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Toronto's Union Station is in a class by itself as Canada's busiest commuter hub, a revered heritage landmark and a down-at-heel building overdue for a serious makeover.

Now, after years of disappointment and delay, city officials believe they hold the key - an underground shopping mall - to revamp the 1927 beaux arts beauty as a "wow" destination for commuters and visitors.

On Monday, in a fresh bid to modernize the city-owned station after a deal with a private consortium fell through last year, Mayor David Miller and his executive committee will debate a $388-million overhaul, including transportation and heritage upgrades and a new retail complex.

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The most challenging piece of the mayor's proposal is the eye-popping notion of an $81-million excavation underneath the seven-acre site to house shops and restaurants.

It would be tucked below expanded new concourses for GO Transit on the station's east and west sides, flanking Via Rail. With the TTC, GO and Via, nearly 200,000 passengers a day scurry through the station, more than at Pearson airport.

The question is whether high political hopes and a more equitable sharing of responsibility between investors and the city will lead to success this go-round - in stark contrast to last year's deal to revamp the station with consortium Union Pearson Group.

That proposal collapsed amid cost escalations and political foot-dragging, a bad experience that has cast a pall over the project for many developers.

However, this time around Mr. Miller is confident of success. "With our recommended approach, we will see a truly great station that caters to commuters, travellers and the community, and is economically sustainable," he said when the latest plan was publicly unveiled two weeks ago.

Last week, he vowed to woo the country's deep-pocketed pension funds to invest in and manage the retail concourse, citing their "very significant interest" in preliminary talks in recent months.

In one sign of the city's eagerness to move ahead, the executive committee is expected to ask staff to report directly to council next month on steps to engage the pension funds, with the winner selected as head tenant to manage the commercial space of 12,500 square metres for 25 to 50 years.

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Privately, real estate developers linked to the pension funds had varied reactions, ranging from genuine interest to certainty the project will never fly.

"You've got so many different entities trying to stick out their hand, GO Transit, Via Rail, even the city," observed one knowledgeable developer. "They all think this is some great asset and that anyone who has ever tried to do a deal with them ... is trying to steal it from them."

Wariness also sums up the attitude of GO Transit. While keen to collaborate with the city, GO fears a basement retail concourse could undermine designs to improve sightlines and traffic flows for commuters.

"There are better places to put a shopping mall than Union Station," said Gary McNeil, managing director of GO Transit.

Any renewal, he warned, must put transportation first.

A low-ceiling basement level retail - even with some proposed atrium areas - leaves some real estate developers skeptical of the imagined return on investment (between 8 and 20 per cent, according to outside advice given to the city).

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"It's a little bit claustrophobic down there," one developer observed. "You have to be able to make it both a visual experience and a shopping experience. It takes a lot of vision, and a lot of coin." City officials contend that the new shopping concourse is critical to the long-term financial viability of Union Station.

However, another leading developer warns of possible cost overruns for an excavation that, even if successful, would not likely draw high-end retail to a basement location.

Still, with condo development adding 20,000 people over the next five to 10 years in the immediate vicinity of the station, one real estate official believes Toronto can emulate the success of New York's Grand Central Station and Washington's Union Station in transforming a working train station into a lucrative retail destination, too.

"It is a deal that has been done elsewhere successfully, which means it is a deal that can be done again," said Ron Taylor, senior vice-president at real estate services firm Arcturus Realty Corp. "It is a viable project."

His firm was formerly part of O&Y Properties, a member of the private-sector consortium whose deal with the city collapsed last year after four years of negotiation.

Several real estate developers cite Grand Central Station as an example of what can go right when a city takes control of the destiny of a transportation hub. A developer at a top Canadian firm interested in the Union Station project said New York has created an "experiential environment around transit," with well-designed food courts and restaurants.

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Timeline

If council gives the green light next month to a proposed $388-million renewal of Union Station, the project could take five to seven years to complete. But that rough timeline, estimated by city officials, assumes significant progress in the months ahead to nail down who will pay for what to pull off the project. So far, the city has $85-million in hand through 2012 toward $101-million in required ongoing maintenance. The federal government has pledged $25-million for heritage improvements, well short of the $75-million bill. Although not set in stone, other key dates include:

December, 2007: possible council approval for the mayor's "recommended approach," including the start of official negotiations with pension fund investors.

September, 2008: city selection of the head-tenant (likely a real-estate division of a pension fund) to manage the commercial space for 25 to 50 years (and possibly invest in or repay $137-million estimated for "revenue enhancement" of the retail area).The city also hopes to wrap up a deal with senior governments on their share of $268-million in transportation and heritage upgrades.

2009: start of design work and phased-in construction, including excavation for a new basement-level retail space.

2013-14: project completed.

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Improvements under way

Whatever happens to the city's latest proposal to revamp Union Station, significant transportation improvements are already under way - and funded - by others. GO Transit owns the tracks and heritage train shed, and the provincial agency's 10-year capital plan includes $600-million in improvements on the site.

They include:

Train shed roof $85-million for the renewal of the 365-metre-long train shed roof, with a new 15-metre-high, beaux arts style glass atrium in the centre to add light and a dramatic sense of occasion for GO commuters.

Platforms and walkways $80-million in improvements to the platforms, new stairwells for commuters to move through the station to and from their trains, new elevators and revamped pedestrian walkways (or "teamways") that run north-south along York and Bay Streets.

Train control signals A $280-million contract to upgrade train control signals at Union Station, a move to reduce winter delays for commuters, is slated to start in December, with completion by 2014.

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Meanwhile, the Toronto Transit Commission expects to begin construction in 2009, with completion slated for 2012, on a new $90-million platform at its Union Station stop to ease commuter congestion.

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