[Although I am a member of the Union Station Revitalization Public Advisory Group, this post reflects my personal views and should not be construed as statement by or for that group.]
Updated at 3:00 pm November 16: The geometry of the Moat at the subway connection has been clarified further.
Updated at 6:45 pm November 14: A description of the new treatment of the between the subway station and the GO Concourse has been added.
Today in the Great Hall, Mayor Miller unveiled the latest proposal in the long story of Union Station’s revitalization. I’m not going to delve into this in detail, but want to give an overview to supplement the information on the City’s website.
First, I must talk about what is not in today’s announcement:
- A detailed staging plan for building restoration
- A governance plan for operation of the station as a City property
- A financial plan
Some of this information will come in a report to the Executive Committee meeting of November 26, and some will come separately early in 2008. Today’s announcement sets the stage with a design for what could be. The proposed design draws on work that has gone before, but improves it especially in light of the station’s primary function: a major transportation hub and historic public building.
Union Station is a complex structure many people, even those who use it every day, don’t know all of its nooks and cranies, the many hidden corners. “Nooks” really does not describe the vast amount of unused space in this building, and the new plan opens up these areas in unexpected ways.
When you look at the plans, it is vital to take into account both the topology of the site and the changes in development that are happening around it.
Toplology of the Station
Union Station sits on Front Street, and the floor of the Great Hall is at street level. Below is the original arrivals level reached either by going down the ramps behind the collonade, down the stairways from the great hall, or down the ramps from the side corridors of the Via concourse. The important point here is that the Via concourse lies in between the two large public areas of the Great Hall itself. The tracks are, of course, one level up from the Via concourse, or about half a level up from the Great Hall.
The ramp structure and the staggered floor levels provide opportunities for rearranging pedestrian flows as I will describe later. A cross-section view of the station in the City presentation does not show the levels quite accurately for the main part of the station (this is due to the variation in floor heights through the building), but gives the general idea.
The GO concourse sits under the east wing of the station, and is itself on two levels. The main area is roughly on the same level as the moat and Bay Street south of front (think of walking out the east door of the GO concourse to Bay Street and the teamway leading south to the Air Canada Centre). However, the west side of the GO concourse is a bit higher, on the same level as the arrivals level of the Great Hall.
GO also has a mezzanine level, a rabbit warren of stairs and distribution passages to various platforms which is sandwiched in between their main level and the tracks above.
The existing layout of public areas contains four main blocks on the main level. The Great Hall itself, the West Wing leading to the Skywalk to the stadium, the East Wing (leased by Scotiabank), and the Via Concourse. The lower level contains various retail operations, the GO Concourse and the Arrivals Concourse.
Pedestrian flows are constrained in many areas, and the expected doubling of GO demand over the next decades would overwhelm the building as it stands.
New Development to the South
Something that is not obvious from the drawings is the relationship between the station and lands to the south. Bremner Boulevard will give a new south access to the station and a new Union Plaza that will lie between the railway station and major new developments to the south. Bremner is a full level down from Front Street within the station, and so is roughly at the level of the Via Concourse. A new south exit is already under construction.
When this area is completed, there will be a new cab stand on Bremner that will be easily accessible for Via passengers who are the primary users of taxis. This removes the Via pedestrian traffic from the main commuter flows on the north side of the site.
Both York and Bay Streets have teamways, passages behind the columns lining the sidewalks that were originally used for movement of freight. One by one, these have been reclaimed for pedestrian use (Bay West for the ACC link, and Bay East for GO Transit), and this will continue with the York East teamway. These areas are important because they provide direct access from the lower level of the station onto wide pedestrian walkways that serve existing and planned developments around the station.
Although the Via and GO Concourses are the lowest level we see of the station today, the supporting structure goes down further. The new proposal borrows a design from earlier schemes of excavating the space under the entire building to provide a new basement retail level of the complex. When I first saw this plan, I thought “who will ever go down there” until I realized how this space connects with the areas around it.
Because of the grade change south from Front, this new level is only one down from the street at Bremner. Also, the use of ramps and openings between this new level and the Concourse level, there will be visual links alerting people that there’s something “down there” worth visiting.
From a commercial point of view, this space may attract not just shops serving the railway passengers, but also the very large residential population who will move into the area over the next few years. This will be one of their main pathways into the city.
Rethinking the Concourses
At the concourse level, big changes are planned. The lower level of the west end of the trainshed, now a grotty space occupied mainly by a car rental operation, would become a second GO Concourse, and this would be built at the same level as the Via Concourse allowing seamless paths between the two.
To the east, the existing GO Concourse would be reconfigured dramatically by removal of the mezzanine structures and elevation of the floor to a level matching the Via Concourse.
This produces two continuous east-west spaces. At the north end of the building, the newly named “Promenade” level runs under the main building at the same grade as the Arrivals level under the Great Hall. To the south, under the trainshed, is a continuous Concourse level with GO Transit in the east and west wings and Via in the centre.
