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Young designers set to breathe new life into 87-year-old Bay St. coach bus terminal

Architectural Conservancy Ontario (ACO), a charity devoted to heritage preservation, made the terminal the focus of its design competition geared toward students and young professionals.

Stephanie Mah, ACO executive and digital media co-ordinator, is part of a group working together to reimagine the Toronto Coach Terminal.

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Stephanie Mah, ACO executive and digital media co-ordinator, is part of a group working together to reimagine the Toronto Coach Terminal.

When Mayor W. Stewart ceremoniously purchased the first ticket at Toronto's new coach terminal on Dec. 19, 1931, a throng of men in hats filled the waiting room. Attorney General W.H. Price was flanked by women in furs as he cut the silk ribbon to officially dispatch the first coach from the covered bus bay.

It was a different time. The Union Jack flew over the Bay St. entrance. And coach bus travel was an elegant affair with a splendid art deco building to match.

As the terminal lurches towards its 87th year, a group of young designers is gathering Saturday to imagine its next life.

Architectural Conservancy Ontario (ACO), a charity devoted to heritage preservation, has made the terminal the focus of its sixth-annual design competition geared toward students and young professionals.

Organized under the charity's NextGen program, the competition uses the charrette format, an interactive brainstorming session open to a broad range of participants. The day-long session includes talks from experts, a tour of the building and a design contest judged by industry leaders and attended by city staff.

The format gives young people a "time to shine" in front of leaders in the field, said Pauline Berkovitz, a volunteer board member for ACO NextGen. A participant in last year's contest, which focused on the Wellington Destructor, is now working on the project, she said.

The event is geared toward design students and young professionals but is open to "anyone who wants to share their ideas," she said.

“There are people who are going to know AutoCAD and know everything about 21st century beam posts, then people who are interested in art and the city," she said.

The future of the terminal, located at 610 Bay St., is up in the air. Talks have been underway for months to move carriers like Greyhound and Mega Bus to Union Station, where Metrolinx started construction on a new bus terminal this summer to serve GO Transit.

That's why now is the perfect time to start dreaming of the possibilities. For Scott Weir, a principal with ERA Architects who will speak at the event, the challenge is figuring out what makes a place special and then carrying that to its next life.

"When something gets so tired but it still has quite a bit of what made it interesting there, it’s quite exciting. You can bring that part forward ... and give it new use.”

Weir sees a "beautiful limestone building" from architect Charles Dolphin, who designed the building partially retained as the Air Canada Centre.

And though the building's function as a bus terminal has been consistent since it opened, renovations over the decades, like expanding the waiting room, have detracted from the original splendour.

"Now it's a little bit messy in the way that it's been reorganized," Weir said. But he points out it’s connected now to the PATH system, making it a useful site.

With a recent wave of projects approved and in planning for downtown and along nearby Yonge Street, Weir predicts the changes to the area's character will start to show in the next few years. And though the need for housing is still high, it might be time to think about what's next.

"So many people have moved into that neighbourhood. Maybe its time to think about: Do we need more office buildings, do we need secondary services?"

Berkovitz, an interior designer by day with Kate Zeidler Interior Design, is excited by the possibilities that lie inside the building. Heritage preservation often focuses on exteriors and facades, but the fact that the terminal is still operating under its original purpose gives a new set of tools to play with — tools she says are often overlooked in adaptive reuse projects.

"There’s so much internal beauty. Between lights and flooring and the way the environment flows inside," she said.

Though she concedes the space isn't always as gleaming and the travellers aren't dressed in their finest, as they were in the '30s, the structure is the same.

“It was quite spectacular, because before planes, trains and automobiles and all the other fancy ways of travelling, this really gave a sense of arrival to Toronto," she said. "There was a sense of grandeur in the space that I think can be recaptured.”

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