Why Union Station Could Soon Be Toronto’s Coolest Place To Hang Out
Union Station is being transformed from mere transit nexus into a retail-dining-entertainment hub catering to the swelling condo and office tower populations that surround it. Developer Brad Keast took us into the fray.
We snapped Brad, development VP with Osmington Inc, in the Great Hall, which is undergoing a refresh, and will eventually boast a restaurant on the north side, plus a new mezzanine. But the real action is a level below, where Osmington, which won an RFP from the city in 2009, is overseeing creation of 160k SF of retail: a mix of independent and national food stalls and full-service restaurants, plus renovated spaces for community events. The project's funded by three levels of government, with Osmington managing the retail via a 75-year head lease.
The goal: make Union a mixed-use centre of gravity, a place to grab a bite, shop, or have a cultural experience (last summer TIFF held a screening at John A. MacDonald Plaza, seen above hosting a holiday market). Upside here is huge. Growing GO Transit traffic means 120M annual passengers will flow through Union by 2021 (four times that of Pearson airport). Then there’s the ceaseless construction of condos and office towers around it. “We know commuters will be here,” says Brad, “but our vision is to make this a destination unto itself.” Union’s an iconic city-owned site in the centre of downtown action. “It should be a place people can use at all times.”
Train-takers will see new grab-and-go offerings, including TO's first dedicated McCafé. But the redevelopment is mostly aimed at neighbouring residents and office workers. “We want to focus on the daily and weekly amenities they need,” Brad says, whether it's fast-casual dining (Union Chicken and Burger’s Priest are taking space on Union's new York Street Promenade), a 27k SF “Best of Toronto” fresh food market (above), or a 14k SF food court (below) with standard fare (McDonald’s, Tim Hortons) but unique concepts, too, including a Thai stall run by the owners of Khao San Road.
Restaurant patios will extend out into the Carriageway (below). The station’s old drop-off zone, this concrete moat below Front is being reimagined as a covered event space. Just in from there, the new Front Street Promenade will feature retailers in 300 to 1,200 SF spaces with replicated vintage cast-iron storefronts. This could include more eateries, and services like a nail salon or barber shop, possibly clothing and shoe stores, as well, Brad hints. There’s been loads of development south of Union, he notes, “but there hasn’t been a cohesive retail strategy among the different owners. So that gives us a big opportunity.”
Toronto-based Osmington is a commercial real estate development and management firm with a “long history with retail,” says Brad, who served nine years in the Canadian Navy, followed by a series of odd jobs, before joining the company four and a half years ago. Osmington at one point owned nine Canadian shopping centres in partnership with Canada Pension Plan (they've since been sold). While the company has other retail projects planned—including a 1.2M SF enclosed regional mall in Brampton with condos, offices and a hotel—the extensive Union revitalization “occupies the bulk of our days.”
Here’s Union's West Wing, being refurbished to host events. The Ladies’ Retiring Room, an uncovered century-old space with wood paneling and herringbone floors, will be restored and could house a restaurant (Osmington's open to inquiries). Other upgrades include reno'd GO concourses, and new connections to the TTC, PATH and Air Canada Centre, plus office space for GO and Metrolinx. And the UP Express lounge, featuring Mill Street Brewery and Balzac's Coffee Roasters, opened last year. Union’s evolution is far from complete, but Brad has high hopes for what it’ll achieve: “This will become Canada's most valuable civic property.”