Council's approval of five new roadside electronic billboards has public space activists asking if Toronto is prepared to enforce its own bylaws against garish and distracting signs.
In a 26-15 decision, councillors voted Thursday to permit the erection of five LED billboards in separate locations across the city, including a 62 square meter sign north of the Gardiner Expressway at Atlantic Ave.
The vote complied with a recommendation from city staff but overturned an earlier decision by the city's planning committee, which approved all the signs except the one near the Gardiner because of concerns about light pollution.
Those who oppose the billboards argue they're a dangerous distraction for drivers and contravene the city's own sign bylaws. Under rules enacted in 2010, new electronic signs showing static images are prohibited everywhere except in two designated zones - the Gardiner and Yonge-Dundas Square.
Even in the Gardiner district they're only permitted if they were already there when the bylaw came into effect, or if they are replacing an electronic sign that was.
"The fact is that, the city looked at those signs and said, ‘these are inappropriate, so let's ban them,'" says the Toronto Public Space Initiative's Rami Tabello of the LED screens.
"That's a bylaw we fought long and hard for. We're concerned that it's being thrown out the window."
Tamello believes that not only do the bright commercial signs clutter what should be ad-free public space, but also that they could cause car crashes. He points to a 2001 city study that found accident rates were twice as high on the Gardiner than on the Don Valley Parkway and concluded that the high density of ads on the lakeside highway was a possible cause.
"Drivers should be paying attention to the road, not whatever brand of malt liquor is on sale this week," says Tabello.
At Thursday's council meeting, city staff said that it's undeniable that billboards divert drivers' attention from the road but there is no conclusive evidence that the ads are dangerous.
Councillor Mike Layton, who represents the ward where the 20-metre high sign will be erected, opposed the billboard for safety reasons but also because it's adjacent to Liberty Village, a rapidly developing residential district that's seeing a boom in tower construction.
"The transition to a residential neighbourhood is happening very quickly and we've got to make sure we're taking that into account," he says. "When you can see the signs from your bedroom window, I think we've got a problem."
But Councillor Peter Milczyn, who backed the billboard proposal, believes that it made sense to exempt the LED signs from the city's bylaws because as part of deal brokered with the sign owners, 15 non-electronic billboards will be taken down.
"Overall we're going to see fewer signs in the city. I think that's a good thing, the clutter will disappear," says Milczyn.
He says he has some concerns about the safety of bright signs near high-speed expressways, but is waiting for a staff report on the issue before he makes any conclusions.
"The jury's out on what impact they have," he says.
The LED signs will show unmoving electronic images that change every 10 seconds, and will be turned off between 11 pm and 7 am. Every year the city will collect $24,000 in tax on each of the five signs, which all have been granted 15-year permits.
Besides the location at the Gardiner and Atlantic, signs were approved for Kipling at Belfield, Eglinton at Bellamy, Steeles West at Alness, and York Mills at Leslie.