Union Station Revitalization Update (Part II)

In Part I of this thread (immediately following), I described some of th details of the proposed layout of the station in the Recommended Plan for revitalization.

The entire project is complex and there are many issues surrounding it.  The Union Station Revitalization Public Advisory Group, of which I am a member, gave a deputation at the Executive Committee meeting on November 26.  Our proposed changes to the process now underway were not accepted by the Committee, although we hope to get more exposure for and attention to them as time goes on.

Although we support the Recommended Plan, we were concerned that:

  • The implementation plan, which will now come back directly to the upcoming Council Meeting, will not be subject to public discussion before that meeting.
  • There is no governance plan in place, and it appears that the City is heading down a path to managing the building directly rather than through a board such as those that manage other City properties.

Here are the texts of the deputations by our Chair, Janice Etter, and Vice-Chair, Derek Boles and a letter sent to both the Globe & Mail (in response to their story about the station) and Lawrence Cannon, Minister of Transport for Canada.

From: Janice Etter, Chair, Union Station Revitalization Public Advisory Group

Recommendations:

  1. Recognizing that this report presents the Recommended Approach as a conceptual framework, that the Executive Committee support the staff recommendations;
  2. That the implementation report (staff recommendation #7) come back to the Executive Committee only after the feasibility of the conceptual framework has been established;
  3. That this Committee recommend to Council that it express its support for the creation of a separate body (either a corporate entity or a board) to lead and manage the Union Station Revitalization project;
  4. That the Committee support the proposal’s focus on restoring the building and revitalizing Union Station within its existing envelope, and commend staff for prioritizing these considerations and for their continued hard work on this challenging file.

Background: 

I am speaking on behalf of the citizen members of the Union Station Revitalization Public Advisory Group, who met last Thursday to discuss the report.

As you know, the public advisory group was created by City Council in 2002 to provide public input into the revitalization of Union, and was reconstituted earlier this year. It now has 19 members. Among us, we have an enormous breadth and depth of knowledge and experience in the fields of transportation, business, tourism, heritage, railway history, and development. We also have community and neighbourhood stakeholders.  In addition to the citizen members, we have three members who are councillors appointed by City Council.

The group is a voice for a broad range of perspectives, and also functions as a sounding board for staff assigned to the revitalization project. We have in common a very strong commitment to the principles and objectives defined by Council when the revitalization project was initiated after the City purchased the Station in 2000. We also remain committed to the Station remaining in City ownership and are strongly united in our appreciation of and dedication to this architectural treasure and National Historic Site. I was directed to express our continuing support for the Four Big Moves articulated in the Master Plan, with which this report is entirely consistent.

Our primary objective is to see the revitalization project move forward, and on that basis, we are supporting the staff recommendations regarding the conceptual framework for proceeding with the revitalization and restoration of the Station itself. We understand that the scope of this report is limited to the main building, and that consideration of the Station within the context of the surrounding precinct is to follow.
 
Comments:

The citizen members of the group met on Thursday night to review the report and had a lengthy discussion. That has been followed by an heroic attempt to put together several deputations to explain our positions on the key issues. With 19 very busy people and so little time, the task has proved to be impossible. Therefore, I’m going to speak very briefly to two of the main points that were highlighted in our discussion before I turn it over to Derek Boles, the vice chair, who will speak about heritage and the retail component of the proposal.

First, implementation (see recommendation #2): While we support the presentation of a conceptual framework to Council for approval, there was considerable concern expressed around the table that work on the feasibility of implementing the conceptualization proceed as quickly as possible. Much depends upon negotiations with other levels of government, the key partners in the Station, and various agencies. It is critical that Council give direction that those negotiations proceed in order that an implementation plan can come back to the Executive Committee expeditiously, and that the partners and stakeholders know that staff has the full support of Council.

