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Within a generation, a huge swath of industrial land on Lake Ontario will be transformed: Canals will run alongside streets with sidewalk cafes; mid-rise condominiums will put the neighbourhood's urban design head and shoulders over the forest of impersonal glass towers sprouting elsewhere across Greater Toronto; a deep-water heating-and-cooling system will use the nearby lake to cut the area's carbon emissions.

It sounds like something a metropolis such as Toronto might plan for redeveloping its derelict port lands, but this is actually Mississauga's vision for the site of the former Lakeview Generating Station east of Cawthra Road.

While Mayor Rob Ford and his allies cast aspersions on both the city's strategy of using public investment to transform the lakefront into a series of urban, mixed-use communities and on Waterfront Toronto, the agency charged with implementing it, Mississauga is lauding that very model and seeking to emulate it.

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What's more, the suburban city believes it can learn from Toronto's weaknesses to get development done faster and avoid some of the eyesores that have plagued the larger city.

"Their entire process took so long, developers got applications in before the plans were in place," says Jim Tovey, a long-time advocate of the project, elected to Mississauga city council last year. "While Toronto was talking about making a great waterfront, they were destroying it."

Meanwhile, in Oshawa, the city is counting on government-funded improvements to the harbour and the re-opening of an abandoned marina to spur private development in the area.

Public v. private model

For most of the city's early existence, Toronto's inner harbour was given over to industrial activity. After the shipping industry declined and factories de-camped to the suburbs in the mid-20th century, the area languished as governments both federal and local put forward different plans that were never fully implemented.

"There were significant land-ownership problems – various government departments and agencies owned different pieces of land," says Gabriel Eidelman, a University of Toronto graduate student researching the history of the area. "There were disputes between the city and the federal government over a single acre."

For instance, while the federal government wanted to put parks along the central waterfront, the arms-length Harbour Commission sold a piece of its land to a private developer, which built a high-rise condominium and hotel, the Harbour Castle Hilton, at the water's edge, creating a wall in front of the lake.

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The city's Olympic bids in the 1990s and 2000s finally provided the impetus for different levels of government to end haphazard development. In 2001, they created Waterfront Toronto, a joint federal-provincial-municipal body charged with overseeing the area. Its model is a sort of public-private partnership: While government builds infrastructure, creates parks and develops a vision for the area, private developers build condominiums and office buildings to fill in the neighbourhood. These projects are all governed by the plans that Waterfront Toronto has put in place, ensuring that developers don't build a tower too tall or create an ugly streetscape.

The overall plan for redeveloping Toronto's waterfront was part of what attracted Jane Gol, president of Continental Ventures, a New York-based firm partnering with Canadian companies to develop the old Home Depot site on the waterfront.

"It appeared to us that it's a very viable development neighbourhood," said Ms. Gol, who also recently served on New York's planning commission, which is overseeing the regeneration of parts of that city's waterfront. "This is a great initiative to restore the waterfront history of cities."

Waterfront Toronto has made tangible progress over the last decade, opening new parks and the area's first commercial building last year. A George Brown College campus is set to be completed next year, while private developers are planning condominium projects for both the east end of the inner harbour and the West Don Lands to the north.

The agency's structure, however, has slowed it down. Waterfront Toronto must seek government funding for each individual public project and, with three levels of bureaucracy to deal with, this is sometimes a lengthy process. Other cities, meanwhile, have given these agencies the power to spend money as needed and issue bonds to raise funds.

"There is a lot of pressure on us politically to 'get it done, get it done, get it done,' but the structure we have to work with is awkward," says chief executive officer John Campbell. "I'm pleased to be where we are at, considering the constraints."

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Meanwhile, Mr. Ford's administration has threatened to undermine the entire process, arguing that it would be better to leave the area to private developers. They've also moved to allow city-owned land in the area to be sold off, and mused about pulling out of Waterfront Toronto.

