It involves taking over public lands, privatizing a public waterfront, placing the expensive amenities behind a steep paywall, causing environmental damage and cutting down 850 trees.” Equally problematic is the process itself, which, Greenberg said, was deeply flawed and lacked fairness and oversight in the bidding process.
“There is a strong belief that there were irregularities, similar to the situation we have learned about with the Greenbelt,” he added.
“We anticipate that the results of this investigation will reveal significant issues. While we await the auditor general's findings, we firmly believe that this deal is detrimental to the public, misuses public funds and is conducted inappropriately.”
He said he hopes there will be enough evidence to make changes before irreversible damage is done.
More than 900 people in person and virtually took part in public consultations on the future of the site held by city staff in April. The majority of Toronto residents who participated did not support the West Island redevelopment plans, a staff report noted.
Canada’s National Observer reached out to Ontario's Ministry of Infrastructure for comment but did not receive a response in time for publication.
However, on its website, the ministry states that by proceeding with moving the Ontario Science Centre from its current Eglinton Avenue and Don Mills Road site to Ontario Place and its redevelopment plan, the province will develop an iconic destination that will unite friends and families for enjoyable experiences, while also drawing tourists from all corners of the globe. Once the project is finished, Ontario Place is expected to generate thousands of new job opportunities and welcome an estimated four million to six million visitors annually, the ministry added.
This story was produced in partnership with Journalists for Human Rights for the Afghan Journalists-in-Residence program funded by the Meta Journalism Project.