If a billboard falls in a forest… Part 1

[note: this is cross-posted from spacing magazine]

Bathurst and Davenport cross each other just below the steep shoreline of ancient Lake Iroquois. The intersection is lush with greenery and steeped in history.

On one corner lies the TTC Hillcrest Yards, where our streetcars have been repaired and rebuilt for ninety years. A recent makeover has transformed the landscape adding new shrubs, trees, interlocking brick and public benches to the corner.

TTC yard_WIDE

Across the street is a public park, the home of Toronto’s historic Tollkeeper’s Cottage museum.

tollkeepers park

Just steps away you’ll find the Wychwood Park neighbourhood, a former artists’ colony and the first residential zone in Ontario to be granted heritage status. Walking north on Bathurst, you’ll find yourself in a picturesque Toronto scene with large trees leaning across both sides of the wide street casting a broken leafy shadow on the streetcar tracks below.

And then suddenly, like one musical instrument terribly out of tune with the rest of the band, something sharply interrupts the thick green grove of trees. Steel structures protrude from the maple branches, inserting two massive commercial billboards into the scene.

two_billboards

Someone might ask themselves “Who would possibly allow billboards like this to get a sign permit?”. It turns out the answer might be: nobody would, and nobody did. In fact, I have been told by City Staff that they do not have any records of permits for these signs. This is not an isolated scenario.  It’s quite possible that dozens of billboards across Toronto, if not hundreds, are illegal signs without any proper permits.

I’m on a journey, a bureaucratic journey, trying to get to the bottom of these two particular billboards. It’s an experiment in democracy. A pilot project. Can City Hall protect our public spaces? Or are they powerless against the lawyers and consultants of the outdoor advertising industry which continues to use public space as their own playground, cluttering our scenery with visual garbage?

My journey began in 2005, when I was working as the Executive Assistant to City Councillor Joe Mihevc. It’s a shocking tale of procedural inertia, bureaucratic confusion, and a broken democracy.

In order to inquire about permits, I had to figure out the address of the signs. They’re facing Bathurst street, about ten feet from the sidewalk, but there was no indication of any address number. I researched the property records of the neighbourhood, and I discovered that the billboards are actually on a piece of land belonging to Burnside Avenue, on top of the hill. In other words, the billboards are essentially stuck the in the backyard of a vacant property on a residential street. The slice of land is owned by the billboard company and they’re using it to bombard/distract drivers, cyclists and pedestrians on Bathurst street. Now that I had the address, I asked the city if the signs had permits.

What happened next is fascinating:

 

January 12, 2006
Subject:  re: Request for update re: 25 Burnside Ave

 Hi Dave,

We have researched these two signs and we have no records of any permits. I have issued a notice to the owner to either obtain a permit or remove the signs. I will keep you updated you as to the progress of these signs.

thanks

Christine Muccilli
Municipal Standards Officer

 

September 26, 2006
Subject: Re: Request for update re: 25 Burnside Ave

Hi Christine,

I’m checking in on the 25 Burnside file.  The original request was sent by the Councillor’s office in November ’05.  No permits were found and you issued a notice to the owner in January 06, eight months ago.  The billboards are still there, and I was wondering if there is any reason for this.  I know that you were sourcing contractors to remove the sign in August.  If the cost if too prohibitive, please let me know and I’ll be more than happy to remove them myself!  ; )

My neighbours and I hope the signs will be gone in the near future.  I know that your department is understaffed and underfunded, but it still seems excessive for bylaw enforcement to require an entire year to remove two illegal 200 square foot illuminated billboards in a residential neighbourhood.

thanks,

~ dave

 

September 26, 2006
Subject: Re: Request for update re: 25 Burnside Ave

Our contractor is in the process of having the signs removed. The contractor has had to contact Hydro to have the electrical wires for lighting removed from the Billboard prior to work commencing.  This should happen today or tomorrow at the latest.

