ROM seeks free ride

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.

22 comments

  1. Why not give back something in kind. The ROM could pay the fee in services to the city. They could provide free access to under privileged kids or free access to the amenities for some city event, etc.

    It needn’t be about the money but as the article suggests, it is about appropriate compensation for their encroachment on public space.

    Question: How was the overhang on the U of T building on the North East corner of Spadina and Harbord dealt with? Does U of T compensate the city of overhanging the property line?

  2. Thanks for posting about this, Dylan! I had no idea. Makes me think even less of the ROM than I had in recent months with their new addition…

  3. “The ROM decided to ask for the waiver in writing in September because informal requests had been unsuccessful”

    I wonder what that means, exactly.

  4. The ROM has for some years been a bad cultural citizen of Toronto. The eyesore that juts out over public land at Avenue Road and Bloor isn’t the originally promised crystal, but a heavyweight structure that will do little if anything to attract cultural tourism. Meanwhile, down at the other end of the site, the failed condo tower project turns out to have been essential to the financing of the crystal project, and now the ROM has to go begging again.

    Toronto has a bad history of equating construction of buildings with support for what they contain, when in fact they are mainly a sop to the construction industry. Funding for the companies that occupy the new buildings is constantly under attack, but it’s the content — the plays, music, dance, art — that attract tourism, repeat tourism, not the monuments to major sponsors’ pocketbooks.

  5. I’d be interested to know if U of T has to pay for that “skywalk” type of thing that hangs over Harbord at Spadina

  6. Opinions on the ROM’s architecture vary, but even if you don’t like it, I’m not sure how it’s a “monument to major sponsors’ pocketbooks” — that’s a little far out.

  7. Also, this whole thing, especially considering the low $ amount, seems more like an administrative and public relations blunder than some endemic bad-corporate-citizen pox on the ROM.

  8. There seems to be a pattern in which public institutions try to take advantage of the “public”. The Art Gallery of Ontario expansion also required the sale of land so that the Gehry expansion could overhang Dundas Street.

  9. The “skywalk type of thing” that the University of Toronto built at Harbord and Spadina is actually a sign which says “University of Toronto” and is regulated under the Signs By-Law.

    This is the staff report from the planning department that recommended that the City grant a variance to the encroacing sign that would project into public space on the condition that it enter into an encroachment agreement with UofT. http://www.toronto.ca/legdocs/agendas/council/cc/cc980729/to10rpt/cl035.htm

    UofT also required a variance to the Sidewalks and Streets by-law for the sign’s service corridor, which was granted on the condition that UofT “pay an annual rental fee”.

  10. Princess Margaret Hospital also overhangs over Murray Street. Murray is hardly Spadina and Harbord or Bloor Street, but I am curious as to whether the hospital also pays rent to the city – I never knew it was required.

    It also brings up another question – what about awnings, patios and the vendors in the Chinatowns and elsewhere. Do they pay rent?

  11. To clarify my comment about sponsors’ pocketbooks for Sean:

    There was a competition among various designs, but it was well known in advance that the lead donor was a bit fan of Daniel Liebskind and that their donation would be conditional on his selection as the architect. Why have a competition when it’s fixed from the beginning?

    Every major building for an arts facility has its inevitable fundraising cycle and lead sponsors with naming rights are an important part of this. They get their name on the building, good or bad, even though many others may have contributed to the project. Indeed, sponsoring a piece of culture may even be seen as a form of marketing — maybe if I finance an arts palace, you will let me build an overheight commercial building.

    I go to a lot of theatre, music and dance in this city (and make donations to the companies involved too), and the common refrain is that nobody has enough money to put on the quality of program they would like to be doing. New buildings may be nice, but it’s the content that really makes them worthwhile and attracts repeat tourism. We forget about that sometimes.

  12. Architectural criticisms aside, its important to remember that the ROM is also a public space (even if it doesn’t necessarily always act as one). The decision by the City to charge rent for the ecroachment comes off as really petty and is a symptom of the current vogue for running governments “like a business”.

    The space under the “crystals” and on the sidewalk, in its totality, should work as a public square. The property line is an imaginary boundary in this instance. More important than the encroachment is the fact that the ROM is effectively run as a private facility. I wonder if you’ll run into similar problems with security as those experienced at Dundas Square?

    But as Dylan said, a deal is a deal.

  13. I recall that there was a lot of controversy over Princess Margaret Hospital that led to the overhang–largely as a means of accounting for the heritage properties on University Avenue. (And I’m sure there was some kind of municipal lease-deal involved–perhaps the first of its ilk.)

