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A sad tale of neglect has seemingly reached its inevitable conclusion this year, as the McLaughlin Planetarium - after nearly a decade of disuse - is slated for redevelopment. The planetarium opened in 1968, just south of the Avenue & Bloor intersection in Toronto, next to the Royal Ontario Museum. It was a gift to the citizens of Toronto from noted philantropist R.S. "Colonel Sam" McLaughlin, who made his fortune in the automobile industry with General Motors. Built to provide Toronto with a first-class astronomical attraction with the purpose of educating the general public about our vast and wonderful universe, the McLaughlin Planetarium became a popular destination for tourists and Torontonians alike.

In 1995 the newly elected provincial government - the so-called Progressive Conservatives led by Mike Harris - requested that the Royal Ontario Museum "visibly manifest" cutbacks to their budget. On November 6th of that year, the planetarium was closed, never to be reopened. Speculation over how the building might be used for future projects simmered as the years wore on, even as the structure was borrowed to host a children's museum in 1998, and the Zeiss projector was sold for a paltry $1 in 1999. While other publically funded establishments which closed or were otherwise crippled by the government's rampant hack and slash agenda during the mid-90s recession recovered, the planetarium was used for little more than spare office space and storage for the better part of the last decade. Throughout 27 years of operation, the planetarium never lost money. Others will claim, at worst, that the attraction recovered a more significant portion of its operating costs than most other public institutions. Profitable or not, the McLaughlin Planetarium was a donation to the city, and the ROM's stewardship of this important Toronto landmark should certainly be called into question.

In 2004, as part of the ongoing Renaissance ROM program, an Expression of Interest from developers was requested for the planetarium site. From their site:
The ROM wishes to develop a long-term strategic relationship in the redevelopment of 90 Queen's Park, its property directly south of the ROM main building. Currently situated on the site is the McLaughlin Planetarium building. The ROM contemplates the redevelopment of the site may include demolition of the existing structure.
This I considered to be a flagrantry corrupt and unfair misappropriation of a gift to the fine people of Toronto. The biggest city in Canada already possesses the questionable attribute of being the only major urban center lacking a planetarium, and this situation isn't likely to change. Tentative plans to offload the educational responsibilities to the Ontario Science Center were half-assed at best and no mention has been made of this notion in several years.

In an urban centre, so oppressed by the nocturnal glare of light pollution, it is essential to have an artificial window to the heavens on hand to maintain a sense of our place in the universe. Nick van Der Graaf explains this eloquently in an article from the Toronto Star:
A basic understanding of the night sky and our Earth's place in it is crucial to how 21st century humans understand ourselves. Unfortunately, we live in a highly materialistic age that does not make understanding, context or profundity much of a priority.
The slow years following the closure were not marked by a total apathy on behalf of the public. The Planetarium Renaissance Group was formed in the late 90s, initially as a sort of protest group collecting signatures for a petition and educating the public, and later as an advocate for a green redevelopment plan as the ROM's priorities became clear. Unfortunatly, this tale meets with a rather depressing conclusion, as the ROM finally announced their plan for redevelopment just last week. The McLaughlin Planetarium is going to be demolished and replaced by a 40-story condominium. Damnation.

Update (2006): the condo plan was blocked!

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