Fion

Fiona Skurjat
Supervisor, Municipal Licensing & Standards

 

October 11 2006
Subject: Re: Request for update re: 25 Burnside Ave

Hi Fiona,

It’s been two weeks and nothing has happened at the site.  The illegal billboards are still there, with the lights on.  Any update on the timeline/schedule?

thanks,
~ dave

 

Oct 11 2006
Subject: Re: Fwd: Re: Request for update re: 25 Burnside Ave

Sorry Dave the best I can say is that we are meeting with the property reps to discuss the conformity of the signs, as new information has come forth.

Therefore we are on standby pending the outcome of the meeting.

 Fiona

 

October 23, 2006

Subject: Re: Fwd: Re: Request for update re: 25 Burnside Ave

Hi Fiona,

That’s one heck of a long meeting you’re having.   ; )

Any update on the situation?

~ dave

 

October 23, 2006
Subject:  Re: Request for update re: 25 Burnside Ave

Hi All,

This matter is still under investigation based on new information. Until the investigation is complete we are unable to discuss the specifics.

Elizabeth Glibbery

Manager, Municipal Licensing and Standards

 

And that was it. I never heard anything else. What was the “new information”? Was a permit suddenly found? Did their lawyers threaten the city? I never found out.

This year I’ve decided to follow up and I’ll be posting updates here on Spacing Toronto.

My first step was to meet with Ted Van Vliet, Manager of the city’s Sign Bylaw Unit. Ted’s a great guy, and I’ve worked with him before. He believes in the public process and sees his role as being an impartial facilitator of dialogue between all relevant players: industry, citizens and City Council. He seeks pragmatic compromise between all stakeholders.

I asked him about the billboards in the forest. He said he had found the property file, and that city staff had concluded in 2006 that the billboards could not be removed, because of ‘new information’.

I asked him what the new information was. He said he didn’t know, and that it might be very difficult to find out. He explained that once lawyers get involved, some information becomes confidential. I suggested to Ted that the public deserved to know why the billboards were still there, since they have a significant impact on public space. Even if some information is confidential, surely there’s a way of communicating how or why the decision was made. I also pointed out that the process as he described it (ie: decisions being made based on secret information) opened the door to corruption. After all, the “new information” could have been a suitcase with $10K in it.

Ted agreed that the city should be obligated to explain, in some way, why the billboards are still there. He suggested that I file a Freedom of Information request. I protested again: Why should a citizen have to file an FOI, to get basic information that should already be publicly available? FOIs take time and money, and the results can be slow and incomplete.

He agreed again. Ted said he would ask his colleagues for more information, and would get an answer to me as soon as possible. Based on my earlier dealings with the city on this issue, I was worried that “as soon as possible” might turn into months, or years. I asked him what he thought was a reasonable time period to get the information. He said two weeks. I asked if we could schedule a follow-up meeting, two weeks later, to go over the information.  He agreed.  The meeting is tomorrow.

Burnside_StreetView_cropped

I’m curious to see how this unfolds. Partially because I feel the neighbourhood would really benefit from the removal of the signs, but also because I think this experience is indicative of a much deeper problem at City Hall: lawyers and consultants representing private interest seem to have a lot of influence, while ordinary citizens experience roadblocks and obstacles as they try to navigate the system.

Our democratic structures should serve the needs of the public, by providing opportunities for practical and meaningful participation. That requires easy access to information and a transparent process.

NEXT: Part II….

 photo by Jesse Kinos-Goodin

6 responses to “If a billboard falls in a forest… Part 1

  1. Dave, well done for persisting in this matter and holding the City to account. City departments should not be acting as facilitators for billboard companies.

  2. I wonder what would happen if these things were simply removed? Not that I’m suggesting anything illegal or anything.

    • Is removing something illegal in itself illegal?
      I’ve always envied the job of some city workers in Oakville who’s job it is to drive around all day with a cube van, some chainsaws and various other equipment to remove illegal signs all day. It must be so satisfying.

  3. You’re my hero, Dave. Keep it up! This is absolutely unacceptable that getting this information should be that difficult.

  4. What’s at the corner of Bathurst and Davenport is TTC Transit Control, not the Hillcrest Yards. Incidentally, we are not supposed to know the exact location of Transit Control. But that’s where it is.

  5. Led billboard truck is really a nice way of advertising
    LED billboard truck

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