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Canadian Urbanism Uncovered

Small businesses bite into sandwich board by-law

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HALIFAX – Who knew a plywood Oompa-loopma could cause such a stir? Since the City adopted the Temporary Sign By-law [PDF] in 2006, which placed strict regulation on street signage, sandwich boards have been an unprecedented source of contention in Halifax. Dedicated fans have rallied behind Freak Lunchbox, whose hand-painted signs are a beacon of creativity (and candy) on Barrington St — there was even a Facebook group created in defense of the candy store’s then Oompa-loompa-themed sign. But beyond the Oompa-loompa hoopla lies a real debate about the control of public space in the city.

Perhaps in response to this public objection, for the last three years enforcement has been purely complaint driven. But with the By-law now under review, small businesses are nervous about the impacts if the policy were to tighten up. Amendments proposed to Regional Council in November, would crank up enforcement of the By-law’s complex licensing requirements for temporary signs, imposing strict — in some cases inhibiting — limitations to the size, style, and placement of the all important sandwich board.

The By-law — intended to safeguard sidewalk safety and accessibility — poses a bit of a pickle when it comes to the blurry line between public and private space. The tension that arises when commercial interest lays claim to our public streetscapes dissipates significantly when it’s the little guy who’s the culprit. Since November, consultations in the seven Business Improvement Districts across Halifax Regional Municipality, have seen small, local businesses speak up about the crucial importance of street signage. Furthermore, while anxiety abounds around the perceived decline of downtown, creative signs add something important to the character and vitality of Halifax’s commercial hubs.

Part of the issue is the lack of consideration for regional discrepancies. Downtown business groups are left on their lonesome to fight for sandwich boards, while less-dense suburban commercial areas are more inclined to opt for mobile signs.  David Lane, Senior Planner in Community Development tasked with conducting the By-law review said this is nothing new. “These regional variations were realized during the adoption process of the By-law back in 2006,” Lane disclosed. “And the same feedback has been received with this round of consultations; no surprises.”

This failure to account for regional diversity is mirrored by further inflexibility around creative license when it comes to sign style and size. At the final consultation, where the Downtown, Spring Garden, and Quinpool business associations were brought together to discuss the By-law, many business owners bemoaned limitations to creativity, and discussed just how impactful standout signage is to business. The lack of proposed alternatives to deal with these issues was “frustrating and disheartening,” according to Joanne Macrae of The Hub.

These concerns were heard, however, and Lane has said that staff are considering a case-by-case licensing process “to account for businesses’ interest and creativity.” They are collecting businesses’ concerns until tomorrow, Jan 20th, after which Lane and staff will submit a report including recommendations, which Council will consider at a meeting of the Committee of the Whole within the next 4-6 weeks. From there, it’s up in the air as to whether (and how) Council may decide to proceed with the recommendations and amendments.

While Halifax has undeniable issues when it comes to sidewalk safety and accessibility, to have sandwich boards bear the brunt of these larger infrastructure issues feels suspiciously scapegoat-ish. Rather than tightening up blanket restrictions, it seems the task at hand is to focus on alternatives that put safety, accessibility, neighourhood vitality, and creativity as top priorities.

In the words of children’s songster, Fred Penner, “sandwiches are beautiful, sandwiches are fine…”

photo by Emma Feltes