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Infrastructure officials detail Ontario Science Centre structural issues

Ontario infrastructure officials are further justifying their decision to close the Ontario Science Centre by releasing more details today on the issues with the building beyond its roof. A general view of the Ontario Science Centre is shown in Toronto, Friday, May 5, 2023. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chris Young

TORONTO — The Ontario Science Centre building is facing critical issues not just with its roof, but with heating, sprinkler and electrical systems, officials said Thursday – but they did not say what they plan to do about it, if anything.

The focus right now, following the abrupt closure of the facility in northeast Toronto last month, is on doing more investigative work and moving all exhibits and staff out of the building before the winter, when the possibility of snow on the roof creates an additional risk, Infrastructure Minister Kinga Surma said at a news conference.

"Our priority is to decommission the building safely right now, work on an interim location for science centre programming and then of course, focus our energies on a new science centre," Surma said.

But beyond that, Surma did not indicate if any of the identified issues will be repaired, or if the building will be demolished or abandoned, saying what happens with the building will be the subject of discussions with the City of Toronto, which along with its conservation authority has leased the land to the province to operate the science centre.

The government was already planning to relocate the science centre to the redeveloped waterfront Ontario Place attraction, but that new facility is not slated to open until 2028.

Infrastructure Ontario president and CEO Michael Lindsay said the time has come for questions to be asked about the original 55-year-old science centre building.

"When buildings reach the end of life, 50 or 60 years ... things begin to fail and more fundamental lifecycle replacement projects are needed – the bridge, the roof, the central mechanical system, boilers and chillers," he said.

"So now would be the time for any asset that is this age to think about what the future ultimately would be, and whether those investments are going to be made."

Workers inside the science centre, in the process of compiling an inventory and taking down audio-visual equipment, have not been told much, said Martin Fischer, the president of Local 549 of the Ontario Public Service Employees Union that represents about 500 science centre workers.

“There is a general feeling of everything is up in the air,” said Fischer, who works in the education department of the science centre.

The workers have not been given any assurances about their jobs over the medium or long-term, Fischer said.

Surma has said that the science centre had to abruptly close last month because of structural issues with the roof, but there has been widespread criticism of the decision to shut it down rather than address those problems while keeping parts of it open.

The government released a peer review Thursday of the original engineering report on which the province and the science centre board based the closure decision. The peer review concluded that the evaluation of risk in the original report was reasonable.

"The recommendations made to mitigate these risks through immediate remediation of critical and high-risk panels and their eventual replacement – to coincide with a roofing assembly replacement – are appropriate to safely extend the useful lifespan of the building structure," the new report said.

But Surma and infrastructure officials said Thursday that remediation wouldn't be quick or straightforward, and the condition of all the other aspects of the building must be considered when contemplating extending its lifespan.

"We cannot rehabilitate this asset unless the entire buildings are vacant," said Jane Domenico, president of asset and modernization at Infrastructure Ontario.

"There's no spot repair that will be sufficient or safe."

Roof work could disrupt asbestos, so it would need to be contained, officials said.

For all the other work, the three buildings that make up the science centre have connected systems. The building out front is the centre for all mechanical systems, with the services for the building housing the great hall – such as heating pipes –running through a pedestrian bridge that was closed in 2022 due to safety concerns.

No repairs have been done on the bridge since it was closed two years ago, necessitating a shuttle service to take visitors to the rear entrance, and officials said the mechanical channel inside it is currently not accessible.

The heating pipe in that channel has broken, cutting off heat to the great hall building, and officials said if that is not fixed before the onset of winter it brings fire safety risks due to frozen pipes.

Additionally, Domenico said the windows have lost their structural integrity. The building's location in a ravine would also make major construction work difficult, she said.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published July 11, 2024.

Allison Jones and Liam Casey, The Canadian Press

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