After stalling for years amid corruption charges, lawsuits and bureaucratic bungling, the overhaul of Union Station is finally happening. But the plan we got funnels GO riders into an underground mall, leaving the iconic building’s Great Hall empty and missing the chance to transform the daily commute into a thing of true beauty. Inside a $640-million mistake
At five o’clock every weeknight, the homeward-bound commuters surge out of the subway station at Union and into GO Transit’s underground domain. Women and men, all wearing a similar expression of pressured anxiety, bolt across the open-air moat and pick up speed as they push through the heavy doors of the GO concourse. As soon as their feet hit the lower concourse’s 1970s tile floor, they begin to move in a stiff-legged rush that doesn’t want to admit to being a run. They look for seats beneath the grooved ceilings that are the undersides of the staircases and access pathways to the trains. The installation of these elevated pathways, to refit the station for commuter transit 30 years ago, has turned the waiting area into a space of rathole aggressiveness. Commuters talk on their cellphones, surrounded by garish logos promising sugar and caffeine. At a signal from the monitors, the passengers move forward in unison to board their trains with a purposeful, glazed-eye enervation, like cult members who retain their devotion to the faith in spite of having lost their enthusiasm for its rituals.
Union Station, once the emblem of an ambitious city, has become a commuter hub, serving 200,000 passengers every weekday. Some 65 million people pass through the station in a year, a figure that is expected to double by 2020. But the decline of long-distance train travel has left the upper level, where VIA Rail is based, underused. Proposals to renovate the station have come and gone with such monotonous regularity that it’s hard to believe a $640-million overhaul, which started in January and is scheduled to be completed in 2015, is actually happening.
The renovation is practical, not visionary, a well-intentioned but ultimately utilitarian scheme to accommodate the coming generations of commuters. It’s a missed opportunity to transform Union Station into a grand, inspiring gateway to the city.
Union Station was once a genuine civic space where organ recitals took place, new immigrants entered the city and soldiers left for war
The current building, a low, dun-coloured bunker besieged by a glittering growth of glass and steel, is the city’s third Union Station, having replaced a block reduced to rubble by the Great Fire of 1904. It was designed in the early 20th-century beaux arts style, which Vincent Scully, one of the most prominent American architectural critics of the second half of the 20th century, described as characterized by “a blessed sense of civic excess.” Inside the Great Hall, the semicircular vaults at the east and west ends illuminate the room’s cathedral-like proportions. The grey and pink Tennessee marble floor, the coffered tiles of the barrel vault ceiling, the plaster curlicues and mouldings high up on the walls, all make a presumption of grandeur that our democratic, utilitarian age finds slightly unnerving. The incorporation of frankly Canadian touches—the beaver in the Toronto coat of arms, the long frieze running around the hall that lists 27 Canadian railway destinations from Prince Rupert to Halifax—reminds us that the station was constructed by a vigorous, self-confident young country.
The station was inaugurated by Edward, Prince of Wales, during his 1927 royal tour. For the first three decades of its existence, it was not only the city’s point of connection with the world, but also its spiritual core as it matured and grew. Even during the hard times of the 1930s, trains were often so packed that extra carriages had to be added. In the 1940s, railway stations became a leitmotif for self-sacrifice, instantly recognizable as the place where families bid farewell to young men going off to war. Uniformed servicemen and women left from the station; the arriving passengers included British evacuees, German prisoners of war being escorted to work camps in northern Ontario, and maimed or wounded soldiers who returned from Europe in wheelchairs or on stretchers.
Union became such a focal point for the city during the war years that organ recitals took place every afternoon and evening in the Great Hall. It was a public space in the classical sense: a location in which civic experience, shared by many different strands of society, was woven together. In the post-war years, virtually all new immigrants entered the city at Union Station, usually after a long train journey from Halifax, where their ships had docked. Toronto of the late 1940s, although not yet as multicultural as today’s city, may have been more cosmopolitan. The menu in the station café was in nine languages. In November 1948, the Globe and Mail suggested that “the United Nations would do well to hold its next assembly in the lobby of Union Station.” Journalist Bruce West reported, “Redcaps, porters, baggage room employees and even floor washers, who are now Canadians but who still speak the native tongues of many far-off lands…are called in as translators to assist the constant stream of frightened, worried immigrants who each day arrive from distant corners of the world.”
