Opinion: a reborn Union Station could hold our history

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


10 comments

  1. I like your idea David!
    One might say- (like you mentioned)- but wait- what about the Bytown Museum, and while I love the Bytown Museum and think it does a great job, it is a museum of Bytown- the era of this region pre-1855, there is so much about Ottawa the city that should be celebrated.
    In any case, it will be exciting for people to be able to see the inside of that impressive building.

  2. Kind of sounds like the City of Montreal’s Windsor Station, which was irresponsibly removed from serving the public (and the train tracks) when the City moved the Canadians hockey team to their new home.

    I love your theoretical idea though. it sounds absolutely wonderful.

  3. Good idea. The Conference Centre is a horrible place as it exists now – the acoustics are bad and the layout is not conducive to anything. The time for redevelopment is perfect as the Convention Centre will be done in the next few years.

    The inside does need some work to restore the building to its full glory. Currently, half the conference centre is a display area for art (inuit i think) while the great hall is the open space for events.

  4. This is one idea of Mayor O’Brien’s that I agree with: a first. Using union station for its original purpose is a great idea and could inject more vitality into the city’s core. The other aspect of his plan not mentioned here, moving the bus terminal out to Tremblay road (where the train station is) earns a big fat goose egg, however.
    I’d rather see something more vibrant than a museum at such a location. A spot for some live music, or local artist/locally–produced crafts etc.

  5. I really hope that Union Station will be re-acquired by the city of Ottawa and turned into the centrepiece of the downtown LRT line. Certainly, you could have a museum that would compliment what the Bytowne museum does. It could house Ottawa’s more contemporary history, while the Bytowne continues to tell the story of Ottawa’s origins. I have been inside the conference centre and I agree that it is not a very good place to hold conferences. It is definitely time for a new and better use for this noble building.

  6. Re-using the Union Station is proper. But as a LRT station it could not replace the Rideau St access. Who wants to come up in the station from a escalator, then traipse through the building, up the stairs out onto Rideau Street, and then cross one or two sets of lights to walk 300′ down rideau to get to their bus stop if they are transferring?

    I think it more likely the Rideau Street subway entrances will remain, as will the inside-the-Rideau Centre entrance should one be practical, and one on the Confederation Sq/NAC side, preferably with indoor access to the NAC.

    What then is the purpose of the Union Station entrance to the subway and exit? A civic museum is unlikely to attract that much daily traffic to make a viable civic space. More popular uses might be a part of or extension of the new Convention Centre being built adjacent, or some use that involves public crowds, like additional City hall meeting space.

    BTW, whatever happened to the idea to put the Hockey Hall of Fame there?

  7. Early on in the Downtown Ottawa Transit Tunnel planning process, the DOTT documents identified the Union Station as a possible new site for the public library. I thought that had significant potential but alas, it was not to be.

  8. I would much prefer to come into a beautifully restored Union Station than into the Rideau Centre. I would also love a comprehensive transit plan that either gets most of the buses off Rideau Street or at least gives riders somewhere to wait other than the sidewalks.

  9. I have had interior tours of both Ottawa Union Stations old and new plus Union Stations in Toronto and Chicago, North Toronto Station, Grand Central in New York, a former station in Detroit and Cincinatti’s (part of which is a museum) as well as several in Britain and France. I am a past board member and still a semi active member of a Railway Museum located in a former CNoR/CNR train station in Smiths Falls Ontario. As a member of the public I have been in even more railway stations than that and it always knocked me out that the people of Ottawa have put up with what the federal government allowed to happen here with the old Ottawa Union Station formaIly, Ottawa’s Grand Trunk Railway Station. Thankfully, the National Historic Places Act forced the NCC to make sure all their modifications were reverseable. The museum concept is good but, unlikely due to the fact museum funding is on the decline. That being said, if the city can actually get the federal government to give up this building and that’s a big, if, this building still has many posibilities.

    Having been inside I can say honestly that, as a space, it competes rather well
    architecturally against any railway station big or small anywhere. My Idea would be to use it as hybrid type of space.
    In the design of the DOTT the Rideau station is considered a possible third entrance accessing somwhere near the middle of the planned LRT platform. The interior of the station lends itself well to small amounts of retail because as a railway station, it did have retail in it. Secondly, museum space can be provided for several museums not just one. Union Station in Toronto is getting a massive rebuild and a large mall is being built underneath however, a significant amount space is being included for museum displays particularly for the Toronto Railway Heritage Park, I know this because a close friend of mine is helping design these displays. The main waiting room is stunning and should stay just that, a waiting room. The many ancilary rooms and offices can be used for commercial office space and public rented meeting rooms. Lastly, the entrance to Rideau Street should be maintained as it is a wonderful way to view downtown. The dramtic view was by design to impress on the traveler the beauty and grandeur of Ottawa.

  10. What’s the status on this? Does any one have inside information?

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