"I have a problem with the amount of money we're spending and the results we're getting," Mr. Ford told reporters this spring. "We're going to review that." His brother went further, labelling the whole thing "the biggest boondoggle," the city had ever created.

(The mayor did not respond to the Globe's request for comment, but his spokeswoman, Adrienne Batra, suggested there had not been any moves made to withdraw from Waterfront Toronto.)

Urban planners and design experts have been quick to shoot down city hall's reasoning: A lack of co-ordination was responsible for many of the problems with Toronto's current waterfront.

"These kinds of waterfront plans, in Toronto and in cities around the world, take years, if not decades, to come to fruition," says Ken Greenberg, a planning and design consultant, pointing to the numerous developments already finished or under way on the waterfront. "Toronto is actually doing things that have got the world's attention, especially in the middle of a recession."

Beyond the 416

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Mississauga believes it can recreate the better parts of Toronto's experience over the last decade while improving on the model.

Of course, Lakeview has some natural advantages: It is a relatively compact 99-hectare site, consisting of the former power plant lands, an industrial park and a hydro corridor, roughly one-eighth the size of the area under Waterfront Toronto's mandate.

Mississauga also has political consensus, with city council backing the redevelopment plan unanimously. The city was able to negotiate a memorandum of understanding with the province, which owns the power plant site, in just six months earlier this year.

The next step is to set up an agency to oversee the project. Those close to it hope the new body will report solely to the city, rather than other levels of government, to cut down on the red tape that has hampered Toronto.

There is something else that sets the Lakeview plan apart: The entire project was conceived and driven by local residents.

Six years ago, the local ratepayers' association, including Mr. Tovey, had been fighting the province's attempts to build a new gas-fired power plant on the site, when they decided to present an alternative plan for the area.

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Mr. Tovey asked his neighbour, landscape architect John Danahy, to help out. At community meetings over the course of two years, residents kicked around ideas for the development while Mr. Danahy, a researcher at the University of Toronto, modelled them on his laptop.

"It was a true bottom-up process instead of the usual top-down process, which is how consulting usually works," Mr. Danahy says. "I've asked my colleagues, and we haven't found another case in North America where something was done this way."

The proposal was presented to city hall, which agreed to it, and, with the help of lobbying by local MPP Charles Souza, the residents convinced the province to sign on as well.

The city is now working on a more detailed master plan and Mr. Tovey is hopeful it can start soliciting proposals from private builders within 18 months. The plan is to start by redeveloping the north end of the site, an industrial park off Lakeshore Boulevard, first and use fees paid by those developers to fund the construction of streets and other infrastructure on the former power plant site.

This principle – of the city attracting private development by building up public elements of an area – is also at the heart of Oshawa's ambitions to improve its harbour. First, it plans to build a landscaped rise along Simcoe Street to separate the still-active industrial section of the port from the recreational part.

Oshawa also hopes to re-open a marina and improve parks in the area to convince developers, who own pieces of land to the north, to build a mixed-use neighbourhood.

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"I think they're sitting back and waiting for the harbour to be cleaned up," says Mayor John Henry. "Those developments will start to happen once that process starts."

Bringing cities back to the lake

The Lakeview site today looks like much of the GTA's waterfront: Knee-high grass covers the ground, a disused access road runs alongside a chain-link fence and a concrete pad outlines the spot where the demolished plant once stood.

Mr. Tovey says he can remember the exact moment he first thought this forlorn piece of land would be a prime candidate to be developed into a high-density neighbourhood: Aug. 28, 1994, shortly before 11 p.m.

From his work in construction, he knew sprawling suburbs were candidates for infill and his neighbourhood was no exception. This thought was on his mind as he walked his dog along a hydro corridor near his house.

"I was standing on a hill looking over the power plant and the full moon broke over the stacks. It was beautiful," he says.

And like so many had done across the GTA, he looked at the decrepit industrial landscape and the vast, dark lake beyond and dreamt of the possibilities.

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