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James Corner's master plan for Lake Ontario Park in limbo

The Toronto waterfront area, as seen from the 360 Restaurant at the CN Tower.

Fred Lum/Fred Lum/ The Globe and Mail

To ride along the 37 kilometres of shoreline east of lovely Cherry Beach, you have to appreciate, or at least tolerate, some of the post-apocalyptic obstacles the path throws in your way.

A disused coal-fired power plant and a new natural-gas electricity plant dominate the view as the bike path dissolves into a shabby rutted road. Then, if you want to pedal over to The Beach - a broad stretch of sand beloved by volleyball players, kite boarders and walkers - you turn right and take a detour of a few hundred metres around the Ashbridges Bay Wastewater Treatment Plant.

It's the civic equivalent of a face only a mother could love. For a decade now, the government-appointed organization Waterfront Toronto has been working on plans to beautify the region, but despite a radical vision from one of the world's most celebrated landscape architects, it looks like Torontonians will be stuck with this jolie-laide corner of the world for a while still.

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Arriving at this point on a sunny day this week, I opted to turn left, toward the five-kilometre Leslie Street Spit, a dump that nature has miraculously reinvented as a wildlife haven for 300 species of birds, untold plants and butterflies. Pretty soon, I felt as though I was riding on the coast of a freshwater ocean - until I arrived at a hut guarding the park's entrance. A man with long grey hair and a little white dog stepped out. "They're telling us to stop everyone coming in here," he said. The spit, also known as Tommy Thompson Park, is open weekends and holidays only - occasions when you're not likely to bump into the 100 or more trucks that dump rubble on the area's eastern shore. He was sorry to stop my ride: "It's a damn shame actually."

Well, yes, it is. And it is not likely to change any time soon.

In 2008, James Corner, the principal of the New York-based firm Field Operations, delivered a master plan to Waterfront Toronto that would turn this disjointed series of nature preserves and beach playgrounds into the 375-hectare (926-acre) Lake Ontario Park. "It's a very special situation to have that sort of waterfront - undeveloped, not urbanized, wild, extensive, all attributes of the Canadian wilderness," he said. "Not a lot of cities have that." How soon this vision will materialize is unclear. There's no money in the budget for the estimated $400-million cost, said Waterfront Toronto chief executive officer John Campbell, and "today would not be the kind of environment in which to go to the government and ask for funding for a park." They might be able to do it one bit at a time, "but it's not going to happen quickly."

Mr. Corner has built an international reputation on his ideas of how to convert moss-covered relics into beautiful places - such as The High Line, a garden in an abandoned 1930s trestle above New York City. He's in the early phases of converting a 890-hectare (2,200-acre) landfill on Staten Island, once the largest dump in the world, into Freshkills Park, which will be nearly three times the size of Central Park. It's "sort of melancholic, left-over post-industrial emergent nature aesthetic," he says, not unlike his vision for Lake Ontario Park.

The challenge of designing Lake Ontario Park is to make the long shore one coherent whole. "If you could connect all of those pieces into one big ensemble, you'd have a big Canadian nature on the lake," he said. You could set off from Cherry Beach, ride past some dunes, a new beach and a promenade to a marina, and then cross over a marsh and a one-kilometre bridge to Ashbridges Bay Park and The Beach. You'd never have to traverse a road or ride around a sewage-treatment plant. Then "you can make a park feel even bigger," said Mr. Corner.

It wouldn't be just a park either. It would be a vital part of Toronto psychology.

"Once the parks are realized, Toronto will be indisputably a city connected to the lake, psychologically as well as literally. That can change the image and identity of a place," he said. Toronto would be, in our own minds, a freshwater-ocean city.

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Yet Mr. Corner's plan lives only on paper.

Unless philanthropists come up with the money, the only action in the in the near future will be at the spit, where nature and the dump trucks have collaborated to act as accidental landscapers. "It really is a wild place out there," said Mr. Corner. "You get this sense of nature taking over what is really industrial-made land, from 50 years of dredging." Here, at least, neglect has been a good thing.

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