After two years of planning and construction, on May 23, 1967, inaugural GO trains arrived from Oakville and Pickering. Yet even before the first commuters disembarked, Canadian National and Canadian Pacific had declared Union Station “inefficient and outmoded” and called for its demolition. By the early 1960s, most of the station’s freight yards had moved outside the city, opening up 75 hectares of land. On December 19, 1968, in the ballroom of the Royal York, the Metro Centre Developments group, a company set up by the two railways, unveiled a six-metre-long scale model of what the area would look like in the future. “Merry Christmas!” exclaimed Stewart Andrews, the president of Metro Centre, as he welcomed guests to the ballroom. Those who looked for Union Station in the model found in its place six octagonal office towers ranging in height from 18 to 36 storeys. A new rail, subway and bus terminal was to be built beside the Gardiner Expressway. The necessary step in creating a modern city, Andrews announced in a burst of Christmas cheer, would be the demolition of Union Station.
The railway companies’ proposal was the largest downtown redevelopment scheme in North American history, and it needed city council’s approval to make the leap from scale model to construction project. In 1972, after a five-day council debate, the proposal was approved. Only councillor John Sewell voted against it. But the marathon deliberations caught the public’s attention, and opposition began to grow. Exasperated Metro Centre officials blamed the protests on an anti-development bias that they claimed had emerged over the Spadina Expressway and the proposed demolition of Old City Hall. Newly elected Mayor David Crombie crafted a compromise that incorporated the demolition of Union Station into a scaled-back version of the original proposal. Council rejected Crombie’s compromise, and Ontario Premier Bill Davis, concerned that Toronto’s infrastructure development would be paralyzed, intervened and struck an intergovernmental committee to study the city’s future transportation needs. In May 1975, to the relief of preservationists and anti-development protestors, the committee recommended retaining Union. Only a few features of the original Metro Centre proposal were ever built; one of them is the CN Tower. The railways, meanwhile, were left to figure out what to do with a station whose disappearance they had been counting on for nearly a decade.
The current renovation project is happening despite a bitter, confrontational rerun of the Metro Centre polemic that pitted developers against conservationists. Even some of the antagonists are familiar. John Sewell, who fought the Metro Centre project and later served as mayor from 1978 to 1980, is one of the most vocal opponents of the current plan, which he believes caters to the interests of developers rather than serving the desires of citizens.
How the renovation contract was granted is itself controversial. In 2002, a city committee voted in favour of LP Heritage, a Chicago developer with experience in infrastructure restoration, over the Union Pearson Group, which was chaired by Larry Tanenbaum, the head of Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment. A couple of days later, questions were raised about LP Heritage’s financial health and a second vote was held; this time, Union Pearson won by a narrow margin. But Save Union Station, a group of heritage advocates, questioned the committee’s approval process. They also accused then-mayor Mel Lastman, whose son Dale Lastman was Tanenbaum’s lawyer, of having a conflict of interest, and discovered, through a freedom of information request, that the original ballots had been shredded. City council called for a review, but the report, delivered in May 2003, found that the evaluation process had been fair. It also decided that Save Union Station’s conflict of interest allegations were baseless. (LP Heritage nevertheless launched a suit against the city for $228 million, claiming the selection process was unfair and flawed. The suit remains unresolved.) In July 2003, city council leased the station to Union Pearson for 100 years. The project experienced another setback in 2006, when the city’s deal with the conglomerate dissolved because of contractual delays.
Between 2006 and 2009, the city, the province and the federal government revived the renovation plan and awarded the job to the Concord-based construction management company Vanbots. The result of this patchwork of funding and interests is a project that is compromised in every sense: shackled by overlapping jurisdictions, divided among three different architectural firms and pulled in different directions by conflicting interests.
