When buildings intrude beyond their private property into public space, they have to pay a small rental fee to the City for that space. The Royal Ontario Museum recently started paying the City of Toronto $2,400 a year because its new “crystal” extension juts over public land [click here to see image], but now the ROM is trying to get out of this obligation, by asking the City to give up this fee.
One of the ideas underlying the request seems to be that this would be a way for the City to show support for cultural or public institutions. I think it’s important to note from the outset that this argument is a fallacy. Waiving this fee would not show support for cultural institutions as a whole, but only for those institutions that chose to encroach on public space with their buildings. It would exclude those, like the Gardiner Museum across the street from the ROM, that chose to build within their own property lines. “Encroaching on public space” would be a bizarre criterion for public support. On the contrary, removing this money from the City’s treasury would reduce the funds available to the City to fund culture through programs accessible equally by all institutions and artists.
The explicit reason offered by the ROM is that “We felt that a $2,400-a-year charge was unreasonable given all that the ROM is giving back to the city as a result of the Renaissance ROM project.”
I think there are two important principles to bear in mind that mean that the ROM’s request should be rejected:
Public space is valuable. Citizens of Toronto have been working hard in recent years to establish the principle that public space is valuable and should be treated as such. It should not be permanently appropriated at will for free by private interests (even worthy ones such as the ROM). Far from waiving fees for the use of public space, the city should be consistently charging yearly fees for all long-term use of public space by private interests, including newspaper boxes and billboards. If you want to take over some public space for a long-term private purpose, you should pay the public for it.
A deal is a deal. The ROM knew about the fee when it decided to build into public space. If the ROM had a problem with the fee, the time to negotiate about it was when the plans were being worked out with the City before construction. If the ROM wasn’t happy, it could have chosen not to build into public space. It is highly inappropriate to go ahead with the encroachment, knowing the cost, and then try to get out of the fee once the structure has been built.
The ROM’s request is a hassle for the city, over a very small amount of money. The staff time spent dealing with this request is probably costing both the ROM and the City the equivalent of several years worth of the rent. To me, the initiative seems rather petty, unworthy of the dignity of a respected cultural institution.