A Rose By Any Other Name: Subway Station Beautification

Recently, the TTC received a proposal to retrofit three of its stations on the University subway line (Museum, St. Patrick and Osgoode) with major redesigns linked to the nearby palaces of culture:

  • Museum (self evident)
  • St. Patrick (Art Gallery of Ontario)
  • Osgoode (new opera house)

Word of this seeped into the press as one of those grand public-spirited gestures.  A foundation would raise money (tax deductible of course) and with this pool of loot would go forth and do good works.  You can read about it at http://spacing.ca/wire/?p=355.

There is a catch.  There is always a catch.

The foundation only pays for about half of the project and the rest has to be raised by the TTC, the City, whoever.  Seed money for the project (preliminary engineering, etc.) comes out of the TTC budget.  You don’t believe me?  Here’s the minute from the TTC’s November meeting:

COMMISSIONER GIAMBRONE MOVED THAT THE COMMISSION REAFFIRM $375,000 FOR DESIGN FOR STATION MODERNIZATION AND UP TO $500,000 FOR THE TORONTO COMMUNITY FOUNDATION’S STATION RENOVATION PROGRAM IN EACH 2006, 2007 AND 2008, CONDITIONAL ON PRIVATE FUNDS ON A 1 TO 3 BASIS, NOTING THAT 1/4 IS CITY FUNDED WITH 3/4 COMING FROM OTHER SOURCES. 

While you’re waiting for the next streetcar to show up, or railing against the penny-pinching City Budget Advisory Committee, console yourself.  You, yes you, shivering in the cold while all of those warm taxicabs pass you by, are doing your bit to make Toronto a Beautiful City.  At least Adam Giambrone had the good sense to insist that the City only pay one quarter of the cost of this scheme.  The original proposal from the Toronto Community Foundation was half-and-half.

Why the City falls for this sort of scheme every time utterly baffles me.  We have in Toronto a small industry comprised of people who find ways to spend public money on their pet projects.  It could be a baseball stadium, an airport, or a World’s Fair, but there is one common thread:  someone else pays for it, usually from a pot that is already overdrawn from current, pressing needs.

I’m not arguing that we should have ugly subway stations, but do we really need to spend $20-million sprucing up three stations that are actually not that bad?  (Yes, I know St. Patrick’s is a mess thanks to the now-and-forever problems caused by leaking water.)

This strikes me as part of a larger pattern.  Toronto is beset by construction projects masquerading as Arts.

  • The ROM expansion (a travesty, an architectural rape of Bloor Street)
  • The AGO expansion
  • The Opera House (now nearly finished, looking nowhere near as good as its artist renderings on the outside)

The ROM ran into problems when everyone learned that a condo spire (never presented as part of the original redesign) was integral to the financial plan.  Now they have to rev up their fundraising again.

When time comes to fund the companies that actually occupy all of our wonderous theatres and galleries, the number crunchers tell us that they must make do.  If they are lucky their grants are flatlined.  Added costs of running new spaces crowd out other vital parts of company budgets.

The same thing happens with transit.  People are happy to support subway construction to the middle of nowhere because the real purpose is not to carry passengers, but to stimulate the construction industry.  That’s why the NDP government of Bob Rae pushed ahead with so many subway lines.  (I happen to support the NDP, but Bob Rae, we’re well rid of him.)

This brings me back to Osgoode/Opera station.  Most readers here will not have seen the multimedia concept for this station, but it puts to shame anything on those puny little video screens everyone is so upset with.  Yes, it’s art not advertising (well, there’s a blur here because I’m sure that somewhere along the way, Ticketmaster’s phone number will pop up), but the concept is the same.

If we are going to make the subway a better, more attractive place for riders, is this the way to do it?  Or is it just a make-work project for designers?