There really is no other place like it in Toronto. Sprawling across 192 acres on the shores of Lake Ontario, Exhibition Place comprises an assortment of large-scale buildings, vast parking lots, open green spaces, and a significant collection of public art. The site has always been a somewhat curious urban condition, with a wildly diverse mix of uses and an often temporal quality to its experience, as it oscillates between the exciting buzz of thousands of people descending upon the grounds and the quiet desolation left behind when the crowds leave and an empty silence settles in.
Recognizing that Exhibition Place may not be living up to its full potential, and amid uncertainty around the future of Ontario Place, City Council directed staff last year to draft a master plan for the area to help guide future development within the grounds. City Planning describes the document not as a conventional master plan, but rather as a "visionary document for the future of Exhibition Place...to provide an overall vision, guiding principles, and a framework to guide physical change and usage of the Exhibition Place grounds". City Planning presented a draft of this master plan at a joint session of the Toronto Design Review Panel and Waterfront Design Review Panel last week.
The unique locale plays host to hundreds of thousands of visitors annually who take in the wide variety of events that happen at Exhibition Place. The site hosts major annual festivals like the Canadian National Exhibition, the Royal Agricultural Winter Fair, and the Honda Indy Toronto, while also hosting more regular sporting events with the Toronto Marlies, Toronto Argonauts, and Toronto FC all housed on the grounds, along with the Raptors' OVO Athletic Centre practice facility. Visitors also take in trade shows at the Enercare and Beanfield Centres, travel back in time hundreds of years at the Medieval Times dinner theatre, take in a concert at the Bandshell, and attend one of many special events that take place in the large exhibition spaces scattered around the site.
Exhibition Place also has strong historical significance, representing one of the first European settlements in the area at Fort Rouille and acting as the current resting place of the Scadding Cabin, the oldest standing structure in Toronto. The grounds have seen their fair share of major historical events, from well-attended visits from British royalty, to hosting the first Blue Jays game at the now-demolished Exhibition Stadium, to more recently acting as the starting point for the Raptors' championship parade. Exhibition Place is also home to many landmark heritage structures, including the Ontario Government Centre, the Coliseum, and the Princes' Gates.
All of these elements pose the unique problem of drafting a master plan for the area. At its core, the plan seeks to strengthen the connection of Exhibition Place with the rest of the city, as it is currently an isolated island surrounded by highways, major arterial roads, the rail corridor, and the lakeshore, and looks to increase its year-round usage through the integration of major public spaces and amenities. The plan also aims to provide a more attractive pedestrian environment, and to enhance transit connections to the site. In addition to this, it will maintain and expand upon the role of Exhibition Place in hosting major events and attractions, which together contribute billions of dollars to the city's economy and play an important role in making Toronto economically competitive on a global scale.
Through the establishment of guiding principles focusing on creating a transit-oriented, greener, more sustainable, and more pedestrian-friendly environment, there are several "emerging big ideas" that the City is proposing for Exhibition Place. These big ideas are also informed by an overall framework the City has established, dividing the site into three general regions based on program: the western portion is designated 'Relax' given its higher number of green spaces; the centre of the site is designated 'Entertain' given its sports facilities and theatres; and the eastern portion is designated 'Exhibit' due to the presence of large convention centres. The Relax-Entertain-Exhibit plan is overlaid with 'Green DNA', an interconnected network of green spaces that are spread throughout the grounds.
The first 'big idea' coming from these guiding principles and framework is enhancing the gateways into the grounds. To the north, a new transit hub would expand the Exhibition GO station and streetcar loop; Dufferin Gate would be improved and expanded; and the Bentway and Fort York Connection is proposed to extend westward through to Exhibition Place. To the south, a park or plaza would deck over Lake Shore Boulevard to connect to Ontario Place, while a promenade would be re-established at the water's edge. To the west and east, The Gore and Marilyn Bell Parks would be expanded to improve connections into the grounds.
The second 'big idea' proposes an elevated multi-use promenade cutting down the middle of the site, connecting the transit hub through to Ontario Place, with access points at major destinations along its route through the grounds. The elevated promenade is meant to provide a safe pedestrian route across the site while improving wayfinding, enhancing important pedestrian connections, and also perhaps becoming an attraction in itself.
The third 'big idea' would establish a major gathering place at the south end of the site, on the surface parking lot south of BMO Field. It is unclear what this gathering place might be, but it will likely feed into the idea of decking over Lake Shore mentioned above to strengthen the connection to Ontario Place.
The final 'big idea' is to create a Transportation and Sustainability Innovation Zone that would focus on testing and implementing innovative new technologies in transportation from both the public and private sector.
There are several challenges that planners have to navigate due to the complexity of its various programs. A large portion of the grounds is dedicated to underused asphalt and surface parking lots, and the City has identified potential development sites and potential areas where new green spaces can be established. However, some of this open hardscape will need to be maintained, as many of the events hosted at Exhibition Place need staging areas for operations, equipment storage, and services. They also take over these open grounds as part of their events, like the Midway at the CNE. The route for the Toronto Indy also creates a wide, closed loop through the site that planners have to tiptoe around, which poses a barrier for pedestrian connectivity.