Second, governance (see recommendation #3): Concern about this issue was expressed repeatedly by members of the group. We would like to see a clear and explicit commitment from Council to the creation of a separate entity – either a corporate body or a board – to assume control of the leadership and management of the revitalization project. We believe that we share this concern with many members of the general public, who see the project as too big and complex to be directly managed by the City, through Council, and that the creation of a small entity or board that can be flexible and nimble and respond quickly to issues as they arise will serve Union Station well. This is especially true since Council changes every four years and there is no assurance of continuity of vision and commitment to the principles and objectives. While ownership must remain in the hands of the City, and oversight of the budget, leadership and management of the project would be better delegated to an arms length body supported by an independent secretariat.

Conclusion:

The citizen members of the USRPAG believe that the staff report is consistent with the principles and objectives previously articulated for the Revitalization project, and with the Four Big Moves contained in the Master Plan. We therefore support the staff report and urge this Committee to support our recommendations.

From: Derek Boles, Vice Chair, Union Station Revitalization Public Advisory Group

Comments:

I am going to speak to two of the issues discussed in the staff report and supported by the advisory group last week: heritage and the development of a new retail concourse.

In addition to my participation on the Public Advisory Group, I am a railway historian. I write about and lecture on Toronto’s railway heritage and I lead public tours of Union Station, during the annual Doors Open event in May, and on the regular monthly tours of Union Station that the City provides as part of its obligation to interpret this National Historic Site.

When I conduct my public tours of Union Station, I encourage feedback. By far the most significant concern expressed is the obvious state of deterioration throughout the building. When we stand in the old Union Station Waiting Room on the first floor of the West Wing, I emphasize that the skylight overhead, covered up in World War 2, was restored by the city at significant cost in 2006. Ironically that wonderfully restored skylight only serves to cast a brighter light on the cracked floors, the crumbling plaster and the general shabbiness that permeates what was once one of Union Station’s most important public rooms.

The Union Station Public Advisory Group shares those concerns articulated by the almost 2,000 Torontonians who care enough about the building to seek out a guided tour every year. Over the last few years, we have become increasingly alarmed by the structural deterioration of Union Station. We recognize, as Mayor Miller has pointed out, that much of this deterioration is due to decades of neglect and deferred maintenance by the previous owners of Union Station. The Staff Report in front of you addresses the achievement of a State of Good Repair in a way that we think is a more realistic assessment of what will be required than previous appraisals of funding for this massive revitalization project.

Quite frankly, Union Station is falling apart. The Staff Report indicates that Heritage Improvements and achieving a State of Good Repair will cost more than $175 million over the next 25 years. Compare that figure to the estimated cost just a couple of years ago of $150 million for the total renovation and revitalization of Union Station, a figure now pegged at almost $390 million and you get some sense of just how urgent those repairs have become.

There are many who believe that the interpretation of a National Historic Site is not compatible with a provision for commercial and retail establishments within that site. The Public Advisory Group does not share this view. We recognize that the restoration and ongoing heritage interpretation of this building is going to cost a lot of money. We also recognize that most of this money is not going to come from taxpayers. We welcome and we encourage the participation of the private sector in leveraging the heritage value of Union Station.

Many people forget that Union Station was always a commercial space. As much as we desire today to enshrine the station as a monument to Beaux Arts architecture, the building was specifically designed to generate revenue in every conceivable way. The railway companies that built the station weren’t shy about that fact. They always embraced opportunities for increased revenues. We have copies of floor plans prepared by the architects in 1914 that show far more retail space than was ever realized when the station was built. These plans show a restaurant, dining room and kitchens occupying the entire first floor of the East Wing. That plan would have been realized except that the railways realized they could generate more revenue by leasing the
space on a long term basis to the Dominion Post Office.

We have a 1965 photograph of the Great Hall showing huge billboards hanging from the wall, phone booths, vending machines and lockers occupying every corner, and brand new GM automobiles being advertised and displayed on platforms built on top of the stairwells leading downstairs. The Staff Report does not advocate that degree of crass commercialism, which while a part of the heritage of Union Station, would not be a responsible interpretation of the facility, nor would it be acceptable to the people of Toronto.

