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Ontario Science Centre had other options than rushed closure: report

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The engineer’s report relied on by the provincial government to justify the closure of the Ontario Science Centre in the name of safety gives other options to proceed that could still save the iconic venue.

The report suggested restricting access to part of the building where roof panels could give way, as well as installing temporary reinforcements to the panels as well as horizontal hoarding that could shield the panels.

Exactly why those other options weren’t considered isn’t clear just from reading the report alone and suggests other factors are at play, said University of Toronto professor of public management Sandford Borins in an interview.

“They’ve identified around six per cent of the panels that need to be fixed. They’d have to rope off the area where those panels are. And figure out how to keep the Science Centre going,” Borins said.

“It seems to me that they had already come to the conclusion they wanted to close the building and the consultant’s report was a great justification for doing that,” he said.

The hazard of the roof panels was the main justification offered by Infrastructure Minister Kinga Surma at an unrelated news conference Monday morning as she described the reasoning behind putting up gates around the science centre on Friday and shutting it down.

“It was my hope that we could keep the building alive until the new Science Centre was built, but unfortunately we have to take the warning signs of engineers seriously,” she said.

When pressed on why the report appeared to allow for options that didn’t require a complete building shutdown, Surma said the building would have to be closed for years for a complete roof repair.

“The engineers were quite specific when we spoke to them that if we were to do work on the roof, we should replace the roof in its entirety,” she said.

The PC government has been pushing a controversial, smaller replacement Science Centre as a marquee attraction to a revitalized Ontario Place, but that building won’t be finished until at least 2028.

The news was devastating to those who grew up visiting the Ontario Science Centre at its campus that stretched into the ravine off Don Mills Road in the Flemingdon Park neighbourhood.

The centre closed to visitors immediately, meaning that summer camps that had been planned are cancelled, though parents will be refunded, and the search for an interim venue has begun.

But the abrupt decision has sparked a backlash, with opposition politicians decrying the move. Several hundred people showed up at a rally to protest the closure on Sunday.

While closing the facility is one option identified in the report from engineering firm Rimkus, it’s only part of the top recommendation, which reads, “Restricted access or full closure to prevent any persons from walking in areas where high risk panels are present.”

Borins said it’s clear from the report that the panels that presented the most critical risk had already been reinforced.

The remaining high-risk panels are spread across the three main buildings, and Borins estimated that they make up some six per cent of the outstanding panels.

The cost to repair them in the first year is under $8 million, the report says. To repair all of them would cost another $18.5 million until 2034, the report says. The first work should be completed by October 31 to avoid the increased load that could weigh on the panels from snowfall, the report said.

The Science Centre also faces some $369 million in deferred and critical maintenance needs over the next 20 years.

Toronto Councillor Josh Matlow has introduced a motion to explore what it would take to have the city take over the operations of the Science Centre. He said the deal between the city of Toronto and the province was clear that any decision on the future of the Science Centre should involve consultations with the city.

“There’s no reason the roof can’t be repaired,” Matlow said. “My motion to city council is challenging the Ford government to work with us to save the Science Centre for everyone who loves it, and has always loved it, since 1969.”

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