South of Union

South of Union

I was in Toronto today, doing some writing and research associated with Icarus Down. I came in via GO Transit and stuck around Union Station a while. As a result, I took in some of the changes that have occurred to the area recently.

Twenty-one years ago, my father took me down to Union Station with him while he went to a conference at Royal York Hotel. My goal was to take pictures of trains, which he allowed me to do, on the condition that I do so safely. I probably engaged in a bit of trespassing as I accessed an open access road into what was then the derelict railway lands, but despite being in full view of several train crews for two hours, nobody came to shoo me away. Such a thing would be impossible to even think about in this post 9-11 world.

Today, I walked the same pathways legally. The roadways surrounding the old Skydome (I hate the fact that it’s been renamed the “Rogers Centre”) are basically done, and the buildings are going up. Realizing that it’s taken 21 years to get this far is a bit of a shock, but so too is the realization that the work is almost finished. The block within York, Bremner, Spadina and the Lake Shore is almost filled in. The block between Spadina and Bathurst will follow soon after.

This area is being super-developed. We have some of the tallest residential buildings in the nation here. It is also, troublingly, a bit of a sea of concrete. Mind you, the area has little choice. The Skydome can seat over 60,000, and let them out all at once, so the area around the Skydome has to be a sea of concrete in order to disperse the crowds.

In spite of this, the area remains surprisingly pedestrian friendly. The design of the buildings themselves have much to do with this, with the towers seated on pedestals that are built more to a human scale, with smaller shops and restaurants at street level. The sea of concrete is also broken up by the roundhouse park. More than just a link to the area’s railway heritage and the home of the Steam Whistle Brewery and a developing railway museum (with a live-steam track that I’ll have to check out someday), it’s about the only patch of green between York and Spadina. It’s a big patch of green, though, and the trains are bound to be a draw to many a child.

Trains actually dominate the area. GO Transit’s ridership has basically doubled over the past fifteen years and Union Station is bursting at the seams. The tracks ride an embankment above Simcoe, York, Bay and Yonge Streets, and often (especially during rush hour), you will see trains pulling up along the southernmost tracks. With the towers going up in the area, the embankment is quickly becoming a trench.

What surprised me the most was the extension of the PATH network south of Union Station. GO has opened more exits to try and disperse the crowds and this and the extension of downtown Toronto’s sea of towers south of the station has produced a set of pedestrian tunnels reaching towards Queen’s Quay. Union Station now has a southern exit — which, strangely, people don’t seem to have discovered yet. While a crowd of over two-dozen people packed the first set of stairs off of the train platform, I couldn’t help but notice one or two people bolting for the newer, lesser known exits. Following them, I was able to leave the crowds behind.

The area did not have the crowds of pedestrians going to and fro north of Union Station, but the area is still young. The towers don’t yet have the architectural history of their neighbours to the north, the trees are still young, and the sidewalks haven’t had a chance to gain character. When the towers are completed, there are going to be a lot of people about, and maybe the area will get walked in. Like a good pair of shoes.

We’ll see. It’s taken over twenty-one years to get us this far. One can only imagine where we’ll be in the next ten.

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