Despite 2021 formal end of Union Station revitalization project, construction continues

Officials declared a formal end to the Union Station revitalization project in July 2021, but construction at Canada's busiest rail station continues. Nick Westoll reports.

While officials may have declared a formal end to the City of Toronto’s Union Station revitalization project, construction projects at Canada’s busiest rail station are expected to continue throughout 2022 and into the next several years.

It was at the end of July when Mayor John Tory and various dignitaries said the mammoth project, one that began in 2009 and was affected by issues with cost overruns and contractors, marked the end of major works that fell under the responsibility of the municipality.

The formal reopening brought with it several new amenities: expanded retail space, new and expanded GO Transit and Via Rail concourse spaces, improved PATH connections, parking for bicycles and various heritage improvement projects.

Fast-forward to today and one can still see tarps, fencing and construction-related hoarding inside and outside of Union Station.

Ellen Leesti, a spokesperson with the City of Toronto, said the formal project is indeed complete. However, she went on to say there are at least two projects that will be finished this year.

“There’s ongoing work to support the building and make it even better,” she told CityNews in an interview on Friday.

RELATED: New concourse opens with completed Union Station revitalization

The first one involves installing a large brass door at the northeast corner of the building, which has seen a large orange trap and fencing for some time. The entrance connects to municipal offices.

“That is also a heritage element to make sure we get it right,” she said.

The second project involves replacing several concrete barricades along Front, Bay and York streets that were put in as a temporary safety measure following the Yonge Street van attack. By the end of the year, Leesti said those will all be replaced with stainless steel concrete bollards.

At an eastern entrance on the Bay Street side, fencing still blocks off part of the building. City officials said Metrolinx, Toronto Hydro and TTC were doing work in that area.

A spokesperson for Metrolinx, the provincial organization that operates GO Transit and UP Express, told CityNews in a statement improvements continue to be made at the platform level. The agency is responsible for infrastructure above the Union Station building.

The statement said parts of pathways need to be blocked to accommodate that work, including for adding stairs in the heritage freight elevator shafts that service platforms 20 and 21.

Meanwhile, expansion planning is underway to create additional rail capacity at Union Station to support enhanced GO train service.

Large retail expansion set to begin opening by fall

Lawrence Zucker, the president and CEO of Osmington Inc. — the real estate company that has a 75-year lease for all retail areas in Union Station, said when it comes to the overall project and building out various spaces, coordinating the logistics project has been the top challenge.

“The City’s ability to actually revitalize Union Station to add additional capacity through the additional concourse as well as maintaining the 300,000-odd people going through the station every day made for an extremely complicated project from a process point of view and also from an engineering point of view,” he told CityNews in an interview on Friday.

“It is a very difficult project to execute on and it has taken a time beyond what everyone expected.”

Adding to the long-standing issue has been one felt by all sectors in Toronto: the pandemic and a dramatic drop-off of commuters moving through downtown due to work-from-home arrangements.

“For us, COVID has slowed things down. There was a time where we couldn’t do any construction within the space,” Zucker said, noting supply chain blockages have made materials harder to find and labour shortages with a reduced number of contractors being in heightened demand.

“We’ve lost some tenants as a result of COVID, some people who were interested in coming to the station (and) just couldn’t withstand COVID.”

Despite those setbacks and the previous opening of the food court, he said the company has actually signed on new tenants during the course of the pandemic and new retailers near the Bay concourse are set to begin operations by the end of the summer or early fall.

Sephora is one of the larger retailers joining the mix and the LCBO will be opening an outlet in the station. A cannabis “lifestyle” store, something Zucker said is beyond just a dispensary, is slated to open. Cinnabon, which was in Union Station before the years-long renovation project got underway, is also set to return.

In the Great Hall where the Via Rail ticket agents are and in the so-called east wing, upscale dining options are set to be added. The hall is expected to see an oyster and cocktail lounge as well as a cafe open in 2023 while a fine dining or seafood restaurant will move into part of the east wing.

However, Zucker said they have been working to bring in independent businesses that “reflect” Toronto. In the fresh market, a 35,000-square-foot space in the new lower level he said will resemble elements at St. Lawrence and Kensington markets, there will be a variety of multicultural vendors.

“We’re trying to provide variety. We’ve got lots of smaller spaces anywhere from let’s say 300 square feet to as much as I think our largest will be a sports bar restaurant that we’ll have just outside Scotiabank Arena that will be 10,000 square feet,” Zucker said.

“We decided it just wasn’t going to be a continuation of the PATH or a shopping centre like you’ll find in other neighbourhoods … We want to make this of Toronto and the way to do that was to bring in independent retailers.”

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