Toronto’s greatest historical landmark is to be remade. The idea’s been tried before, with uninspiring results. Will David Miller’s vision restore Canada’s grandest example of beaux arts architecture to its former grandeur? We parse the city’s plan and offer a five-point proposal of our own. All aboard
1. Make the Great Hall great again
There’s no delicate way to put it. The Great Hall, once hailed as the most magnificent room in Canada, is falling apart. The Tennessee marble floor is cracking. Plaster is crumbling from the walls. The lustre has come off the oak woodwork and bronze and copper finishes. Heritage repairs alone will cost more than $177 million over the next 25 years.
But an even bigger problem is that, outside morning and evening rush hours, the space itself is underutilized. The city is proposing improved pedestrian access, including a new underground PATH connection to the northwest and a tunnel to Union Plaza, the Air Canada Centre and Maple Leaf Square. Great for commuters who want to get to the Leafs game, but the station itself needs to become a destination. Plans prepared by architects in 1914 but never realized show a splendid dining room and kitchens on the main floor. Sounds like a place to start.
2. Give Union back its west wing
For Union to really fly, it needs its wings back. The west wing, which houses the station’s original waiting room and once boasted a view of the bay, is little-used today except by passengers on their way from the station to the Convention Centre via the Skywalk. It retains few of its historic elements. The skylight that was covered up during World War II has been restored, but the space, which features Zumbro stone walls and pillars, is now dominated by a confection stand.
We say bring back the quarter-cut oak benches, private telephone booths and writing tables that gave train travel a sense of occasion back in the day.
3. Putting feet back in the plaza
As a public space, the “plaza” out front of the station is little more than an extra-wide sidewalk – and ground zero for lung-busting smog when buses and cabbies are lining up in front to collect passengers. The plaza is supposed to announce the station. But you’ll generally find more pigeons congregating than people.
The few bike racks are a disgrace. And the hot dog stand out front adds more clutter than charm. The space needs an entire rethink. There’s nowhere to sit.
Adding some green and a bike lane along Front should be priorities. The most intriguing aspect of the front, the majestic “moat” behind the columns leading to the GO concourse, is a dead zone. It could use some benches for those hot, humid days when shade is hard to come by.
4. Beware the retail hell
By far the most controversial part of the city’s plan for Union is a proposal to dig underneath the existing Bay and York GO concourses to make room for some 12,500 square metres of retail.
We’re all for killing the kitsch and odd “grab and go” shops that disfigure every nook and cranny of this national historic site. But we certainly don’t want to go back to the 60s, when huge billboards adorned the Great Hall’s walls, cars were displayed on platforms and vending machines were everywhere.
The city’s proposal talks about giving some retail space to locally made goods and services – a good thing. For Union to survive, it must become economically self-sustaining – and that means retail. The key is ensuring that the heritage restoration makes Union an attraction on its own.
More commuters enter Union Station every day than Grand Central in New York. The difference is that another half-million people visit Grand Central simply to enjoy the space.
5. Staying on the right track
There are many fingers in this pie – maybe too many. The city owns the building, GO owns the rail corridor between the Don River and Strachan. And the feds aren’t willing to ante up any cash.
This project is too big and complex to be managed by a council vulnerable to development pressures or city bureaucracy. The Union Station Revitalization Public Advisory Group is recommending that council appoint a separate board that can respond to issues quickly as they arise. This is crucial, especially since council changes every four years and there is no assurance new members will share the historically rich vision that the current mayor’s crew is pushing.
The last thing we want to see – and the idea has been floated – is a clutter of new towers rising over the tracks.