Toronto Star Classroom Connection

Landscape architect quits Ontario Place project: ‘It’s time for telling the truth’


A prominent landscape architect, known for designing Trillium and Tommy Thompson parks, has walked away from the redevelopment of Ontario Place, citing his opposition to clearing hundreds of trees to make way for a private spa and waterpark on Toronto’s waterfront.

After it became clear he couldn’t influence plans from the inside, Walter Kehm told the Star he could no longer be tied to a project that threatens a decades-old wildlife habitat, likening his professional commitment to protect nature to a doctor’s Hippocratic oath: “Do no harm.”

Earlier this fall, the former director of the University of Guelph’s school of landscape architecture resigned as a senior principal at Toronto-based LANDinc, one of two firms under contract to help design and construct the “public realm” of Ontario Place.

“I think it’s time for plain speaking. It’s time for telling the truth,” said Kehm, a longtime friend of the late Michael Hough, the landscape architect who helped design the original Ontario Place.

“I remember when he was planting those trees,” Kehm said. To think they could be clear-cut, he added, “doesn’t sit in my stomach very well.”

In more than half a century, “the 800 trees on the West Island have developed their own ecological niche,” Kehm said. “We’re talking about more than the trees. We’re talking about a home for all the species that live there.”

News of Kehm’s departure comes after Ontario’s auditor general revealed he was conducting a valuefor-money audit of Premier Doug Ford’s controversial scheme to revamp the waterfront park.

The province has vowed to move forward with the project, where preparatory work has already begun.

Ontario Place opened as a public amusement park in 1971. Nearly 40 years later, the province shuttered operations. Now, the West Island is mostly used as a public park.

In 2022, Ontario Place, with current attractions like Budweiser Stage and Trillium Park, saw nearly three million visitors.

The province’s effort to transform the waterfront property into a “world-class, year-round destination” has come under intense scrutiny, particularly a confidential, 95year lease Ontario signed with Therme Group, the Vienna-based “well-being organization” set to build a $350-million spa and waterpark on the West Island. An underground parking garage estimated to cost taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars has also sparked criticism.

Besides the spa, the revamped Ontario Place will include a renovated Live Nation amphitheatre on the East Island, a new home for the Ontario Science Centre and 20 hectares of public space and parkland. The site’s iconic Cinesphere and pods will be refurbished.

Infrastructure Ontario, the Crown agency overseeing the project, told the Star “the first phase of tree removal is expected to begin later this year.” This won’t include the roughly 850 trees slated for removal on the West Island, none of which will be removed this year, according to the agency.

The provincial government has promised to replace trees lost at “a minimum two-to-one ratio,” while mature trees more than 30 centimetres in diameter will be replaced at “approximately a ratio of six to one,” said Andrea Chiappetta, a spokesperson for Ontario’s minister of infrastructure.

But Kehm called this faulty thinking. “Planting 2,500 ‘Lollipop’ trees does nothing to replace the habitat that exists there,” he said. “It’s not a one-for-one trade.”

Meanwhile, on its website, Therme Canada commits to “save and transplant” every mature tree “where possible.” But Chiappetta told the Star “there was never any commitment to transplant trees.” The government is, however, “exploring opportunities with Indigenous communities to repurpose wood from removed trees, where possible.”

As for Therme’s assertion that removing trees is necessary to cleanse contaminated soil on the West Island and halt erosion, Kehm doesn’t buy it — specifically the suggestion that erosion is a significant issue there.

An environmental assessment of the Ontario Place project was ultimately positive, and noted that wetlands will increase. However, the review excluded the West Island and part of the East Island, where Live Nation’s new venue will sit, as these are private projects.

City staff have asked the province to extend its deadline for feedback from Dec. 31 until April, given that the final plan was submitted in September and not June as originally expected.

In early 2022, it was announced that Infrastructure Ontario had selected LANDinc and New Yorkbased landscape architecture firm Martha Schwartz Partners to work with the provincial government to design and construct the “public realm” of Ontario Place, which includes the East Island area and the mainland, according to Chiappetta. (STUDIO tla is designing the public realm on the West Island “in close collaboration with LANDinc and MSP,” said Chiappetta.)

“We have the opportunity to create an international attraction within regenerated aquatic and terrestrial habitats,” Kehm said in a news release at the time.

Kehm, an 85-year-old New York native, has had plenty of experience partnering with the provincial government, including on Trillium Park, where he designed a memorial to his friend Hough, Ontario Place’s original landscape architect.

The phrase “Walk gently on the land” became a guiding principle behind the project.

“This park is about having fun,” Kehm explains in a 2018 video on Ontario Place’s YouTube channel. “But it’s also an awareness that we live in harmony with nature.”

In conversations with the Star, he described his recent experience working with the province on Ontario Place’s redevelopment as unlike any before it.

“Now we’re dealing with a cast of 30, 40, 50 people in government,” he said. “Left hand doesn’t know what the right hand is doing. There’s dissension. We’re in the midst of this imbroglio within the government.”

Kehm said he had repeatedly advocated to preserve the trees on the West Island, as part of his broader vision for a forested Toronto waterfront, including during a meeting near the end of last summer.

From that point onwards, Kehm said it felt like he had become “persona non grata” and he was informally taken off the project.

Patrick Morello, principal at LANDinc, confirmed that his former colleague has not been involved in work on Ontario Place’s public realm in “almost 16 months.”

Morello firmly pushed back against Kehm’s assertions, including his portrayal of an overly complicated work process.

“It is a very collaborative, complex and inclusive process with many stakeholders, government agencies, the general public across Ontario and a number of First Nation Indigenous communities and urban Indigenous groups in Toronto,” he said in an emailed statement, adding that abiding by the project’s environmental assessment may make the process “seem onerous.”

Both Morello and Kehm said the latter’s comments on Ontario Place are his alone and do not represent those of LANDinc.

The government declined to comment on Kehm’s departure or “any comments made to the Toronto Star.”





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