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Union Station makeover proposal adds vast fresh-food market, high-end shops

McDonalds' new McCafe restaurant will be opening on Dec 9 in the York Concourse at Toronto's Union Station. Bananas will be one of the food choices commuters will have when the McCafe opens.

Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

A huge new market promising the best foodstuffs Toronto offers is at the heart of a proposed retail makeover at Union Station, part of an ambitious redevelopment of the country's busiest transit hub.

New details about the plans for retail options at the station were revealed on Monday at city hall, and they include an oyster bar and restaurant in the historic great hall, high-end shops and space for cultural events.

"It's changing, not just as a train station, but as a focal point and a community hub," said councillor Paul Ainslie, chair of the city hall committee that heard the presentation.

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The government management committee voted to approve $480,000 for legal and real estate advice and to give city staff the authority to re-negotiate the lease with Osmington Inc. Osmington, a development firm, is owned by David Thomson, the proprietor of The Globe and Mail.

Food offerings would take up about 60 per cent of the retail space. Among them are expected to be the usual food-court and "fast-casual" options, as well as higher-end dining and a 35,000-square-foot market.

"The idea is a fresh-food market, available for commuters or the condo dwellers in the area, or anyone," said Brad Keast, Osmington's vice-president of development.

"It would be a compilation of the best of the different vendors within Toronto in their respective genres. So we're talking to the top butchers in town, we're talking to the top fish-mongers, produce-purveyors, bakeries, florists."

The committee's approval must still pass a vote by the full city council. If that is successful, the development is scheduled to be complete in 2018.

"Union Station will remain a place that is for the public. It won't become a mall," councillor Janet Davis said. "I was re-assured today that it would remain as its core function a transportation hub and a place that is a beautiful public space for the people of Toronto. The transportation needs will be met, continue to be met."

Developers and retailers are keen to tap the buying power of the more than 70 million passengers who go through the station annually, as well as the growing number of people who live in the neighbourhood.

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"You know, that wall of condos we put up beside the Gardiner expressway, there's not a lot of restaurants down there, there's not a lot meeting space," Mr. Ainslie told reporters, noting that he had learned during a recent trip to New York that 30 per cent of the economic activity at the city's Grand Central Station was generated by people who lived in the vicinity.

The Union Station plan initially called for 150,000 square feet of retail. However, the total has swelled by 11,000 square feet, and it is that additional space that was the focus of the committee vote on Monday.

The changes to Union related to those 11,000 square feet are expected to cost $32-million, with another $5-million in contingency funding. The total is to be split 60-40 between Osmington and the city, with the latter's portion being fronted by the developer and paid back out of increased revenues.

The sole dissenting vote on the committee said he did not believe the city would not have to take on any of the cost in the arrangement.

"That's what it all comes down to, it's the dollars and cents," Rob Ford told reporters. "There's always a cost to the city. … I remember having these debates and [people say] there's always no cost. But there is a cost. And every time I vote against it, sure enough, it comes back, 'We're over budget' or there is some sort of cost."

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