The Battle for Union Station
The shoreline of Toronto was not always as far away from Union Station as it is now. The station and the railway tracks were strategically placed beside the waterfront, so that goods from the trains could easily be transferred onto cargo boats to travel across Lake Ontario. Unfortunately this had the effect of cutting Torontonians off from the waterfront, with the railway lands a dangerous and unpleasant place to be. By the mid-1960’s much of the railway traffic had moved away from the waterfront creating an opportunity for the land to transform into an attractive and accessible place.
The south side of Union Station, as seen from Lake Ontario. circa. 1880
Courtesy City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1441, Item 13
Pamphlet Cover for the Metro Centre, 1972.
Courtesy of City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1306, Series 308, Suberies 1, Item 38
Canadian National and Canadian Pacific Rail created Metro Centre Developments Ltd (MCDL) to develop a new plan for the railway lands. In December of 1968 MCDL presented their plan to the City of Toronto. It was ambitious, featuring a wide swath of land between Yonge and Bathurst, and from Front Street to the Gardiner expressway. There would be office towers, apartment buildings, shops, schools and a giant communications tower—the CN Tower. The plan included creating a new transportation hub at Queens Quay, which meant demolishing and replacing Union Station in favor of six skyrise office buildings.
The MCDL claimed that Union Station was outdated, falling apart, and the cost to repair it was far too high. Their fatal error was not consulting city developers and the citizens. They did not consider how passionately Torontonians treasured Union Station and that there would be strong pushback against its demolition.
The Great Hall of Union Station 1970.
Courtesy of City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 351, File 10
Torontonians doubted any promises of a new facility being as beautiful, or efficient, as Union Station. Civic activism had become a Toronto staple, as demonstrated from the stopping the Spadina Expressway from cutting through the Annex.
Torontonians knew their voice had the power to make change. Citizens of diverse backgrounds teamed up creating the Union Station Committee, speaking out against the project. Activists wanted Union Station to continue functioning as the main transportation terminal in the area.
City Hall was divided about the project and Alderman John Sewell questioned MCDL president, Stewart Andrews, for firm details of the plan. During the questioning, Sewell focused on three things: the percentage of profit given to the developers, how accommodations for low-income housing was handled within the plan, and what private negotiations had been undertaken. Mr. Andrews did not have the information to properly answer any of the questions.
City council debated and worked with MCDL for seven years as the project continued to stall. Three events worked in favour of preserving Union Station as the main transportation hub.
Firstly, the Toronto Transit Commission decided not to expand their subway loop further south towards Queens Quay.
Secondly, it was unclear whether Canadian National and Canadian Pacific owned all of the land that the MCDL plan was meant to cover—some of the land was owned by the City and the proposed changes to the land would null the current agreements.
Finally, the voice of activists advocating for the preservation helped confirm Union Station’s presence in civic identity. These advocates took their fight to the Ontario Municipal Board to override city decisions and won. By 1975 the negotiations had ended, and Union Station was declared a heritage building.
The first page of the news letter by James Acland president of the Architectural Conservatory of Ontario. If you know the specific publication this was in please feel free to contact us so we can update.
Courtesy of City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 265, Series 1269, Subseries 7, File 2
On the left is Lake Ontario and the Gardiner Expressway. The tall building is the CN Tower model. In the foreground the six towers along Front Street were intended to replace Union Station.
Courtesy of City of Toronto Fonds, 1652, File 804, Item 69-96-8
Metro Centre model with a focus upon the CN Tower.
Courtesy of City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 265, Series 1270
CN Tower under construction.
Courtesy of the Toronto Railway Museum Collection
This image of the winter garden and the map detailing how the streets around the station would change are in John Andrews' report to the City as a potential alternative to the original Metro plan that demolishes the station outright.
Courtesy of City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 265, Series 1269
The architect John Andrews presented alternate plans for the MCDL which preserved the Great Hall. This alternate plan had four towers instead of six, and envisioned the Great Hall as part of a large winter garden. While this would not preserve Union Station as a transportation hub, it would keep the most beloved part of the station.
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