A typical intersection in Los Angeles.
If Councillor Norm Kelly gets his way, every single billboard in this city will be allowed to turn into an electronic sign. Why? Because “Guess what, we live in an electronic age!” Seriously. That’s his argument.
Under the pretext of “modernization,” Los Angeles City Council ignorantly made a similar decision in 2006, as chronicled in this nightmarish L.A. Weekly feature from just over a year ago. One L.A. councilman told the paper, “obviously many of us regret it.” Another said, â€œWhen we discussed digital, I don’t think anyone had a clear idea of what it was about. It was new to me…I don’t know if any of us saw how bright they would be. It’s a whole new world.”
But you don’t have to look to Los Angeles. You can always just read this letter from a poor sucker who has the misfortune to live within a mile of the illegal CBS video screen on top of the Amsterdam Brewery at the foot of Bathurst.
And allowing third-party signs to display “electronic static copy” isn’t even the only one of Kelly’s motions that would transform the new Bylaw into an ironic mockery of its original intent.
As the chair of the Planning and Growth Management Committee, Kelly was the first to speak to the item when it hit Council on Tuesday. (The debate will continue on Monday.) He was also the first to move amendments to what staff were recommending.
What usually happens when a report comes to a full meeting of City Council after having been at committee is that that committee’s chair reaffirms his or her committee’s recommendations. That did not happen here. One, the committee had sent the report to Council without its own recommendations regarding a specific tax amount, instead asking staff to bring their recommendations directly to Council; two, Kelly came armed with a set of motions tweaking both the tax rate and the substance of the new billboard rules.
Prefacing his comments with a confused paraphrase of the parable of King Solomon and the baby, Kelly stressed that he was aiming to achieve a sort of rigid compromise by cutting the tax amount down the middle. Staff are proposing the Billboard Tax at $10.4 million, 1.8 million of which will pay for the new Sign Unit that will administer the Bylaw. Kelly would prefer a greatly reduced tax, which he calculated by taking the difference between those two numbers, cutting it in half and then adding back in the money for the sign unit; i.e., (10.4 — 1.8) à· 2 + 1.8. That’d bring in $6.1 million, or 59% of what staff are recommending.
He also made several motions that would effectively hack the baby to bits under the pretense of equitably bisecting it. A sign bylaw is a very delicate thing; you can’t just adjust details here and there. Each provision has to work in harmony with the others in order to sustain a stable framework that regulates the potential opportunities for both new and existing signs. Kelly is proposing seemingly arbitrary changes based, apparently, on his own gut feelings.
For example, staff recommend that new billboards be prohibited within 30 metres of an intersection. Kelly, for whatever reason, thinks this should be 6 metres instead. Such a change would allow an immediate doubling of the current number of billboards in Toronto, according to the Chief Building Official.
Kelly seems to have an unnervingly warped conception of the Solomonic myth, which of course was not actually about the need for aggressive compromise but rather the precise opposite. (I would hate for him to be a judge in a Family Law court.) It was about using an unpalatable, hypothetical solution to call the bluff of the party that’s lying to you. As such, it was quite enjoyable watching Councillor Joe Mihevc — who actually has a PhD in theology and social ethics — ask questions of Kelly, who did his damndest to recall what the rationale for each of his proposals actually was. (I certainly wasn’t the only person in the Chambers who considered it a possibility that at least some of the motions were handed to him already written.)
It’s a shame that Mayor Miller has thus far taken a largely indifferent stance on both the tax and the bylaw, offering support that at best has been quiet and lukewarm. The artists and others advocating for the tax are the same people who, two years ago, loudly rallied around the Land Transfer and Vehicle Registration Taxes, forming a popular movement that help him push those through Council. (Yes, the LTT was watered down before it was adopted, but — in proportional terms — not as much as the Billboard Tax is set to be.) Community arts, cultural investment, priority neighbourhoods, and urban beautification are topics the mayor likes to touch on whenever he gets a chance. And here’s an opportunity to leave a real legacy in all of those areas — a “win-win-win-win” situation, as he likes to say.
When the mayor delivers a fiery, passionate speech at the conclusion of a Council debate, he easily wins his side an extra ten votes they likely would not otherwise have had. The mayor is therefore better positioned than anyone else to ensure that this two-year process to develop a new Sign Bylaw and Tax goes out with a great big bang, rather than with Norm Kelly’s muddled whimper.
Jonathan Goldsbie is a campaigner with the Toronto Public Space Committee.