All of this is linked by ramps to provide easy transitions between the major parts of the station. The goal is to make large, open spaces both for pedestrian flow and to handle the large crowds of existing and future rail operations.
A new connection to the Royal York Hotel is also planned west of the existing tunnel, and this will be designed for easier accessibility.
One big challenge for Via will be that their concourse area, now used to stage long queues of passengers awaiting their trains, will now be a major pedestrian link between the existing downtown at Front and the developments to the south.
The moat is at the level of the existing GO Concourse, but it will be lowered to the same level as the new Retail Space. This will also allow the removal of the stairs between the mezzanine level of Union subway station and the moat, and a direct connection from the subway into the new Retail level.
This means that there will be a continuous path from the Royal Bank Plaza through the subway mezzanine and the Retail level of Union Station down to Maple Leaf Square.
Updated November 16: A reader pointed out that the large sewer relocation now underway by the TTC seems to conflict with the arrangement described here. I checked into this, and the answer is:
Yes there is a “new” sewer just below the current surface of the Moat which has just been relocated into the Moat to allow for the TTC’s south platform construction and this would have to be lowered again to allow for the excavation of the Moat to the level of the TTC’s concourse. While this is a considerable cost, it is not impossible to do although it may be required to be a force main which adds to the complexity and costs.
The moat would be lowered roughly from the western edge of Bay Street to the west of the new doors into the TTC, at which point it would then be ramped up to the current level under the bridge and the York Street end.
The depression of the interior floor level under the Head House would be undertaken in a similar fashion so that by the time you got to roughly the current location of the LCBO you would be back to the existing level of the “promenade” as this area under the Head House has considerable heritage architectural detail and we would not want to lose this.
The balance of the floor level below the tracks and trainshed would be lowered for the retail space giving an adequate head room for both the new GO concourses and for the retail space. At the south end there might have to be some ramping up to the current level of the ACC’s galleria and to Union Square.
The Great Hall
Finally, back in the space that started it all, the Great Hall gets not only a major facelift, badly needed by the whole building, but a new life as a major pedestrian space. Planned changes include the renovation of the West Wing including its vintage office space (often used for movie sets) and the creation of an indoor east-west street with retail spaces.
Several new connections will be added to the Concourse areas, and through them to the new Retail level below.
As and when an Airport Link ever operates from Union, it would go on Track 1. This track can be accessed directly from the Great Hall level, and there are direct links to it in the West Wing. This would provide a separate area for this service that does not involve going up and down through the main concourse and stairways to track level.
One area not mentioned here, because it is part of a separate design plan, is the space on Front Street. I already mentioned that a new taxi stand will be built on Bremner south of the station to serve passengers directly from the Via Concourse. The full Front Street scheme will be the subject of an EA to start sometime early in 2008. This will expand the pedestrian space by widening sidewalks on both the north and south side of Front, remove the barriers in the middle of the street, and reduce the street width so that Front will exist primarily as a local street serving Union Station and the Royal York. Details of this can be seen in Union Station District Plan.
Where Do We Go Now?
GO Transit has not yet signed on to this proposal and, indeed, GO’s chief, Gary McNeil was recently quoted as saying that GO should just buy the station. That would be a disaster.
All GO cares about is trains, and they don’t do a very good job of that some days. GO is fond of pointing out that they handle more people at Union every day than pass through Pearson Airport. One can’t help wondering if they are taking lessons from the airlines in on-time performance.
I worry that GO will attempt to sabotage this plan in the interest of furthering their own scheme. We should remember that GO is not exactly flush with cash, and they depend on the same funding sources as other local transit operators. Moreover, GO will soon come under the GTTA’s purview, and that body may think twice before committing their agency to the large cost of renovating and operating a major railway station.
Today, we have only a design plan for the revitalized station, and opponents of this plan will no doubt use the absence of financial and other details as a wedge to attack this as one more hopeless scheme that we can never afford. This would be unfair, although it won’t stop people who like to get their voice in the media. Looking at the experience of last summer when the Mayor’s Office went into a summer hibernation after the deferal of new tax measures, we don’t need an encore. This plan needs strong support at senior levels to carry it through into 2008 when the followup reports will be published and Council will decide on the future of the station.
People will wring their hands about the cost. I will sigh, shrug my shoulders and point out that the complete project is estimated at roughly $400-million (some of which would be paid off through future rental income), an amount that might build the York University Subway as far as Sheppard West Station. If we have billions for this type of rapid transit expansion, we should have the millions it will take to make Union Station shine downtown.
We need a plan that serves the City’s interests as the hub of our transportation network and as a gateway between the old and new downtowns. Whether tourists will visit Toronto just to see our railway station is a dubious claim, but those who pass through it should be impressed at how well it works, how it provides modern, attractive services in the context of our most striking heritage building.