The city's coordinated street furniture program is certainly getting mixed reviews. Hailed as a new commitment to sleek urban design, it's also being criticized as a potential quasher of local character.
It was the latter dissatisfaction that surfaced at a recent works committee meeting.
Kim Storey, of Brown & Storey, designers of Yonge-Dundas Square, pointed out what she saw as the flaw in the recommendations made jointly by Transportation and Urban Design. These would establish one mega-contract for designing transit shelters, litter bins, benches, multi-publication boxes, info pillars, postering kiosks and public washrooms - for the whole city.
The overwhelming scope of the contract, she implied, made it strictly a corporate affair.
"Local urban designers would be excluded," she said, adding that local urban flavour would also suffer. "I find it hard to believe that one company can design one set of furniture that can fit on all these different streets. Urban design is not always a rational exercise. There is a poetic element that is very important."
That point has been raised at previous public consultations, where many participants have expressed a need for local designers, architects and artists to be central to the program. And neighbourhoods should be able to express their individual character through their furnishings.
It's an attractive idea to think that massive funding could go toward functional art that evokes local histories. Something that fits in the business district is obviously going to seem a bit awkward in Kensington Market - like a fine three-piece suit in Graffiti's pub.
As it is now, the plan recommends that furniture design finalists be chosen by a jury that could include local designers, and that all items be modular to allow for local customization. How this would be achieved hasn't been fleshed out, though, beyond suggestions to allow "the use of colour or the opportunity of placing identifier plaques."
The extent of local control would seem to be limited to the ability to opt out of certain items. Shelters and bins would be mandatory - so the local option may be all about benches, a nod to BIAs anxious about loiterers.
Committee member Councillor Mike Del Grande echoed concerns over local involvement, putting forth a motion that "the largest contract in the universe," as he half-jokingly called it, be subdivided by district to allow for somewhat better community control.
His motion was soundly defeated. Staff advised that multiple contracts would be much harder to administer and might actually lead to more advertising. Currently, staff are hoping to restrict advertising to transit shelters. But given a smaller contract, bidders may want more ad spaces to make up for the lower potential profits.
But Samantha Sannella, prez of the Design Exchange, asked whether anyone had considered that the tourism revenue generated by an ad-free and idiosyncratic cityscape might outweigh ad dollars.
Public space activist Rami Tabello, pointing to our current shelters, questioned whether local flavour could be detected at all. "Imagine you were aliens. You'd think this was Viacom, not Toronto, because Viacom is written four times on our bus shelters, and Toronto is written nowhere."