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Wilson

<< SHEPPARD WEST | Yonge-University-Spadina | YORKDALE >>
Subway Related Properties Page

Text by James Bow
With thanks to Nathan Ng

See Also:

Wilson subway station is a sprawling transportation complex located near the north end of the SPADINA subway that served as the line’s northern terminus and suburban gateway for the first eighteen years of its existence. Its subsequent replacement by Sheppard West (formerly Downsview) station decreased the use of the station, and forced parts of it to be mothballed, but it remains an important hub within the system, serving major bus routes reaching across North York and into northern Etobicoke. As of 2017, the station is poised to be transformed from a remnant gateway into a hub serving a rising commercial and residential centre.

A Brief History of Wilson Avenue

The avenue Wilson station serves began life as an east-west concession road stretching back from Yonge Street roughly where the west branch of the Don River passed through Hogg’s Hollow. As late as 1935, this roadway was referred to as Twentieth Avenue. The portion east of Yonge eventually came to be known as York Mills Road. The portion west of Yonge continued west as far as today’s Weston Road, with some maps showing a road allowance crossing the Humber River to meet the Church road allowance that is better known today as Royal York Road. In a 1935 map of Toronto and its suburbs, however, the portion of the concession road west of Keele Street was referred to, in brackets, as Wilson Avenue.

Recently, there has been a local urban legend suggesting that Wilson Avenue is named after Norman D. Wilson (1884-1967), an influential Toronto-based transportation engineer who would later design the original YONGE subway. This legend was pervasive enough that it appeared on City of Toronto documents in 2010. However, North York Township named this rural concession road Wilson in the 1930s, before Metropolitan Toronto existed, and likely before Mr. Wilson had made a name for himself.

As deserving as Norman D. Wilson would be of having a street named after him in Toronto, according to Mike Filey, Wilson Avenue is actually a misspelling of Arthur L. Willson, who was a clerk and treasurer of York Township for over twelve years around 1875. Among Arthur Wilson’s accomplishments was writing a “municipal manual”, “which has been found of practical value as a guide to those requiring a knowledge of municipal law,” according to a history of the County of York.

Perhaps because the concession road was initially blocked at either end by the Humber and Don rivers, and Yonge Street and Weston Road funnelled traffic to the south, the concession road that became Wilson Avenue saw only rural settlement through the nineteenth century and well into the twentieth. Unlike the predecessors of Lawrence or Eglinton Avenues, whatever hamlets set up at crossroads on the way did not develop into significant villages. It is only in the late 1920s and the 1930s that the roadway sees any development, largely suburban lots spilling over the boundary from the old village of North Toronto on Yonge Street.

The first public transit operation to serve Wilson Avenue was run by Danforth Bus Lines beginning in 1945, connecting Wilson Avenue to TTC streetcars operating on Weston Road. In 1946, the Township of North York contracted the TTC to provide rush hour service along the length of Wilson Avenue, from Weston to Yonge. The WILSON bus lasted only ten months but was dropped due to unacceptable financial losses.

However, this was soon after the Second World War, and Toronto was beginning to experience significant urban sprawl. Development built up from the south, eventually reaching Wilson Avenue and increasing the ridership base. Danforth Bus Lines would eventually extend its service from the western portion of Wilson Avenue towards Yonge Street. Then, on July 1, 1954, the TTC took over the operations of Danforth Bus Lines and incorporated its WILSON route from Glen Echo loop at Yonge Street west to Weston Road and Oak, the beginnings of the 96 WILSON service.

The Call For a Northwest Subway

The first calls for a subway serving the area appeared in the early 1960s, as Metropolitan Toronto considered its long-term growth. Metro Chairman Frederick Gardiner crafted both a subway plan for the municipality and a highway plan that saw lines and roadways stretching from the downtown into the suburbs. One key element in his highway plan was a “Spadina Roadway”, extending north from Spadina Road at Casa Loma, northwest via the Nordheimer and Cedarvale ravines and then north between Bathurst and Dufferin Streets to the McDonald-Cartier Freeway, today known as Highway 401.

Toronto city planners were looking to other cities as they considered their growth, particularly New York and Chicago, and they noted that Chicago had successfully expanded its subway network by running tracks within the median of newly built expressways into the city. This approach saved construction costs, since it effectively doubled the use received from a single act of land acquisition. Gardiner had successfully received backing for subways that stretched north, east and west along two critical spines of the city, and while debates raged over whether the third subway line should be built beneath Queen Street, suburban politicians argued that the northwest and northeastern quadrants of Metropolitan Toronto were underserved by transit, and the next subway should strike out to fill one of these gaps.

