06/26/2013 08:33 EDT | Updated 08/26/2013 05:12 EDT

Urban park to replace parking lot in first step of Ontario Place redevelopment

TORONTO - The provincial government has revealed the first step in its renewal plan for Ontario Place.

Tourism Minister Michael Chan says part of the site of the Toronto amusement park, which was closed last year due to declining attendance, will be turned into an urban park with free public access to the waterfront.

The province will convert up to three hectares of the existing site along Lake Ontario into green space, opening up part of the waterfront that has been closed to the public for more than four decades.

"Through public consultations, town halls and engagement, we heard a growing demand for green space and free public access to one of our province's most scenic shores — and we listened," Chan said in announcing the plans Wednesday.

"Today, we launch the first step of revitalization and begin the transformation that will make Ontario Place a key attraction for people across the province to explore and experience."

The public is also invited to submit further ideas for the park, to be located along a portion of the east island of Ontario Place currently being used as a parking lot.

The new urban park and trail will link to the existing 780-kilometre waterfront trail system and Chan says it's hoped it will be ready in time for the 2015 Pan Am Games in Toronto.

But the park and trail are just the first part of the Ontario Place revitalization and the province still doesn’t have a clear plan for the rest of the park.

Chan said the waterfront amusement park was costing the Ontario government about $20 million a year and attendance had dropped from 2.5 million when it opened in 1971 to about 300,000 a year.

The cash-strapped province closed most of Ontario Place in February 2012 to help trim a $15-billion deficit, saying it couldn't afford to keep the park open.

Last year, the governing Liberals endorsed all 18 recommendations made by a provincial advisory panel on how to redevelop the aging park.

The panel is headed by former Progressive Conservative leader John Tory, who said the vast majority of Ontario Place should be an open park.

The plan calls for a portion of the site to be devoted to private residences, a hotel and a resort complex.