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Ontario Science Centre abruptly closing due to structural issues

The Canadian Press

TORONTO — The Ontario Science Centre was abruptly and permanently closed in its current east Toronto location on Friday, after government officials announced that engineers had found structural issues with the roof of the 55-year-old facility.

When it opened in 1969, the Ontario Science Centre was the world’s first interactive science centre, but years of limited capital investments have left the building with multiple deficiencies.

The news from provincial infrastructure officials Friday came amid government plans to move the science centre from its current location to a new home at a redeveloped Ontario Place on the city's waterfront, but that isn't slated to be open until 2028.

Now, an engineering report the government received this week has found that there are a number of roof panels "in a distressed, high-risk condition" that could fail under the weight of snow this winter. That type of roofing panel, prevalent on the science centre buildings, has been found to be failing in other jurisdictions, prompting Ontario officials to take a closer look, they said.

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The engineering firm Rinkus Consulting Group said fully negating the risk would require replacing each of that type of roof panel at a cost of between $22 million and $40 million and that would take two or more years to complete with the facility closed.

"The actions taken today will protect the health and safety of visitors and staff at the Ontario Science Centre while supporting its eventual reopening in a new, state-of-the-art facility," Infrastructure Minister Kinga Surma wrote in a statement.

"In the meantime, we are making every effort to avoid disruption to the public and help the Ontario Science Centre continue delivering on its mandate through an interim facility, as well as alternative programming options."

The building is still safe until the end of October, the government said, with an "enhanced process for rainwater monitoring and roof facility management" in place. It is being closed to the public now so staff can spend the summer moving exhibits out of the building.

The science centre welcomed nearly 800,000 visitors in 2022-23, according to its most recent business plan.

Toronto Mayor Olivia Chow recalled the "wonder and joy" on the faces of her grandchildren as she has taken them through the science centre, and she said the loss is a painful one for the city.

"It’s a special place that sparks imagination and curiosity, and creates a love of science and learning that lasts a lifetime," she wrote in a statement.

"I’m deeply disappointed that successive provincial governments have let it fall into such disrepair over the years."

The property is owned by the City of Toronto and its conservation authority and is leased to the science centre. A recent deal between the city and province included an agreement to discuss future uses for the site, including some science-based programming, but no decisions have been made.

The province said there were no "immediate job losses," but refused to commit to the workers long-term.

Ontario Public Service Employees Union, which represents 549 workers at the science centre, said they will shift toward working on the building's closure.

Union president J.P. Hornick spent the afternoon with employees.

“Not only are they worried about their own jobs over the long-term, they’re worried about what closing the Science Centre immediately will mean for the children who were signed up for summer camps, and school and family trips," Hornick said.

"They’re worried about the impact of closing this community anchor for Flemingdon Park and Thorncliffe Park, and leaving the people who live in these communities behind."

Adil Shamji, the Liberal who represents the riding where the science centre is located, was livid at Friday's announcement.

"To have this eliminated without any warning, without any opportunity for people to come for last tours, knowing that there are children who are signed up for summer camps just weeks from now, this is a devastating blow to the community right now and well into the future," he said.

A business case released last year by the government found that the current building is facing $369 million in deferred and critical maintenance needs over the next 20 years. A building condition report found "multiple critical deficiencies" in roof, wall, mechanical, electrical and elevator systems, interior finishes, site features, and fire and life safety equipment.

A lack of government funding is a key cause of that, Ontario's auditor general said in a report last year.

There have been 42 projects deemed "critical" since 2017 that haven't been repaired, and of those projects, the science centre had asked for funding for seven of them at least three times in the past five years but was denied each time, the auditor wrote.

Infrastructure Ontario ordered the science centre in June 2022 to close a pedestrian bridge connecting the main entrance to the exhibition halls after the bridge was deemed unsafe.

Mechanical issues have also continued to worsen, said Michael Lindsay, CEO of Infrastructure Ontario. There was a critical boiler failure, so there is no heat for the auditorium and great hall. The air conditioning is also at risk of failure, he said.

"Regrettably, the roofing panels of the Ontario Science Centre are not the only end-of-life system that we have to contend with here," he said.

The business case said that moving the science centre instead of renovating the existing facility could save the government about $250 million over 50 years. A considerable amount of those savings come from the new planned facility coming in at about half the size of the current one, though officials say there will be more exhibit space.

Summer camps had been set to start at the science centre in a little over two weeks and the government said it has identified a nearby school that can be used as an alternative location, but all participants will get full refunds. Science centre members will also be reimbursed.

Infrastructure Ontario is issuing a request for proposals on Monday to try to find a temporary science centre location until the new one at Ontario Place opens. The science centre is also looking at providing mobile, virtual and pop-up offerings.

NDP Leader Marit Stiles said the current location's closure is heartbreaking, particularly for families in the surrounding neighbourhoods.

"Communities outside the downtown core deserve nice things too," she wrote in a statement.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 21, 2024.

Allison Jones and Liam Casey, The Canadian Press