With the proposed Spadina Expressway reaching down towards the Downtown, Gardiner and Metro planners saw an opportunity to do what Chicago had done, building a subway in the median of the expressway, cutting construction and land acquisition costs, and extending subway service towards the northwest of the city. Early maps of the proposed SPADINA subway line suggested the service could extend as far north as Finch Avenue, possibly to meet a rapid transit line running along the Hydro right-of-way north of the street. By the late 1960s, however, the first phase of the SPADINA line was cut back to Wilson largely because the Spadina Expressway was not going to be extended far north of Highway 401 in the near future, forcing future land acquisition costs onto the subway. The presence of Downsview Airport, the Canadian Forces Base serving that airport, and limited commercial and residential development north of the airport were likely other limiting factors.

The debate on whether the SPADINA or the QUEEN subway should be the next priority of the TTC after the construction of the North Yonge extension continued until the late 1960s when the province reorganized Metropolitan Toronto to reflect the changes that had occurred since its creation in 1954. This gave the suburban municipalities within Metro a majority of council seats, and made SPADINA the next priority. Metropolitan Toronto passed the project in 1972, and the provincial government approved funding on January 18, 1973. Construction began soon thereafter.

Station Design

Wilson station, designed by TTC in-house architect Herta Freyberg, had to deal with some unique topological challenges. The SPADINA subway had been designed to be built within the median of a four-lane expressway. With the exception of Yorkdale, all other stations within the median were built in areas where the expressway was in a trench. This meant that the station platforms could be located below street level, and the street level itself could serve not only as an exit, but as a place where connecting buses could load and unload.

Yorkdale and Wilson were located in the middle of the expressway where the expressway was located above the lie of the land. Passengers had to proceed down a level in order to get to street level, but because this was within the median of the expressway, building a terminal in such a space required digging, or placing the terminal on the outside of the expressway right-of-way. In Yorkdale, this was less of a problem for the TTC, as GO Transit was building a regional bus terminal which did not have to be within the TTC fare paid zone, and only one TTC route (18 CALEDONIA) served it. Wilson, however, required a much larger terminal to be built within the fare paid zone, which meant lengthy corridors to get between the subway platforms and the bus terminals, and lots of stairs or escalators in order to get up and down to the required levels. Adding a “kiss-n-ride” facility and connections to multiple car parks increased the station’s maze-like complexity.

Wilson station opened with a two-level bus terminal located off of Transit Road just west of the Allen Expressway. It opened serving twelve TTC routes or branches of routes, serving not just the major arterial of Wilson Avenue, but stretching out to northwestern North York and into northern Etobicoke. In 1983, Metropolitan Toronto established bus lanes on Dufferin Street and Allen Road north of the station, and sought to route some of the traffic on Sheppard, Finch and Steeles Avenue away from the YONGE line and onto the underused SPADINA subway.

The Third Terminal

At its height, Wilson station was serving seventeen bus routes or route branches. Congestion within the bus terminal was unmanageable. To deal with this, the TTC built a third bus terminal, located east of Transit Road, just north of the main two-level bus terminal. This “North Terminal” had been anticipated by Ms. Freyberg in the initial plans of the station, but was likely cut as a budget saving. In May 1983 the TTC’s Coupler magazine reported the following:

“Construction has begun on an additional transfer facility at Wilson Station, immediately north of the existing structure. The $2,142,300 contract is held by Dineen Construction Ltd, with completion scheduled for December of this year.

“The project involves construction of a single level glass enclosed waiting area with four standard bus bays, four articulated bus bays, and two unloading bays. The new structure will be linked to the present station, opened in 1978, by an underground passageway.

Opening of the new facility will help to relieve congestion at Wilson Station and also permit additional routes to be fed into the terminal from the northwest. Greater use will be made of the exclusive bus lanes on the William R. Allen Road, linking Wilson Station with Finch Avenue. These changes are expected to attract addtion al passengers to the Spadina Subway, where patronage has been steadily increasing, particularly during 1982.”

When it opened for service on January 1, 1984, Wilson’s north terminal served buses entering the station via Allen Road to the north, capturing routes like 107 KEELE NORTH, 117 ALNESS and 106 YORK UNIVERSITY, to name a few. The original terminals remained to serve buses operating east and west along Wilson, or south via Dufferin. The North Terminal remained in service until March 30, 1996, when the SPADINA subway was extended north to Sheppard Avenue and Downsview station opened to the public.

