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The future of Union Station - for the next five years at least - is one of diggers, demolition and construction crews after Toronto council approved the final piece of a $640-million revitalization plan.

With federal, provincial and city funding commitments in place, councillors voted to approve a private-sector investor to manage the commercial space at the renewed station.

"This is the beginning of the real work," Mayor David Miller said at the end of a nine-year saga of false starts and delays.

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Yesterday's vote came on a busy day at city hall as council held its first regular meeting since the city workers' strike ground business to a halt on June 22. Dozens of urgent items were approved without the usual committee consideration, including a move to lease Scarborough's historic Guild Inn site to Centennial College.

Council also approved the appointment of lawyer Janet Leiper as the city's new integrity commissioner, and began debate last night on a contentious proposal to allow councillors to sue their critics on the taxpayer's dime.

The city's share of the Union Station project is $303.5-million, which includes an undisclosed one-time payment by the lessee, who won't be named until the lease is signed next month. The city will receive annual revenues from base rents and a percentage of retail revenue, although details are still under wraps.

In the next two months, the city will complete detailed design and construction plans, hire a construction management firm and put ink to paper on agreements with Queen's Park and Ottawa for combined pledges of $336.5-million. A "vigorous" five-year construction program will begin in the first quarter of 2010.

The ambitious project includes digging out a new 120,000-square-foot level for a retail concourse, several new entrances, and a $65-million tunnel at the northwest corner to connect to the city's PATH system. Two new GO Transit concourses will be built, the Great Hall will be renovated, as will the west wing for GO Transit's head office.

The renewal will also include renovated VIA Rail areas, a south entrance leading to the Air Canada Centre, and measures expected to make the 1920s-era building at least 30 per cent more energy efficient. Canada's largest green roof will sit on either side of a glass atrium built over the passenger platforms.

But with no plans to limit service and no large marshalling areas for heavy equipment, construction will be a challenge at the busy terminal, which handles 65.4-million GO Transit, TTC and VIA Rail passengers each year - twice as many as Pearson airport.

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"It's not a question of wanting to do it or liking to do it," said Bruce Bowes, Toronto's chief corporate officer. "You've got to do it because you will not be able to sustain increases in transportation."

GO passenger loads are projected to double over 20 years.

In 2002, Union Pearson Group, a private consortium, won the job to renew Union Station under a 100-year lease. A review by the provincial Integrity Commissioner concluded that the selection process, though flawed, was fair.

The deal with UPG unravelled in 2006 and council approved the new strategy in 2007. Ottawa came through with its funding promise two weeks ago.

In other city hall news:

Council approved a letter of intent to finalize a long-term lease with Centennial College for the original Guild Inn property in Scarborough. The college plans to restore the historic Bickford Residence and redevelop the site as a hotel and conference centre, which will provide training for its hospitality students.

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Janet Leiper, former chair of Legal Aid Ontario, will assume her role as the city's integrity commissioner Sept. 8, replacing interim commissioner Lorne Sossin. The job entails providing advice, mediation and education on the city's policies governing ethical behaviour.

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