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Battle lines drawn over restoring terminal

Christopher Hume

For Union Station, yesterday’s announcement could mean the best of times, or the worst.

Certainly the 71-year-old facility could do with restoring, but plans revealed by federal Transport Minister David Collenette and Mayor Mel Lastman go beyond cleaning and refurbishing.

Their Union Station includes residential as well as a lot more retail. That might be good, it might be bad.

The verdict lies in the details, which don’t yet exist.

As of today, the terminal is shabby but not rundown. The Grand Hall, arguably the finest room in Canada, remains intact.

Look too close, however, and you can’t help but notice the tacky fast-food outlets and souvenir stands, let alone the unsympathetic ticket booths added several decades ago.

As it stands, the station is both underused and overused. The number of train passengers could easily be increased, but the TTC subway platform below is inadequate.

Now that the city finally owns the building, it can make changes to improve commuter service above and below grade. Public transit has never been more necessary and Union Station is a natural hub for that system.

Interestingly, however, the city-airport rail link envisioned by planners will be left to the private sector. despite official insistence that five proposals have already been made, others claim the numbers don’t add up.

The danger that Union Station will become the centre of a non-existent transportation hub could well put extra pressure on the city to maximize its return through more intensive development.

No stone will be touched,'' Lastman promised yesterday. But he then went on talk aboutmodernization and redevelopment,” words not usually compatible with restoration.

Changes contemplated so far include platform openings for elevators and stairwells. Located in the train shed behind the station in the guts of the terminal, these alterations won’t cause lost sleep among preservationists.

There is unused space at street level and in both east and west wings that can be opened up and rented out.

Then there was the absence of federal Heritage Minister Sheila Copps, who surely would have wanted to be on hand for a major announcement about a major heritage site.

Maybe not. But given the significance of Union Station as the historical gateway to Toronto and a architectural embodiment of what was the national dream, the railroad, Copps should have shown up.

In any case, the lines are already being drawn; the purists are preparing to protest every proposal, while developers dream of condos and commercial.

In New York, where Grand Central Terminal reopened last year after a $192 million (U.S.) restoration and, yes, modernization, the station has been fully reintegrated into city life.

Union Station, by contrast, has never ceased to be a part of Toronto life. It needs revitalizing, that’s true, but the much bigger issue isn’t the building, but the system it serves.

The problem has always been getting there, not being there.