08/15/2012 04:02 EDT | Updated 10/15/2012 05:12 EDT

Liberal government endorses advisory panel report to revamp Ontario Place

TORONTO - The province is endorsing a proposal to revamp Ontario Place by putting private residences, commercial space and likely a hotel and a research facility at the site on the Toronto waterfront.

The Liberal government announced Wednesday it has decided to endorse all 18 recommendations made by a provincial advisory panel on the future of Ontario Place, headed by former Progressive Conservative leader John Tory.

Michael Chan, Ontario's minister of tourism, culture and sport, says the goal is to complete the revitalization by 2017.

The plan starts with an environmental assessment and a due diligence process pegged at $5.5 million, "to investigate what's in there, what's beneath Ontario Place, what's in the water" said Chan, who added this first phase should be completed by 2013.

Tory recommended a lot of the site be public, saying a maximum of 15 per cent of the site should be residential and that city council should resist developers' higher-density projects.

Chan said it's too early to say whether the Cinesphere and characteristic pod structures will be preserved, as recommended by the advisory report.

"We will look at all the possibilities and do our best to keep the memories of Ontarians," said Chan.

One specific possible development was categorically ruled out by the minister. There will be no casino where Ontario Place currently sits.

"I said before: no casino. Let me say it again: no casino," Chan said.

The focal point of the project will still be a park, according to Chan, but the province is getting ready to work closely with the private sector.

"People can go in there perhaps enjoy a hotel or a restaurant or enjoy shopping in there," said Chan. "We are going to move ahead with the stage one to prepare the land for future public and private partnership."

Chan said the goal is to have it all ready by 2017 to coincide with the 150th anniversary of Confederation, but some features could be ready for the 2015 Pan Am Games. Chan even hinted at turning the current administrative buildings into a beach volleyball facility to accommodate the Games, saying the possibility was "workable."

The New Democrat MPP who represents the riding that includes Ontario Place was quick to criticize the government's announcement.

"By adopting Mr. Tory's view that Ontario Place should include condominiums and hotels and be driven by the private sector, the government is condoning the further privatization of Toronto's waterfront," Rosario Marchese said in a statement. "Put simply, the McGuinty Liberals are hopping on board the corporate gravy train and leaving the public behind."

Marchese said he was further disturbed by the government's failure to commit to keep Ontario Place's Cinesphere and pods.

"The government's so-called vision for Ontario Place is rapidly being reduced to what corporations are willing to bid on," said Marchese. "That is a loss not only for the residents of Toronto, but for the province as a whole."

The government closed most of Ontario Place earlier this summer, saying it couldn't afford to keep the park open.

Annual attendance had dropped to about 300,000 from the 2.5 million who visited when the park opened in 1971.