Not counting the path paved for Rob Ford, the most unfortunate legacy of the David Miller administration is the city of Toronto's street furniture agreement with Astral Media.
And, just like with Ford, a terrible thing keeps finding new ways to become even worse.
Staff in the city's Transportation Services division are endorsing a nightmare scenario - that council should amend the contract to allow for video billboards on several thousand transit shelters across Toronto.
When council approved the original agreement in 2007, there were repeated assurances that it would not come to this, that the most obtrusive shelter advertising would involve nothing more than mechanical scrolling between a handful of different posters.
But a report going to the Public Works and Infrastructure Committee on Wednesday (April 10) supports Astral's request to turn all advertising faces on all of its shelters into video screens. These would display "static" images that change every 10 seconds. How long, then, before Astral returns to City Hall to ask that the screens be allowed to show full-motion video?
The shelters are a key component of the Coordinated Street Furniture Program, arguably the largest privatization effort in Toronto's history. Championed by Miller, the initiative saw the design, installation, ownership and maintenance of crucial infrastructure - transit shelters, trash receptacles, information pillars, postering kiosks, benches, multi-publication boxes, automated public washrooms - placed in the hands of a single billboard company that had no experience doing anything of the sort.
Back on May 25, 2007, only four councillors voted against entering the 20-year pact with Astral: Janet Davis, because she opposed advertising and commercialization on principle; Adam Vaughan, because he was correctly concerned that the new garbage bins would not fit on Kensington Market's narrow sidewalks; Rob Ford, because he felt the commitment to removing graffiti from shelters was inadequate; and Cliff Jenkins, because he was my councillor.
I was an activist with the Toronto Public Space Committee and led its campaign against the program. We lost.
Following the unanimous vote at Miller's whipped executive committee, I was quoted in three daily newspapers: "Once again the advertising company wins, city councillors and the public have no say, and the mayor is proud to be the city's pimp." The Star accurately described me as "bitter." (Looking back, I regret the statement only for the flippancy with which it treated the troubling realities of some sex work.)
Council did, however, adopt a motion from Davis to have city staff report back on the program's implementation every six months from then on. It passed by a single vote. But the reports never came.
"Reports have not yet been prepared and consequently are past due and should be prepared as soon as possible," wrote Toronto's auditor general in a damning review nearly five years later. The auditor questioned the management and supervision of the contract, revealing that "by 2011, Astral Media had installed approximately 60 per cent of street furniture scheduled for installation up to that point" - information that presumably would have been contained in the implementation reports had they ever been delivered.
It had long been clear that Astral's bid on the contract had been generous. The amount of money the company offered the city in exchange for the exclusive right to place advertising on sidewalks was several times greater than what its competitors had proposed. And the competitors actually had experience in this field.
The agreement would likely be modified down the line in order for it to become profitable. Astral would have to reduce its financial commitment to the city or intensify its advertising.
As it turns out, it's the latter.
In mid-2011, Astral successfully lobbied council to allow a significant modification to the info pillars' design: instead of each one bearing 15 square feet of information and 30 square feet of ads, each would now have 8 square feet of information and 48 square feet of ads. (That's a 46 per cent decrease in information and a 60 per cent increase in advertising.) Even though an appendix to the original contract states that "the size and scale of [street furniture] should not be increased in order to accommodate larger advertising faces," that is precisely what happened.
Another portion of that appendix (known as the Vibrant Streets guidelines [pdf]) says that "all advertising must be contained within the amenity; three-dimensional advertisements or those that project beyond the structure of the amenity are not permitted."
Yet city staff have been authorizing Astral to wrap and decorate transit shelters with ads since at least 2009. These approvals have been granted on an ad hoc basis in seeming contravention of the guidelines, so staff are now attempting to formalize this process.
In the report going to the Works Committee next week, staff say that although the contract makes clear that the "Permitted Advertising Format" may not be adjusted in order to accommodate advertising, the contract "was silent on the specific matter of creative advertising." Well, then.
The report explains, "The interest in this approach relates to the increasingly competitive nature of the advertising industry that is continually developing more creative and innovative multimedia campaigns and experiences in response to the needs of its clients." As we all know, it is the responsibility of the city of Toronto to assist Astral Media in serving the needs of its clients.
Which brings us back to the video screens, which would benefit no one but Astral and its clients.
The city believes it would profit from them, too, since it receives 32 per cent of the contract's gross advertising revenue. But a few million extra dollars for the sake of scarring the landscape makes no more sense in this instance than it does with regard to a casino. And there are very real concerns about the potential impact on road safety.
City council got it wrong when it rubber-stamped the Astral deal in the first place. City council got it wrong again when it let Astral transform its information pillars into monstrous, sidewalk-obstructing billboards.
I need to believe that council has learned its lesson. But I fear it has not.