Union Station's Root Canal
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Union Station’s Root Canal

“It’s like a Chinese puzzle,” says Paul Noskiewicz, of NORR Architects. His job, since 2007, has been to plan and direct the ongoing revitalization effort at Union Station.


Noskiewicz, along with dozens of reporters and assorted City and construction staff, is standing underneath the southwest edge of the station, in what used to be a subterranean parking lot for Hertz Rent-a-Car, but is currently an excavation site. Massive bulldozers and backhoes roar like Tolkien-esque mine monsters in the dank, artificially lit gloom. By digging, they’ve lowered what used to be the bottom floor of the building by about four metres. Now, the roots of the concrete pillars that hold the place up, formerly buried, are exposed. They poke out of bare dirt.
GO Transit’s ridership is expected to double to approximately 88 million per year over the next 20 years. Union Station can’t expand laterally to accommodate all those people. The point of the excavation is to carve out more space in the only direction space is available: down.
The dirt and the bulldozers will, if all goes according to plan, eventually give way to a new concourse for GO Transit passengers, one of two such concourses planned as part of the revitalization. This would more than triple the amount of space dedicated to commuters in Union Station, from about 30,000 square feet to about 110,000.
When Noskiewicz compares the process to a puzzle, he’s referring to the elaborate dance construction workers are performing to avoid interfering with the day-to-day business of the station. Union, which serves not only GO, but also TTC and VIA Rail passengers, is too important a transit hub to close down for repairs.
First, there’s the problem of those concrete pillars. They’re important structural elements, but they were sized to suit Union Station as it was. Now, with the lowered basement, they’re too short.
Crews working for a contractor called Carillion Construction will erect metal supports around 250 of those columns, six at a time, and then saw them off at the bottom. The supports will prevent Union Station from crumbling under its own weight while the workers pour new concrete to extend the columns to bedrock. Effectively, they’re giving Union Station a root canal.
All the while, trains will continue running overhead. Procedures of this size and complexity are not usually performed on buildings while they’re still in use, according to Noskiewicz. “It’s unprecedented in Canada,” he told reporters.

The other part of the puzzle is performing the overhaul in such a way that crews aren’t competing for space with civilians. This means completing the work in phases. GO passengers will begin using the new southwest concourse soon after it’s completed, which is anticipated to be sometime in 2013. Then, workers will begin digging where the current GO concourse is, beneath the eastern side of the station.
The $640 million revitalization will also include 160,000 feet of retail space, a new VIA concourse, a green roof for the station’s train shed, and a glass cover for that annoying gap between the main station and the TTC terminal.
But some independent investigation turned up a major shortcoming: the awesome little arcade with all the pinball machines is now closed, most likely forever. You know the one.
Photos by Michael Chrisman/Torontoist.

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