As well, while there is an emphasis on transit and pedestrian activity, planners also acknowledged that car access - and therefore some parking - needs to be maintained, as most events hosted at Exhibition Place attract large numbers of people from out of town and abroad. They did point out that over the past decade, the share of visitors using transit has increased to nearly 50% due to sustained advertising campaigns and promotions, particularly with GO, but it is unlikely that car travel will be completely phased out in the near future. As a result, the City will likely have to keep some parking, but they have established a no net gain of parking policy for the site.
There is also, of course, the big unknown of Ontario Place. With the Province's Request For Proposals sent out earlier this year, the open-ended call asked for ideas from the development community on how to revive or remake Ontario Place. The loose framework offered in the RFP left the door wide open for anything to happen there, and the City has confessed that they have received little communication from their counterparts at the Province and are still in the dark as to what the plans may be. They did indicate, however, that the call for proposals is now closed, and that the Province is currently in the process of reviewing the submissions. There is no timeline given as to when the Province will make any announcements regarding Ontario Place.
Unsurprisingly, the Panel had quite a lot to say regarding the plans for Exhibition Place. While the commentary edged on the positive side, the purpose of the discussion was to critique the ideas proposed and to offer any other potential ideas or areas of focus that may have been missed thus far.
The Panelists were pleased with the plans presented, saying they were "chock full of good ideas" and praising the three themes of Relax-Entertain-Exhibit as "brilliant and simple", but one theme resurfaced in much of the commentary, which can be summed up adequately by one Panel member's statement: "Be bold, don't have that Toronto cautiousness about your plans". Several Panelists strongly urged the planning team to think bigger, saying that it "does a lot of good things, but...the vision is not clear enough, it’s not bold enough, it’s not inspirational enough".
In line with that commentary, the Panel pushed the City to make sustainability a central theme of Exhibition Place, perhaps aiming for a net-zero or net-positive site. Given the status of the site, the potential exists, they argued, to lead by example, and that addressing climate change was "paramount". They were encouraged by the proposal to establish the Transportation and Sustainability Innovation Zone, but urged the planning team to push that idea further and perhaps apply that over the whole site.
All Panelists were in agreement with the proposed south plaza and gathering space that could deck over Lake Shore Boulevard, stressing that the connection to Ontario Place - whatever may end up there - is crucial to the success of both sites. They were split, however, on the elevated promenade cutting across the site. While all Panelists understood the rationale of the raised platform, some cautioned that it may add an extra barrier through the site, as elevated structures tend to do, which would run counterintuitive to the goals of master plan. Other Panel members thought the elevated promenade was a good idea and fully supported it.
The Panel also urged the planning team to consider the edge conditions more, including the relationship to Liberty Village, Coronation Park, Fort York, and Ontario Place in their plans and diagrams, as they argued that connections to the surrounding areas are integral to the success of the master plan.
In the short term, Panel members suggested that wayfinding, signage, and smaller-scale interventions could be "quick wins" to help mobility and the pedestrian experience, pointing out that there are a lot of vast, undefined spaces and a confusing road network that contributes to a feeling of alienation and disorientation. They also scolded the planning team for not mentioning Vision Zero anywhere in the documents or presentation.
The remainder of the conversation focused on potential issues and solutions that could happen on the site, with some ideas offering some intriguing food for thought. Several road realignments were proposed: extending Dufferin Street through Exhibition Place to connect to Lake Shore; realigning Manitoba Drive to divert traffic along the north edge of the site and away from Lake Shore; and reconfiguring Strachan Avenue to create a larger and more pedestrian-friendly forecourt at the Princes' Gate. The idea of having transit cut through the middle of the site rather than skirt along the northern edge was also mentioned as something to consider.
Perhaps the most radical idea from the Panel involved separating everyday vehicular traffic from the Indy track, instead using the occasional racetrack as a pedestrian and cyclist path instead. One Panelist stated that using the Indy route as roads created extremely wide right-of-ways that felt alienating to pedestrians and turned streets into speed-ways, like Princes' Boulevard. Having a separate road network of narrower, more complete streets while using the Indy route as a major pedestrian and cyclist open space would help mitigate connectivity issues across the site, and perhaps eliminate the need for the elevated promenade.
Overall, the Panel was happy with the plan presented, but pushed the City to be bigger, bolder, and more innovative with their vision for Exhibition Place. They summed up the commentary with this closing line: "This is a place that is unlike any other, don't make it like any other place".
The City hopes to present a completed document to City Council in February 2020. After that, it is unclear what the next steps are; implementation of the master plan was not heavily discussed, though the City indicated they are in the process of identifying some "quick wins" - small items of the plan that can be implemented right away to help improve the user experience. Until then, the plan will be further defined, and there will likely be one last public consultation before it goes to Council.
We will keep you updated as the master plan for Exhibition Place continues to evolve, but in the meantime, you can tell us what you think by checking out the associated Forum thread, or by leaving a comment in the space provided on this page.