When the morning trains arrive from the suburbs, the car doors open, and passengers spill out around the sole staircase in view like a pond-sized expanse of water pooling around a narrow drain. One morning, a few commuters, their patience worn thin, step onto the tracks and scurry down the railway line to a point where they can access another staircase farther along the platform. When a transit constable appears waving his arm, the transgressors hop contritely back onto the platform. As soon as the constable has passed, however, they’re down on the tracks again, rushing along in search of a staircase that isn’t overwhelmed by people.
The renovation project is shackled by overlapping jurisdictions, divided among three architectural firms and pulled in different directions by conflicting interests
The revitalization pledges to eliminate this chaos with 50 new glass-encased stairwells (bringing the total to 90 stairwells) that will funnel passengers down to a new concourse. From there they will descend another level to a retail concourse that leads to a new covered passage to the subway station. The highlight of the first stage of the revitalization is the new roof that will be built over the train platforms. The existing roof is low, dark and grimy. Lumps have fallen away from the precast concrete blocks overhead, exposing rusted wire mesh; in places, the half-eroded blocks have been reinforced with steel brackets to prevent more concrete from falling onto the tracks. The lighting is morosely subterranean, as though you’re deep underground. The renovation will see the middle section of the train shed roof replaced with a glass atrium extending over 5,000 square metres—about the size of three NHL hockey rinks. The east and west sections of the train shed roof will be retained, but they will be cleaned up and fitted with galvanized steel. The decision to keep the end sections may not be obvious to the average commuter. It turns out the train shed roof is a design by the early-20th-century American architect Lincoln Bush, and only a few samples of his work survive.
While the new roof is a major improvement to Union, what happens after passengers leave their trains is not. The plan stresses efficient movement through the station and is designed to get people through the lower concourse and into the Path system with minimal delay, confusion—or stimulation.
The revitalization’s goal doesn’t seem to be to connect passengers with the city, but to burrow them even deeper underground. The crucial stage of the project is the excavation of a new level beneath the GO concourse to house a subterranean shopping area. By 2015, the space beneath the floor of the current concourse will contain 18,000 square metres of retail space. Osmington, the real estate company owned by the billionaire David Thomson, will develop and manage this area through its subsidiary Redcliff. Most of the $303 million in funding for this part of the renovation will come from the city; under the terms of a 50-year lease, Redcliff will pay $10 million up front, plus $2 million a year in rent. Redcliff’s plans speak of making the new underground concourse “a destination.” Increasingly, walking underground is what Union Station is about.
John Sewell calls the whole thing fourth rate. “A first-rate plan would stream people through the Great Hall,” he says. “If you walk through places of great beauty every day, your life is beautiful. If you walk through ugly places, your life is ugly. So they’re adding a nice roof? Maybe they are, but it’s irrelevant if people are still going underground.”
Sewell argues that a far more pleasing design could be achieved by the construction of a central floor at the head of the first three or four tracks (leaving the remaining tracks for trains that continue through the station). Instead of descending underground, arriving passengers could stream through the Great Hall. Sewell’s proposal draws on the example of stations such as Victoria in London, where passengers disembark and walk through a vast interior space to enter the city at street level.
The Great Hall has been doughnuted. Like many towns and cities in Ontario, where historic downtowns lie empty while the hoop of highways and strip malls on the outskirts is thronged with cars, the station consists of an underutilized historic area at the heart of an ever-expanding network of subterranean pedestrian highways. The swinging doors at the back of the concourse that open into the Air Canada Centre, the planned new underground concourse, the extension to the Path system and the existing underground passage to the boutiques underneath the Royal York all drain people away from the Great Hall and funnel them in the direction of shopping.
For all its architectural grandeur, the renovated station fails to generate the human richness of different kinds of people coming into contact with history, and with each other, that makes city life exhilarating. A visit to Union is virtually guaranteed not to bring you into contact with colourful characters, street art, buskers, panhandlers, holy rollers selling their religion or campaigners urging you to support the cause of the moment. The new Union Station is not a place to interact with your fellow citizens, nor is it any longer a port of entry for newcomers. “The Great Hall should be the centre of activity at Union Station,” says a page on the City of Toronto Web site. It should be, but it isn’t, and the plans won’t fix that.
If you want to experience urban life, you have to leave the underground passages, go out the door onto Front Street and start walking.
OFF TRACK: Highlights of the Union Station Renovation