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Oxford Properties' plan for the Toronto convention centre area in downtown

Handout photo courtesy of Oxford Properties

The debate over a proposed Toronto casino has shifted from the hypothetical to the possible, with the revelation of plans for a $3-billion renovation of the downtown Metro Toronto Convention Centre that hinge on putting slot machines and craps tables in the shadow of the CN Tower.

The massive makeover, unveiled Friday by Oxford Properties Group, would raze three office towers and a hotel as well as the north building of the convention centre that stretches along the south side of Front Street. In its place, Oxford is proposing to create 22 acres of continuous underground convention space, three levels of retail space rising from the street and two towers of premium office space. None of this will happen, the developer says, without a casino, which would be located in a new hotel complex at the western end of site.

"The casino is a necessary component to complete this," said Michael Kitt, an Oxford executive vice-president. Without it, "it's back to the drawing board."

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Oxford, the real-estate arm of the Ontario Municipal Employees Retirement System, is the first to offer a plan for a Toronto casino. The conceptual drawings, done by the firm of architectural heavyweight Sir Norman Foster, and backed by one of the country's largest pension funds, are designed to put some flesh on what until now have been vague promises of jobs and visions of a "golden mile" development. They come as politicians and the public prepare to debate the merits of a gaming site and as the province tries to drum up public support and market interest.

"It gives the city and the citizens of Toronto some information and some facts, instead of hearing about a casino and letting imaginations run," Mr. Kitt said.

Mayor Rob Ford once again gave his blessing to a casino Friday, provided it brings jobs and revenue to the city. For that reason, he said, he prefers a city-owned site.

"I've always said that – Port Lands, Exhibition Place – that's my preference," he said. "We can make more money when we own the property, obviously. But if someone can come up [with a plan] on private land with the same amount, I'll entertain that as well."

The mayor said he believes annual revenue of $100-million is a realistic goal.

Representatives of MGM Resorts and Caesars Entertainment – two of several operators interested in a Toronto site – said the Oxford plans mean it will be easier to make the case for a casino.

"I think it focuses the debate in a more meaningful way," said Jan Jones-Blackhurst of Caesars.

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Alan Feldman of MGM agreed. "It helps to articulate a vision of how this would work," he said.

Others were just as quick to say the Oxford plan illustrates why a casino is a bad idea.

Councillor Adam Vaughan, whose ward includes the convention centre, rattled off a list of concerns, including doubts about the developer's plan to construct a 5.5-acre park over the railway lines south of the convention centre.

In March the Ontario government announced plans for the gaming industry that included a new casino in the Greater Toronto Area, but said it would not force a casino on an unwilling community. The mayor's executive committee will consider the issue next month, with public hearings and a decision by city council expected in the new year.

Mr. Kitt said the casino would comprise roughly 10 per cent of the new Oxford development and would be run by an operator chosen by the province.

Jennifer Keesmaat, the city's new chief planner, said the site is ideal for a mixed-use redevelopment with an improved convention centre. But she questioned Oxford's statement Friday that the city would not have to pay for new infrastructure. "That would be extraordinary for any development of this scale," she said. She also raised concerns about traffic and transit and a lack of space for pedestrians.

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