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Plans to refit Union Station under wraps ahead of vote

Councillors fret at having to select winner without seeing what they are voting on

GAY ABBATE

As Union Station gets ready to celebrate its 75th anniversary, the selection process for a developer to renovate and develop the interior of Toronto’s transportation hub is cloaked in secrecy.

City Council is to choose next week who will revitalize the once grand structure on Front Street. But councillors have been kept from all talks with the finalists, and few have seen the proposals.

Nor will they before next week’s vote, unless the council postpones the issue.

Some councillors say they will push for a delay in order to have a public presentation of the future proposals for one of the most important pieces of real estate in the country.

“The appropriate thing in an accountable and transparent process is to make the final decision in a public forum,” Councillor David Miller said.

“To do that, the presentation should have been made in public at the administration committee,” he added.

Councillor Brian Ashton said the council would be crazy not to demand a presentation by the two proponents.

“Voting without seeing a presentation is like picking a bride out of a catalogue,” he said.

Councillor Rob Ford, who tried unsuccessfully to get a public presentation when the item was before the administration committee recently, said that the selection process smells.

“I can see a complete disaster coming out of this,” he said, adding that there is no need to rush the selection.

Councillor Kyle Rae defended the secrecy, saying it has prevented lobbyists from pressuring councillors on behalf of the finalists. “The process may be secretive, but it was clean.”

The city’s plans call for public input into the final plans later this year after an agreement is signed.

The station was officially opened on Aug. 5, 1927, and the first passenger train rolled in six days later, years later than anticipated because the First World War delayed construction.

Built in the manner of the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris, it was the most opulent rail station in Canada in its heyday.

But it has become dingy in recent years; parts of it remain unused; and sections are in immediate need of costly repairs.

When the council purchased Union Station two years ago, it turned to private interests to pay for a $200-million interior renovation.

Renovations by the TTC, Via and GO Transit to their facilities inside the station are not part of the proposed redevelopment.

The council put out what is called a request for proposal to develop, restore and operate the station. All plans had to comply with the city’s three prime objectives: promote the building as a multinodal transportation hub, preserve it as a heritage building and revitalize it to ensure its financial stability.

Of the two finalists selected by city staff, the council nod will likely go to Union Pearson Group Inc., a Canadian corporation formed specifically for this project. The founding members are O & Y Properties, Kilmer Van Nostrand Co., Ltd., Jones Lang LaSalle, OMERS Realty Corp., PCL Constructors Canada Inc. and SNC Lavalin Engineers and Constructors.

If a deal is not reached with Union Pearson, the city will begin talks with LP Heritage, a partnership of Landau & Heyman and Prime Group Realty Trust, two Chicago-based companies.

Both groups have members who worked on the restoration of Grand Central Station in New York City and Washington’s Union Station.

Union Pearson was city staff’s top choice by a very slim margin, and the administration committee recommended that the council adopt the selection.

Union Pearson proposes to create 130,000 square feet of retail and restaurant space in various parts of the building, including the Grand Hall. LP Heritage proposes about 170,600 square feet of retail and restaurant space.

There was very little difference in the proposals, although Union Pearson was deemed to have slightly better financial backing. LP Heritage, however, had a better plan for preserving the building’s historical character.

The station was designated a national historical site by the federal government, which must approve alterations that affect its historical or architecturally important elements.

City councillors are also worried that they gave interested companies the option of including plans for the exterior of the building, including air rights. Both finalists proposed expensive hotels for the station’s west wing.

“Including air rights was not the greatest way to go about it,” Mr. Ashton said, adding that he wants them taken off the table because that is a separate issue.

Because air rights do not exist on the site at this time and cannot be part of a development proposal, staff say in reports that they gave little weight to this aspect of the proposals.

However, Mr. Ford said that the winning company will have an edge when the city is ready for the redevelopment of the station’s exterior.




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