The city held its first public con sultation this week on new revenue tools it can implement courtesy of the City Of Toronto Act and one proposal making the rounds is the Beautiful City Billboard Fee.
Spearheaded by local urban artist and organizer Devon Ostrom, the BCBF is designed to help support community arts initiatives by charging an annual fee for every billboard in the city and channelling that money through the Toronto Arts Council.
The initiative has been well thought out and has the support of many community arts organizations.
Nice to see the decision-makers at City Hall finally talking about the billboard invasion. While other North American cities have been taking action against the outdoor advertising industry, Toronto's been pretending not to notice and has even encouraged more in-your-face marketing via the new street furniture plan.
But while the BCBF is a useful idea, public space advocates have good reason to be skeptical and perhaps even worried.
A variety of proposals are on the table relating to billboards, and the order of operations is crucial. The wrong sequence of remedies could lead to a worse sickness than we already have on our streets.
The fact is, we have a city council desperate for new sources of revenue, and councillors have shown quite clearly that they consider our visual environment a natural resource that can be sold to private companies.
Given the current administration, there is no doubt a billboard tax would mean more signage over time. Based on a dollar-per-square-foot formula, Toronto's thousands of billboards could generate millions of dollars per year.
This revenue would increase with every approval for a new sign but would decrease whenever the city enforced its own bylaws and removed an illegal sign. The formula would be a nightmare scenario for public space advocates.
As well, the city is in the midst of "harmonizing" the billboard bylaws carried over from pre-amalgamation Metro municipalities. A fee is likely to encourage councillors to adopt the most lenient regulations from each former jurisdiction to increase revenue, rather than adopt a strict bylaw that protects our streets.
That's why I'm arguing that we put the BCBF on the back burner and re-shuffle the priorities.
What we need is this: an immediate and complete moratorium on new billboard permits until the new bylaw is written and adopted, a comprehensive registry that allows city staff and citizens to easily identify illegal billboards, the removal of all illegal signs, and secure funding for future enforcement.
We need to close the loophole created by variance applications that allow advertising companies to legally erect signs that don't comply with the sign bylaw. We need a stricter variance process that both encourages and respects public input.
Lastly, we need the current "permit" system, which does not allow for annual fees, transformed into a "licence" system that allows for both fees and revocation. Then, and only then, we could implement a billboard tax for community art projects.
A beautiful city and an end to excessive corporate influence are two cornerstones of our mayor's agenda. Sweeping billboards off our streets would contribute to both of these goals and would prove that his broom isn't just an election gimmick.