Editorial: Transit Planning for Toronto’s Growth Spurt

In NORR's refurbished Union Station in Toronto, an existing exterior open-air moat will be covered with a fully glazed canopy providing enhanced pedestrian circulation. NORR
In NORR’s refurbished Union Station in Toronto, an existing exterior open-air moat will be covered with a fully glazed canopy providing enhanced pedestrian circulation. NORR

A spring conference organized by CityAge marked one of several perennial efforts to spur big-picture thinking between government, business and community leaders in Toronto. Throughout the presentations and panels, two observations echoed like a refrain. First, a population roughly the size of Montreal is expected to move to the Greater Toronto Area (GTA) in the next 25 years. Second, the city is about 30 years behind in transit development.

A closer look at Ontario government projections reveals a growth spurt ringing the city. Government economists anticipate an overall increase in the order of 2.8 million, or 44.6 percent of the current population, for a total of 9.2 million GTA residents by 2036. In Toronto itself, the population is expected to rise 24.5 percent–a little below the provincial growth rate. The more dramatic growth will happen in the regional municipalities of Durham, Halton, Peel and York. Peel alone is expected to see its population increase by 750,000, while growth for Halton is projected at 78.8 percent over the period from 2011-36.

How might architects strengthen transit to support this regional population increase? Antonio Gómez-Palacio, founding partner of DIALOG and formerly of Office for Urbanism, is currently leading the urban design for the Hurontario light-rail transit corridor that links Mississauga and Brampton. Gómez-Palacio observes that many transit users own private vehicles. “What will make someone choose to use transit?” he asks. In particular, he identifies the design of the first 10 to 20 metres from transit entry points–between, say, a sidewalk and a streetcar platform–as crucial for the success of transit.

In downtown Toronto, the current redevelopment of Union Station promises to result in a vital hub for an expanding regional transit system. A Zeidler Partnership-designed glass atrium, replacing a portion of the fume-darkened steel-and-wood train shed from 1930, will create a welcome new entry point for GO Transit passengers–155,000 people each business day at present.

Of equal if not greater significance are renovations to the terminal itself, headed by NORR Architects Engineers with Montreal-based FGMDA as heritage conservation architects. The reconfigured interior includes two new GO lobbies with direct connections to the underutilized Beaux-Arts Grand Hall, designed by John M. Lyle and Ross & Macdonald, one of the city’s heritage jewels. Levelling and sheltering the passage between Union Station and the subway will ease movement between regional and city transit.

In order to finesse circulation between the existing subway entrance, new concourses and tracks, an entire new level is being introduced within Union Station’s building section. The occupation of this space by retail, food and beverage providers will offer services useful to commuters and to the rapidly developing residential towers south of the station. It’s a strategy that generates the necessary revenue to fund the restoration of historic portions of the building, while limiting the draw on cash-strapped city coffers and avoiding the unsavoury alternative of selling air development rights over the station. In taking this path, Toronto emulates the model of restored historic transit hubs such as Union Station in Washington, DC and Grand Central Terminal in New York City.

In her history of suburbs in the United States, Dolores Hayden argues that from the first rail and streetcar build-outs in the early 1820s onwards, developers have marketed “ever-larger private developments while neglecting to […] build infrastructure for public life.” As the GTA enters an era of major expansion, transit facilities offer the means not only to enable growth, but also to provide it with civic amenity. How will we develop transit that not only functions to transport greater numbers, but that improves quality of life? What will make public transit into more than a necessity, and an active choice?

Elsa Lam elam@canadianarchitect.com