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CityNews Rewind 2012: Big plans to change the landscape of downtown Toronto

Caesars Entertainment and Rock Gaming's early vision for a downtown Toronto gaming entertainment facility, which could be developed that the Metro Toronto Convention Center. CAESARS ENTERTAINMENT CORP.

Ambitious plans to change Toronto’s downtown landscape and carve out a place for a potential casino were floated in 2012, including the revitalization of Ontario Place, a bold redesign and redevelopment of the Princess of Wales Theatre and a major facelift for the Metro Toronto Convention Centre.

It will be a few years before Torontonians see any action on some of the plans, if at all. One, at Ontario Place, is a-go, but the two others still need to pass hurdles at city hall before moving forward.

While not all of the new projects and refurbishing efforts proposed centred around gambling, the idea of a casino dominated redevelopment discussions for a good part of the year.

Click here to read other stories in our CityNews Rewind 2012 series.

After the Ontario Lottery and Gaming Corp. (OLG) outlined its plan for a GTA casino in March, Ontario Place was considered a serious contender to host the facility.

Former politician John Tory, who led an advisory panel on refurbishing the lakeside landmark, put an end to that speculation in July when he outlined a casino-free plan for a new-and-improved Ontario Place.

A new look for Ontario Place

The new incarnation of the 41-year-old waterfront park will focus on providing free and open access to parkland on the shore of Lake Ontario for all residents.

“It will draw, we believe, a critical mass of people and bring a new level of excitement and energy to this beautiful and very unique waterfront location,” Tory said in July.

The provincial government closed most of Ontario Place last summer due to a lack of funds as it struggles to rein-in a $15-billion deficit. The number of visitors pushing through the turnstiles at the outdated attraction has dwindled significantly — to 327,774 in 2012 from 3.3 million in 1980.

But not everyone at the new Ontario Place will be visitors. Tory’s plan set aside 10 to 15 per cent of the site for low-rise residential development mixed in with business.

Tory described his plan, which also includes sports fields, a year-round cultural space, gardens and urban plazas, as Ontario’s “collective backyard.”

The provincial government expects the park to reopen in 2017.

Click here to see the full plan.

Gehry tapped to reinvent the corner of King and John streets

A few months later, theatre impresario David Mirvish announced a plan to tear down the Princess of Wales theatre and dramatically change the look of the intersection of King and John streets.

Mirvish tapped famed Toronto-born architect Frank Gehry, who redesigned the Art Gallery of Ontario, to redevelop the site into a condominium and arts complex. Gehry’s design received negative reviews with its three condo towers, which look like stacked boxes, standing more than 80 storeys, and its two six-storey podiums to house OCAD University and a public art gallery. The buildings are surrounded by horizontal features that resemble crumpled paper.

“If you show any kind of architecture at these early stages that represent anything outside the norm they get clobbered, because people say, ‘Well, you can’t do that, you can’t afford that,’” the architect said shortly after the plan was unveiled in September.

“It’s not a final design. If you look at my work I do about 50 models. So it’ll evolve but it’ll have this character.”

Mirvish defended the plan and said these condo towers and arts spaces won’t be like the glass boxes that dominate the skyline, but  rather sculptures. He also stressed the time to take action on this vision is now.

“I don’t have a timetable that allows me to wait for Frank Gehry, because the economic time isn’t right,” Mirvish said last fall.

“We can’t wait until he’s 88. He’s 83, let’s do it now and we’ll figure out our problems as we go…. Yes, we’ll have to face reality or we won’t be able to sell it but first let’s dream and make the best project we can — then we’ll figure out how we’ll build it in the most economical way, and then we’ll find out how to put it into people’s budgets so they can buy it.”

Rolling the dice on a revamped Metro Toronto Convention Centre

A week after Mirvish unveiled his big plans, another massive $3-billion redevelopment plan was pitched for the Metro Toronto Convention Centre on Front Street West at Simcoe Street with a casino as the centrepiece.

Oxford Properties Group, the real estate arm of the OMERS (Ontario Municipal Employees Retirement System) pension fund, announced it wanted to expand the convention centre, add new retail, a hotel, office space, and a casino.

Oxford president and CEO Blake Hutcheson insisted the redevelopment of the 4.4-hectare site could be done without public funds.

Mayor Rob Ford says he’d like a casino in Toronto, but not on Front Street. Ford would prefer a gaming complex on the CNE grounds or in the Port Lands.

“We can make more money when we own the property obviously,” he said.

The local councillor, Adam Vaughan, who’s a vocal opponent of a Toronto casino, said the idea would end up costing the city money and jobs.

“Those buildings currently pay about $10 million a year in taxes to the city,” he said at city hall.

“It’s going to take about five years to build this. That’s a $50-million hit to our tax base. We also lose those jobs.”

The OLG outlined its plan for a GTA casino in March and Toronto Mayor Rob Ford said he’d like a facility in Toronto. The plan sparked a grassroots movement against a casino. Several residents and addiction specialists attended public meetings held at city hall to express their disapproval over a downtown casino. The main concerns revolved around public safety, increasing addiction and lowering the integrity of the city.

Casino giants including MGM and Caesars have expressed interest in setting up shop in Toronto.

The sounds of slot machines, clicking poker chips and roulette tables could still be far off, if ever heard at all downtown. The city is expected to vote on the issue this spring.

Click here to read other stories in our CityNews Rewind 2012 series.