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Union Station remake aims to be another jewel in Toronto's crown

Move over CN Tower, make room Rogers Centre, construction is beginning on what will be a new glass jewel in Toronto's skyline.

The remaking of Union Station is set to refresh the venerable but dowdy transit hub by 2015. Its crown will be a spectacular $50-million, 70,000-square-foot atrium of steel and glass that will float like a luminous cloud 50 feet over the train tracks.

Commuters have put up with construction for months as a $640-million revitalization digs in – as have motorists snarled from Bay Street to University Avenue, and from Front Street West to Lakeshore Boulevard.

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The overall renovation will see a new concourse and offices with more light, exits and space in anticipation of the 50 million passengers a year who use the 180 GO trains, 35 VIA Rail trains and 400 GO buses daily. Those passenger volumes are expected to hit 80 million per annum by 2035.

The designers of the new atrium, Zeidler Partnership Architects senior partner Tarek El-Khatib and his team, say they were inspired by the existing windows at Union Station, which opened in 1927 and is a designated a heritage building.

"We were walking through the Great Hall there were big windows at the top, and we had this idea it would be interesting to have a luminous object somehow over the train tracks," Mr. El-Khatib said.

Eventually Mr. El-Khatib and his team came up with a bold and innovative concept, eschewing the ubiquitous arch for a square, flat canopy held up by elegant steel columns slanting vertically.

The atrium has no discernible axis and that was intentional, he said, because the site already has a strong east-west orientation with the tracks and north-south, between the main building and Lake Ontario.

There will be a total 220,000 square feet of glass making up the top and sides, which hang down to create sidewalls and louvres that will vent diesel fumes.

There will also be a green roof component and an array of solar panels that will generate electricity to offset the power consumed by the thousands of LED lights that will be embedded in the canopy. At nighttime its glow will be visible for miles, including to those on the Gardiner Expressway, in office towers and condominium high rises downtown and passengers on airplanes in and out of the Billy Bishop Toronto City Airport and, sometimes, Lester B. Pearson International Airport.

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"It really is going to be like another CN Tower on the skyline," said Ken Strang, the project manager for design engineers, Halcrow Yolles.

In all, there are some 4,500 glass panels about to be installed, each some seven feet square, and each one having a slightly different opaqueness to give it a "dappled" look in daylight.

The atrium will be constructed over seven stages with the first-stage trusses going into place now through spring, with the glass to follow. Construction is expected to finish in 2014 with the overall project wrapping up a year later.

Special to the Globe and Mail

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