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suburban sprawl

Hazel McCallion sounds like a mayor transformed.

Best known for presiding over the proliferation of cookie-cutter subdivisions west of Toronto, Mississauga's long-time leader is most interested now in discussing the development that is rapidly adding density to her city's core.

This apparent change of heart will come as little surprise to those who have followed her career. A master of municipal realpolitik, she began political life in the 1960s championing slow-growth development, before accepting there was little to be done to stop suburban sprawl.

As principles of better urban planning have come into vogue over the past decade, however, she has begun peppering her speeches with the buzzwords of new urbanism and pushing developers to build up central Mississauga.

She's been largely successful, with a new public square inaugurated last week and a campus of Sheridan College set to welcome its first batch of students in the fall. One downtown project, meanwhile, sits at the heart of a judicial inquiry probing allegations she acted unethically by promoting a failed convention-centre complex in which her developer son had a large financial stake.

Sitting down with The Globe on the new square early one muggy summer morning, she talks about her vision for the city core, the role of regional integration and what it's like to work with Rob Ford.

What do you hope to see in downtown Mississauga five to 10 years from now?

We hope to work very hard to get a convention centre - that's one thing we lack. People come here for meetings at Fortune 500 companies but have to stay at hotels in Toronto. We've got a request for proposals out. I would hope [to get them back]in the next month or so.

What else?

I'd like to see a stadium that fits our size. We haven't decided where it should be. There's Lakeview, the downtown, and next to the Hershey Centre. Those were the three locations we casually looked at. And we need a museum, we have very small museums in Mississauga, but we need an artifact facility. We're on our way now to do the design of it. Eventually, I'm sure we'll also have a larger art gallery.

How will residential and commercial development look?

We are recommending an architectural contest for buildings downtown, like the Marilyn Monroe building, which is a treasure. That was a developer who went out [and held]an international contest. We hope that all future buildings in the city will have architectural contests.

Some say downtown Mississauga still looks too suburban - wide roads with condo towers surrounded by parks -- with little street life.

Our core plan is certainly directed towards developing that. Certainly any future development is going to be strictly controlled by our core development plan. We want to become pedestrian-oriented. We've put a holding bylaw on the city core now, to try and get control of how the buildings are built, whether they have the necessary urban design.

Why are you only doing this now, as opposed to when the core started building up?

The original plan, which was 20 years ago, was for buildings to be connected. When we built the Living Arts Centre, we wanted to connect it underground to Square One, but those who owned Square One would not agree. What we need in the city core is a desire on the part of the landowners to work together. We have more control over site plans, but we don't have as much control as we'd like. We need more control at the local level. Developers, if they don't agree with what the city wants, they can go to the Ontario Municipal Board. It's not easy [for the city]

What role does regional integration play in your vision?

The province setting up Metrolinx was a step in the right direction. People live in Scarborough and work in Mississauga, people live in Mississauga and work in Scarborough, and what we really need very badly is integrated transit with the smart card. The TTC has come on board with using Presto, we're implementing it, Oakville has implemented it. It's not the type of card that we had hoped for: we'd like to see the [Octopus Card]that's in Hong Kong, that can be used for other purchases.

When David Miller was in power, he cast himself as a city-builder; Rob Ford sounds more managerial, and doesn't seem to talk much about the kind of big-picture ideas you're discussing today. How is he to work with?

I think he wants to build a great Toronto, but you have to be sure you've got a management team and the policies in order to implement any vision. He feels his job is to sort out the management at city hall. After that's done, I think you'll see the plans come forward. You can't go wild on your ideas, because it's a very costly exercise if it's not well-managed.

Recently, there has been a rumour you will step down if the report from the judicial inquiry is unfavourable. Is that true?

I pay no attention to rumours. Anybody can create a rumour. And I think that one was created. That's all I'll say.