    Re the ROM; well, all merits of Libeskind aside, “you built it, you pay for it,” no waivers and you do some good for municipal tax coffers besides. Straightforward? And besides, this “oopsie” smoke-and-mirrors related to the condo tower, and now the waived-fee request, is more of an insult to Libeskind than any heavy-handed built form could be…

  14. “New buildings may be nice, but it’s the content that really makes them worthwhile and attracts repeat tourism.”

    I would disagree with that, Steve.

    Architecture has consistently proven to be a real draw. The best example of this is the Jewish museum in Berlin which stood empty for months after its completion because tourists kept on flocking to check out Daniel Libeskind’s building. And when the artwork does finally go in, the cultural experience of going to any art performance is truly enhanced by the public space that it finds itself in. There are some very fine art museums that are horribly compromised by the shoddy internal layout of the buildings themselves. This was the case with the ROM before its grand redesign and, I think, is the underlying reason behind the Libeskind addition.

    ———-

    As for the intrusion of the building onto so-called “public space, I think that the city’s argument is a moot point because, if anything, the ROM’s addition offers the development of a public space that did not previously exist. Under the Libeskind plan, the Bloor street frontage will be transformed into the main entrance and public plaza. The intrusion of the crystals are really about thirty feet up in the air, as they tower over the sidewalk.

  15. So does anyone know whether building awnings require the same sort of “encroachment fee”? I’d be curious to know whether buildings like the ones on Queen and Adelaide immediately east of Yonge, which provide permanent awnings over the sidewalk are required to pay this fee. To me, this seems rather counterintuitive. On one hand, the city, is encouraging builders to shelter pedestrians from the elements by using awnings (as you’ll note in their urban design guidelines). On the other hand, it sounds like they’re providing a strong disincentive to building such awnings by taxing them.
    As a pedestrian on snowy or rainy days, I quite appreciate awnings overhanging the sidewalk. They also serve as a bit of a shelter from the wind tunnelling effect downtown.
    A nice glass awning on the Richmond Street side of the new Four Seasons Opera House might do something to break the dull charcoal-brick monotony of that side of the street.

  16. If memory serves me correctly – the Murray Street overhang by the hospital resulted in a $300K contribution towards green space – which is that little parkette at Orde and McCaul. Now it seems that there is to be another expansion – don’t recall the details. I also remember the residents being called “murderers” by the hospital lawyer over their objections to the overhang design. HIs argument being that the cancer patients would die if this design wasn’t implemented. How low can you go!

  17. Why not give back something in kind. The ROM could pay the fee in services to the city. They could provide free access to under privileged kids or free access to the amenities for some city event, etc.

    I love this idea. The ROM is so expensive. Museums shouldn’t just be for people who can cough up the admission fee. For a lot of families in Toronto, a trip to the ROM would be simply unnaffordable.

    This is the reason that there’s no way the ROM is a “public space”, as you said, Paul.

  18. For awnings, many of the permanent ones are actually still within the private property line. If they extend into public space, then they would have to be negotiated with the city BEFORE they are built. For temporary awnings, I believe that private businesses are allowed to use a meter of adjacent public land for temporary uses (e.g. sidewalk displays), and retractable awnings would fall into that category.

  19. What an idiotic debate. Only in Toronto!

    Take a look at the “public space” in this city people: it is BUTT UGLY. Cracked pavement repaired with asphalt. Hydro wires and transformers everywhere. Dying trees. Decaying heritage architecture. Rampant advertising.

    Love it of hate it, a genuine piece of 21st century architecture overhanging the sidewalk is the LEAST of our problems.

    The petty, stultifying attitudes of our less-than-sophisticated citizenry? Now THERE’s an issue.

  20. It is the ROM that initiated this entirely unnecessary kerfuffle about a routine minor payment, so if anyone was being petty, it was the ROM.

  21. this is not really an idiotic debate, but one appropriate to a city with little or no precedent of this kind of “cultural” development.

    we keep forgetting that toronto is still a provincial city with provincial hopes of being viewed a world-class metropolis, but not actually capable of becoming one due to narrow mindedness of its “leaders” (and the general population to a large extent).

    and as far as the crystal goes, it is aesthetically and symbolically inappropriate to toronto – a purchased architectural brand(-name), a copy of something meaningful that was site and context-appropriate (i.e. the hewish museum in berlin) that has been slapped onto the city landscape.

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