The Extension North

Although early plans for the SPADINA subway called for its extension north from Wilson, those plans were not more than proposals until the early 1980s, when Metropolitan Toronto established the Network 2011 plan for subway expansion over the following three decades. The proposal called for the construction of a SHEPPARD subway, from the Scarborough Town Centre west along Sheppard past North York’s City Centre to Dufferin, where it would meet an extension of the SPADINA line. The section west of Yonge and the extension of the Spadina line was part of the fourth phase of the project, to be finished in 2009.

However, Metropolitan Toronto’s Network 2011 plan proved to be too ambitious for the province’s liking, especially after Premier Bill Davis retired and his Progressive Conservative government fell to defeat after the 1985 election. The subsequent Liberal administration of David Petersen was less interested in building a subway beneath Sheppard Avenue, and planners for the province suggested solving the YONGE subway’s capacity problems by extending the SPADINA subway north to Finch and east to Yonge to create a belt line. Subsequent modifications of this plan expanded the loop to encompass York University and Steeles Avenue.

This was a controversial move, opposed by North York and Scarborough city councils, so to get construction started while debates continued, Metropolitan Toronto and the province agreed to build the one length of subway common to both plans: the extension of the SPADINA line north from Wilson to Sheppard Avenue, to be called Downsview station.

So it was that the North bus terminal was made redundant thirteen years earlier than anticipated. The facility was shuttered, working escalator and all, its entrance from the station walled off, and the space used for storage or, in one case, to film a television commercial.

Station Features

Wilson station was built to the 1970s modernist style. As with the other stations on the SPADINA subway, it eschewed a common look from the rest of the line and stayed within its own context. The station was designed to connect passengers from a simple station building located within the median of the Allen Expressway above and north of Wilson Avenue to a bus terminal, a passenger pick-up and drop-off pavilion, and three large commuter parking lots northeast, southeast and southwest of the station building.

Concrete predominated, although tiles covered the walls throughout, in intriguing artistic arrangements. Exceptions were the passageways connecting the main concourse to the southern parking lots, which remained bare concrete. The original bus terminal is a two level structure done in the more traditional TTC style of glass exterior walls and an overhanging roof canopy. This look was matched for the passenger-pick-up and drop-off pavilion, and the North Terminal, added seven years later.

As with other stations on the SPADINA line, Wilson received specially commissioned art pieces to liven up the facility. The most prominent is a wall sculpture by Ted Bieler called Canyons, located in the mezzanine level between the stairs leading up to the subway platform. The cast concrete art piece evokes the appearance of rock strata. The station also opened with installations of backlit photographs from Toronto’s history, but these were allowed to fade over time.

On October 26, 2016, the City of Toronto unveiled a new art installation connected to Wilson station. The Guardians, by Chilean-Canadian artist Shalak Attack, is a magical realism mutual painted over the support pillars holding up the Allen Expressway and the subway on the either side of Wilson Avenue. According to StreetARToronto’s press release on the day, “On all four extremities where the pillars at Wilson subway station begin, the artist has painted four strong and beautiful feminine gatekeepers who hold up the bridges above them, acting as mythical-like guardians protecting those who pass by. The mural goes on to celebrate the “Weaver” as a timeless and powerful creator through a vibrant and fantastical array of symbolic imagery. She was assisted in the creation of this mural by her husband and artistic collaborator, Bruno Smoky.” These art pieces surround the Wilson Avenue entrances to the station, brightening up the commute of those walking into the station.

Changes to Come

The size of Wilson station, and the many level changes passengers have to take to get where they need to go mean that it a difficult facility to make accessible to wheelchairs. A minimum of three elevators would be required to take passengers from the bus terminal to the station platform. For this reason, the TTC does not foresee making Wilson station wheelchair accessible until 2020.

Other changes are coming, however, that may transform Wilson station from a remnant suburban gateway to the north to the hub of an urban centre. When it opened in 1978, Wilson station was surrounded by roadways and parking lots, making it difficult to develop commercial or residential buildings within easy walking distance. At its height, Wilson station boasted 2,108 parking spaces, second only to Finch station’s 3,227. On December 1, 2016, however, the TTC permanently closed the southwest parking lot at Wilson station.

The southwest lot held 610 parking spots, but with 1,500 spots available in the station’s three other lots, and with lots also available at Downsview and Yorkdale stations, and as many as 2,450 to open beside Pioneer Village and Highway 407 stations on the Spadina-York extension, the southwest was underused and declared surplus. The City of Toronto will sell it off for redevelopment that will encourage walk-in use of Wilson station. Long term plans also call for the southeast lot and its 541 spaces to be similarly sold off for the development of a mid-rise residential community.