The Public Advisory Group is pleased that the proposed alterations to the Union Station headhouse and the provision for additional space to accommodate commercial revenue do not in any way compromise the heritage elements of the building. The digdown, as it’s been characterized, the creation of retail space underneath the present basement level GO and VIA Rail train concourses, will provide the revenue necessary to pay for the restoration and revitalization of Union Station and it will not compromise those spaces within the station that the city will be celebrating.

We have ample evidence that a project of this nature can be successful. Grand Central Terminal in New York City, considered by many to be the most magnificent railway station in the world, embarked on such a revitalization ten years ago. The result was a splendid restoration and one studied closely by the city staff who prepared this report. Interestingly there are more commuters entering Union Station every weekday morning than those coming into Grand Central. The difference between the Toronto and New York railway stations is that there are a half million people a day who come to Grand Central to shop, to drink, to dine, and to just spend time enjoying the heritage and the atmosphere.

Union Station can be such a destination, one that citizens, nearby residents and visitors to Toronto can enjoy and appreciate and spend money so that this massive project can be financed and realized. But you do have to urgently address the issue of good repair at Union Station and you need to do this immediately. This is not simply a municipal priority recommended by the Public Advisory Group. It is a trust, invested in you by the citizens of Toronto and by the people of Canada who have delegated this National Historic Site to your care.

Letter to the Globe & Mail, also to Lawrence Cannon, Minister of Transport for Canada

City Council created The Union Station Revitalization Public Advisory Group in 2002 to advise on the revitalization project.

On Monday, the 19 citizen members recommended to the Executive Committee: “That this Committee recommend to Council that it express its support for the creation of a separate body (either a corporate entity or a board) to lead and manage the Union Station revitalization project.” The Committee chose not to endorse our position.

We believe that much public cynicism about this project is rooted in the lengthy and highly politicized process of decision-making at City Hall. A small entity or board committed to the project, not debating whether it should move forward, would best serve the interests of the revitalization. Such a board can be flexible, nimble and provide leadership for this vital work.

This is far more than a real estate deal. What’s at stake is the restoration of one of the city’s crown jewels and the revitalization of a major transportation hub and downtown destination.

While ownership and oversight of the budget must remain in the hands of the City, leadership and management of the project would be better delegated to an arm’s length body.

4 thoughts on “Union Station Revitalization Update (Part II)

  1. They should be careful about pushing for the creation of a board. I believe it was a Globe and Mail article, that was discussing Minister Cannon’s aggressive support for the project to get rolling, that mentioned the possibity of such a board being made up of those who have a stake in the station – which would include a very large chunk going to GO Transit… which is the same as giving it to Queen’s Park. I think we both don’t want that to happen. It is good to see that they stress the city keep ownership of the station officially, but beyond the city’s ownership, politics really should be kept out of this as much as possible (without endangering funding from senior levels). The last thing we could possibly want to happen is Union Station turning into another failure of a P3. The body should be corporate and as free as possible of political meddling – because we know GO Transit would love to buy the station, so best not give them a window of opportunity through their presence on a board.

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  2. Maybe a single Toronto Transportation Hub board could manage Union, the new Harbour Street bus terminal and the railway corridor (removed from GO)?

    It seems to be that a unification of those three could be logical (especially given the disputes about the platform layout) and worth exploring, with representation from GO, VIA, TTC, CN, CP etc. on the board but with management independent of all of them.

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  3. CN and CP have sold both the corridor and the station, and nearby yards, do they have any interest in this area left? Seems like they’ve sold off everything but the tracks themselves.

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  4. CN and CP each retain 50% ownership of the Toronto Terminals Railway. The TTR no longer owns anything, but continues to manage Union Station and the railway corridor on behalf of the City of Toronto and GO respectively.

    Almost all track in the Union Station rail corridor is now owned by GO, and it is under GO’s direction that major reconstruction of the track and switches has been taking place. CN retains ownership of the “high line,” the southernmost track in the corridor, which gives CN a bypass track for freight trains. VIA Rail Canada owns nothing, and is a tenant of GO’s as far as use of tracks and platforms is concerned.

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