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CITY HALL BUREAU CHIEF

Seven years ago, David Pritchard and his wife Madeleine Pengelley opened an organic coffee-roasting business, knowing they were retail pioneers in a sleepy stretch of southern Etobicoke.

"For years and years, it was all potential and nothing much was happening," says Mr. Pritchard, whose Birds and Beans business later expanded to include a café. It's located on Lake Shore Boulevard West near Royal York Road.

Today - with condo developments marching west along the lakeshore, pockets of new retail appearing and dollops of public money being invested - an overlooked district at the edge of Lake Ontario shows signs of fresh vitality.

"It still hasn't quite happened, but a lot of the pieces are in place," observes Mr. Pritchard of the network of neighbourhoods from Mimico to Long Branch. "Everyone sees the potential and people have finally realized it does not just happen. It has to be managed."

At Humber Bay Shores, a former motel strip, proposals for 3,000 condo units will be seeking city-council approval in the next few months. Further west, a revitalization study on Mimico goes to council in mid-2010 for approval. In New Toronto, Humber College is concluding years of renovations worth $100-million at its satellite campus at the former Lakeshore Psychiatric Hospital. In Long Branch, a new 16-storey condominium is under construction opposite a GO Train station.

These investment spark plugs are spurring debate over the future of communities along the lakeshore. "People are very cautious of change ... they are afraid of losing our village environment," says Bob Poldon, past president of the Mimico Ratepayers Association. Posing the question on residents' minds, he asks "is the public infrastructure going to be sufficient to look after all of our needs for schools, recreation facilities and transit?"

That's one question for the revitalization study known as Mimico 20/20, developed at the urging of councillor Mark Grimes, (Ward 6, Etobicoke-Lakeshore). "We are a waterfront community that has been lagging," he says, pointing to empty storefronts and blocked public access to Lake Ontario. "We can't sit back and wait for it to happen."

He has championed a new 300-metre ice skating trail in Colonel Sam Smith Park as a recreation "destination" for southern Etobicoke. After some residents objected to the location of the $1.9-million project in a naturalized area, the trail was moved to a nearby parking lot.

To lifelong resident Jem Cain, who ran against Mr. Grimes in 2006 and plans to do so again in 2010, the skating trail is a symbol of misplaced priorities. "It doesn't meet the needs of the community," she says, citing a shortage of affordable housing.

What wins universal praise is new public investments, such as a $75-million Toronto Police Service training facility and the ongoing expansion of Humber College.

"We are very much involved in the community," says Humber vice-president of finance and administration Rani Dhaliwal, with 8,000 students predicted for the lakeshore campus by 2014, up from 5,800 currently.

A once-ignored district close to the lake, with car and transit links in and out of the city, has caught the eye of developers.

"From a quality-of-life perspective, it is a fantastic spot," says Daniel Guizzetti, president of Empire Communities, which has three condo towers under construction near Lake Shore Boulevard and Park Lawn Road.

But no one predicts an overnight transformation. "The revitalization of south Etobicoke has been on the horizon for 20 years," Mr. Poldon says. "It's still on the horizon, but maybe the ship is a little closer."

CHANGE ON THE WAY

In early 2010, the city will propose Official Plan changes to rejuvenate Mimico-by-the-Lake over the next decade.

The proposal flows from a city-sponsored study earlier this year, carried out by Urban Strategies Inc. with local input, which recommends:

concentrating the core of Mimico-by-the-Lake between Allen and Albert avenues, with new north-south links south of Lake Shore Boulevard to the lake;

breaking up existing large parcels of land so they can be marketed for future development;

introducing new east-west pedestrian and car connections south of Lake Shore Boulevard along the water's edge;

expanding waterfront park areas to the east and west of Amos Waites Park;

upgrading Lake Shore Boulevard to give it a more "main street" feel;

retaining existing rental housing but diversifying the mix of residential and commercial buildings;

intensifying development on the north side of Lake Shore Boulevard, while protecting existing neighbourhoods.