Sunday, February 24, 2008

A bold idea for Lakeview Generating Plant

For decades, the smokestacks of the Lakeview coal-powered electric plant towered over the shores of Lake Ontario just west of Port Credit, a standing testament to a gritty industrial heritage.

The stacks came down a few years ago with a dramatic thud and a cloud of dust, preceded by the departure of old industries that had grown around it. The closing of the plant also left in its wake a sprawling landscape in transition, the size of the CNE and Ontario Place combined. Much of it is publicly owned.

Into that vacuum – which includes talk that a natural gas-powered plant could replace the coal – has stepped an intrepid group of residents who say their long-suffering neighbourhood deserves better.

Rather than complain, they've taken the offensive, using the power of Google Earth and complex mapping information, only recently available publicly, to come up with a unique, citizen-driven planning model they will unveil to Mississauga council on Wednesday.

Their goal is the creation of a "destination" landscape – which does not contain a power plant. If embraced by council and the province, the proposal would redraw one of the biggest pieces of waterfront left in the Greater Toronto Area – more than 200 hectares largely ignored by planners and government.

It also could serve as a model for neighbourhood activism, and the idea that citizens can successfully band together and tell city hall what it should do. In this case, it is the 800-member Lakeview Ratepayers' Association, led by carpenter Jim Tovey, which has been working on it for more than two years.

"This really is one of those rare opportunities every 100 years in land development where there is a chance to revision the area and where ideas can come forward," says John Danahy, a University of Toronto professor of landscape architecture who was inspired by his neighbour Tovey to take charge of the plan. "This is a pregnant moment."

With the click of a mouse, Danahy shows what the lands south of Lakeshore Rd. between Cawthra and Dixie Rds., could accommodate.

Comfortable now with planning jargon like "intensification, smart growth" and "live-work", the duo marvel at their ability to redraw entire neighbourhoods with a laptop on a kitchen table – thanks in part to Danahy's contacts at U of T and the increasing accessibility of complex data and mapping systems.

Click, and Danahy has added a row of trees along Lakeshore that take into account actual square footage and setbacks. Click, and perfectly proportioned two- to three-storey apartments appear – a preferable alternative to a canyon of condominium towers along the street, he says.
Another click, and beyond the boulevard sprout 12-storey apartment buildings, the dense core he says will provide the population base – doubling from the current 20,000 – to support public transit.

Then he shows where a waterfront walking trail could be built. For good measure, he models the physical imprint of Chicago's famed Navy Pier along the old channel where the coal for the plant used to be shipped in, just to show it can be done.

Still clicking his mouse, Danahy models the outlines of Toronto's Distillery District on the footprint of the older power plant and it fits perfectly. He points the cursor to the water surrounding the plant, which because it is protected by a breakwater, could easily become an ice-skating canal. He throws in an aquarium, a stadium. The possibilities keep unfolding all within an area that is still bordered by the region's waste water and water treatment plants.
"People have no idea how big it is and how much it can accommodate," says Danahy, who adds that the key is the ability to translate ideas into images that people – and planners – can understand.

"Most people don't relate to plans and cryptic diagrams of planners. That's very abstract for people to know in any real, explicit way what they would mean to them."
"This could be the poster child for the smart growth plans of the province," adds Tovey excitedly. "The idea has come out of the community. We have had to carry the awareness of the potential to the professionals."

Tovey says Lakeview has had more than its fair share of industrial use, pointing out that as well as belching coal smoke, it was also home to Canada's first aerodrome, a weapons training ground, barracks and armament factories during World War II.

Over the past 20 years, the neighbourhood – still a jumble of low-lying former industrial buildings – has evolved from an industrial base to new ad hoc retail and other uses.
"These are not the highest and best uses of employment lands (so close to the lake)," says Tovey, pointing out a wedding hall, a bait shop, a meat shop and a limousine rental place.
Whether the association's plan goes anywhere rests in events that begin to unfold after Wednesday's presentation to council – the culmination of almost two years of work by residents.
That's when Councillor Carmen Corbasson plans to introduce a motion asking the province not to put a natural gas-powered electrical plant on the waterfront lands.

Should the province agree, the fact that Ontario Power Generation, the Crown corporation that generates electricity in Ontario, owns about 80 hectares of the land could stand in the residents' favour. The OPG parcel could become the critical piece of land for any redevelopment because it is large enough.

A significant remaining chunk consists of the waste water and water treatment plant lands owned by the Region of Peel that bookend the Lakeview lands, and which residents say could be incorporated to form the lakefront walking trail and some green space by the lake. Taken together, it means much of Lakeview is already under public ownership and wouldn't have to be expropriated.

"They are certainly doing their homework," says Corbasson, echoing a favourite phrase of the city's Mayor Hazel McCallion. "They (the residents) have looked at it upside down and backwards and forwards. They know every inch of the hundreds of acres."
"It's citizen engagement I welcome," says the councillor. She adds she's been told there is the potential for almost $2 billion worth of development in Lakeview.

Crucial to any redevelopment would be a zoning change from utility to mixed-use. Council reaffirmed the existing utility zoning last year but Corbasson says they still have until the end of this year to change that.

Several councillors have indicated they are willing to listen the Lakeview Residents Association's proposal.

As to how such a project can be achieved, Danahy and Tovey say a public-private consortium of landowners could move the project ahead by agreeing on a general development plan. That was the case in the Forks redevelopment in Winnipeg, where a "destination" area similar to Toronto's Distillery District evolved on former rail lands. Another model would be for the provincial government to take leadership and gradually release the OPG lands as they were needed for redevelopment.

"The only fly in the ointment is the ultimate decision for the location of the power plant will be up to the province," Corbasson says. Ed Sajecki, Mississauga's commissioner of planning, has seen the association's computer model but is remaining noncommittal until council deals with the issue.

"We are awaiting the plans from the province and OPG," Sajecki says, adding that any council decision to change the zoning would be an "unusual and major change."

"Council can always look at its official plan, that's their prerogative," he says, although he points out that power generation is considered a "need" across the GTA.

The Liberal government's commitment to close coal-fired generating plants like Lakeview has added to a growing energy crunch. It's why the province has moved ahead with a controversial plan to build a 550-megawatt natural gas-powered plant on Toronto's Portlands district.
Tovey and Danahy refuse to consider the possibility that after living beside a coal-powered plant, they will now have to deal with a natural gas-powered facility.

For now they are more concerned about the next step of their quixotic quest as they prepare for Wednesday's council meeting.

"We have the Grade 7 and 8 classes coming to council from Byngmount Beach Public school," Tovey says. "Some of these children were in attendance when the premier made his announcement of the closing of the Lakeview Generating Station from the school in 2005.
"If council adopts the concept of our legacy plan, it will transform Mississauga in much the same way putting city hall in a cornfield on Highway 10 did 21 years ago".

This is an incredible opportunity to shape the lake front at Brown's Line 427 at Lakeshore, Go Transit and the TTC are at the doorstep with reasonable access to downtown Toronto or Mississauga.

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