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City digs in to revamp Union Station

New retail plaza under VIA concourse will help city finance major hub’s makeover

Nov 15, 2007 04:30 AM
John Spears
city hall bureau

The future of Union Station lies beneath the ground, according to the latest plans proposed by the City of Toronto for the venerable transportation hub.

The city, which has owned Union for seven years, says its new plan is to burrow deeper to construct a large new retail plaza under the current VIA passenger concourse. The concourse itself will be extended east and west, to triple the current size, to serve GO commuters as well and flow more of them through the station’s Great Hall.

But in announcing the grand new plans yesterday, Mayor David Miller declined to release cost estimates or a timetable for completion of the project.

Miller said the city has approached private investors such as pension funds “informally” to gauge their interest in financing the retail development, but none were on board yesterday.

City officials promised more details would be released in a report to council later this month. And they’re asking the public to comment through the city’s website, at

Miller said the city intends to maintain its control of the station, unlike a previous plan for the station’s makeover that would have leased the property to a private consortium for a century.

“This station is part of our heritage, and it’s the City of Toronto’s responsibility to preserve that heritage and ensure it’s around for generations to come,” Miller said.

Besides being the city’s transportation hub, the route through it has become an important passageway between the waterfront and the business district. The growing population of waterfront residents will also support the proposed retail level, Miller said.

“There’s a tremendous opportunity here by creating new retail, to invite the private sector to do what the private sector is good at: managing and creating retail and taking those risks.”

But skepticism over whether the proposal would come to fruition was quick to surface yesterday.

“I just hope that something does happen,” Councillor Doug Holyday said after seeing a presentation on the new plans. “We’ve made so many announcements over this, and government makes so many announcements over things, but nothing seems to happen.

“I’d almost like to invite you all to come back next year and review and see what’s taken place here. I’m really leery.”

Councillor Adam Vaughan sighed over the idea of using a shopping area to finance the project.

“Why can’t we just build a beautiful train station?” he asked. “Why do we have to turn everything into a mall?”

Councillor Gloria Lindsay Luby (Ward 4, Etobicoke Centre) praised the proposal.

“It’s not something we can shovel away to another party and say: `You go figure it out.’ The city ultimately has responsibility for the building.”

Some $177 million is needed just to bring the station to a state of good repair. One city official said that’s the biggest single expense in the new project. At the moment, the city has earmarked only $85 million for repairs.

For GO passengers, the biggest change will be a far less crowded concourse. Instead of the present small concourse on the station’s east side, they’ll have the run of an area as long as the station, including the present VIA Rail concourse.

The intent is to direct GO passengers through the Great Hall, now used almost exclusively by VIA passengers.

That raised an eyebrow at GO.

“It’ll be interesting to see how many commuters want to take advantage of that,” said Bob Boyle, GO’s director of facility services.

It may also create traffic issues on Front St., he said, if large numbers of commuters leave by the main doors and flood across Front St.

But city officials noted the plan will provide many more exits onto Bay and York Sts., so passengers can walk north and cross with traffic lights.

Boyle said GO agrees the station needs upgrading and will work with the city. Getting the details right will be important, he said. For example, he questioned whether all the retailers should be segregated on a separate level. Passengers rushing for their trains don’t want to dive down a level to buy coffee or pick up dry cleaning, he said.

Dan Oleksiuk happened on the announcement as he bought a ticket to Windsor. He questioned the plans to mix GO and VIA passengers in the same space.

“Already it’s a mess at Christmas and Easter,” he said. “To put them where the VIA people are doesn’t make sense to me.”