While Wilson station’s use has declined since its opening, it remains a busy station. The northern bus terminal may have been mothballed, but the original two-level bus terminal remains in heavy use. The buses along Wilson Avenue, including 96 WILSON, 165 WESTON ROAD NORTH and 186 WILSON ROCKET are busy throughout the day. Not only is Wilson Avenue a built-up street with stores and high-rise apartments, it offers quick access (via Albion Road) to destinations throughout northern Etobicoke that Sheppard Avenue (which ends at Weston Road) does not. This is not likely to change in the near future, as redevelopment of the parking lot lands promises to bring more riders within walking distance of the station. Even as the SPADINA subway is extended north into Vaughan, Wilson’s usefulness will not diminish.


Service Notes (as of June 7, 2017):

  • Off-site Resources:
  • Line: 1 YONGE-UNIVERSITY-SPADINA
  • Address: 570 Wilson Avenue
  • Opened: January 28, 1978
  • Average Weekday Ridership: 23,610 (2014); 23,420 (2013), 19,620 (2011), 22,930 (2010)
  • Hours of Operation:
    First Train to Finch: 5:52 a.m. weekdays, 5:58 a.m. Saturdays/holidays, 7:47 a.m. Sundays.
    First Train to Downsview: 6:27 a.m. weekdays, 6:34 a.m. Saturdays/holidays, 8:36 a.m. Sundays
    Last Train to Finch: 1:21 a.m. every day.
    Last Train to Downsview: 2:05 a.m. every day.
  • Entrances: 6
    • From Wilson Avenue, one entrance located 181 metres west of Wilson Heights Boulevard and another 232 metres west of Wilson Heights Boulevard. Access provided to the main collector gates.
    • Passenger Pick up and Drop off Entrance, accessed from the north side of Wilson Avenue by walking 63 metres east on Transit Road and then north 28 metres on a sidewalk to the bus driveway. Cross the bus driveway and continue 5 metres north to the stairs, and then 24 metres to the entrance. Access provided at the underpass level via an automatic entrance, or via a corridor, escalator and stairs to the main collector gates.
    • Main Parking Lot Entrance, located on the west end of the main parking lot near Wilson Avenue and Wilson Heights Boulevard. Access by automatic entrance, or stairs to main collector gates.
    • South Parking Lot Entrance, located near Wilson Avenue and Tippet Road, from the west end of the parking lot. Stairs provide access to a bridge across Wilson Avenue to the main collector gates.
    • Southwest Entrance, located on the south side of Wilson Avenue, 191 metres east of Billy Bishop Way. Stairs provide access to a bridge across Wilson Avenue to the main collector gates.
  • Wheelchair Accessible?: No (tentatively planned for 2020)
  • Escalators (click here for maintenance schedule):
    • Concourse To Train Platform - South End (Up At All Times)
    • Concourse To Train Platform - Centre (Down At All Times)
    • Concourse To Train Platform - North End (Up At All Times)
    • Concourse To Passenger Pick Up (Up At All Times)
    • Bus Platform Walkway To Upper Concourse (Up At All Times)
    • Bus Platform Walkway To Upper Concourse (Down At All Times
    • Bus Platform Walkway To Lower Bus Platform (Down At All Times)
    • Bus Platform Walkway To Lower Bus Platform (Up At All Times)
    • Lower Bus Platform To Upper Bus Platform (Up At All Times)
  • Parking: 1498 spaces over three lots
    • Wilson Main Lot (North) - 50 Wilson Heights Boulevard. Enter from the north side of Wilson Avenue, just east of Allen Road. The entrance is on the west side of Wilson Heights Boulevard. Capacity is 885 spaces.
    • Wilson South Lot - 30 Tippet Road. Enter from the south side of Wilson Avenue, just east of Allen Road. The entrance is on the west side of Tippet Road. Capacity is 541 spaces.
    • Wilson Transit Road Lot - 25 Transit Road. Enter from the north side of Wilson Avenue, just west of Allen Road. The entrance is on the east side of Transit Road. Capacity is 72 spaces.
  • Washrooms: located on the concourse near the collector booth
  • Token vending machine
  • Pass vending machine
  • One centre platform

TTC Surface Route Connections:

Former TTC Surface Route Connections


Wilson Station Image Archive


<< SHEPPARD WEST | Yonge-University-Spadina | YORKDALE >>
Subway Related Properties Page

References

  • City of Toronto Archives
  • Ng, Nathan. “Wilson.” Station Fixation. N.p., Dec. 2014.
  • The Coupler, TTC Employee Magazine, May 1983
  • With thanks to Mike Filey