Editor’s note: an earlier version of this post appeared in Spacing Ottawa contributor Dave McClelland’s Ottawa Project blog
Ottawa’s Union Station: it’s a majestic building, a half-scale replica of New York City’s old Penn Station, and painfully underused. Since 1966, when the National Capital Commission removed rail from downtown, the building has served as a government conference centre, rather than a hub for rail travelers. However, if mayor Larry O’Brien isn’t just floating the idea for the fun it, it seems that trains might just return to Union Station, in the form of a downtown stop on the new light rail system—taking the place of the Rideau/Sussex station in the LRT proposal.
As its stands right now, the interior of Union Station is unknown to most Ottawans. An occasional conference centre for First Minister’s meetings and other high-level discussions, its grand hall and spacious passageways are usually roped off to the citizens who walk past it each day. But as the main hall of a transit station, commuters would have cause to use the public space on a daily basis.
But to my mind, that’s not all that could be done with the station. I don’t know the interior dimensions of the building, but I would imagine that a transit station would only take up a small portion of the available volume, and other transportation infrastructure (commuter rail, and intercity bus and rail) probably won’t be able to serve the location, meaning no space would need to be set aside for them. So with that in mind, what could be done? One of the things that Ottawa lacks is a real civic place, one to celebrate Ottawa itself. Over the years as a national capital, the federal government has eclipsed the city, and it’s only been in the last few decades that we’ve really begun to find our identity as a municipality.
So why not this: in our hypothetical, future train station, you walk in the front doors to a lobby, with transit facilities to one side, and perhaps benches and chairs with the odd cafe or two along the edges of the area. Taking up the rest of the space inside could be a City of Ottawa museum, celebrating our history, from rough logging town to major Canadian metropolis. It could even include artifacts that tie in with the location, like the old streetcars OC Transpo is slowly attempting to restore. Granted, we do already have the Bytown Museum, but it could still comfortably fill a role as a museum predominantly about the canal, while the Union Station museum could be about the rest of the city.
Like Mayor O’Brien’s proposal to buy the structure from Public Works, this is a concept around which other ideas could take shape. A civic museum is one option, but the overriding point is that we might have an opportunity to create a unique new public space, and the standard option of renting out space for shops and restaurants would be a tragic waste. The simple return of transit, of course, would benefit the building enormously by itself, but we could do so much more. If it comes to pass, the rebirth of Union Station is one of those opportunities that only come along once in a lifetime, and it’s important to seize those when we can.
-Photo by Erinn Cunninghan