Far too big, too high, too close
Far too big, too high, too close
Rami Tabello estimates 1,500-2,000 signs in Toronto are illegal. He introduces Bill Taylor to a sample rogues' gallery
March 16, 2007
Signs of the times? Rami Tabello, cruising downtown in his scarlet Mini, sees the writing on the wall and wants it gone.
"At least half the billboards in Toronto are illegal," he says. "In the entertainment district, almost all of them. It's visual pollution. We have to fight it."
Tabello's website, http://www.illegalsigns.ca, lists about 270 allegedly outlaw billboards. He calls them "bad boys" and estimates there are between 1,500 and 2,000 around the city.
He's supported by Councillor Joe Mihevc, who is appalled "at the way the sign companies are behaving. As cash stores are to banks, so third-party advertising is to some of these large media outlets. It's big, big bucks... hundreds of millions of dollars. They're good, upstanding corporate citizens but they have this one area where they make oodles of money and operate in a rogue manner."
It's a cat-and-mouse game between the advertising companies and overworked city inspectors trying to enforce an inadequate bylaw that is convoluted and confusing, even to them. Among other things, it mandates the kind of billboard that is permissible and the minimum distance between signs.
"The bylaw hasn't been updated in 10 or 15 years," Tabello says. "It was written for a time when the cost of erecting a sign was $10,000, maybe $15,000. Now, to print a vinyl sign and put it on a wall can be as low as $500. The company can take it down and put it back later."
As he drives, he points out "bad boys ... That Motorola sign; the Lexus sign; Beaufort Legs au Naturel; L'Oreal. Moose Light and Moosehead lager; two bad boys. Big Shining Tunes; that's a big bad boy."
Sometimes a sign has been removed but the framework remains on the wall; a sure sign, Tabello says, that it'll be back.
Two regular offenders, he says, are Astral Media and CBS Outdoor. Both are bidding on a 20-year contract to redesign and maintain Toronto's "street furniture" – 25,000 transit shelters, benches, bike racks, garbage bins and newspaper boxes.
Another of Tabello's accused offenders, Pattison Outdoor, isn't a contender, citing "onerous" bidding rules. Pattison's website says the company is "dedicated to working with municipal, regional and other legislators across the country to provide all stakeholders with artistic, effective and contemporary outdoor displays."
CBS Outdoor boasts on its website that "while other media are fragmenting and suffering audience declines, Outdoor continues to grow. Outdoor cannot be zapped or time shifted...
"Whether we travel in our cars, by transit, on foot or by cycling, we see posters, superboards, transit shelters, wall murals..."
Repeated tries over several days to reach someone for comment at Pattison and CBS were unsuccessful.
Astral Media brags online that it "never ceases to amaze consumers and advertisers by its boundless creativity and its sense of innovation."
Spokesperson Alain Bergeron said he'd looked at http://www.illegalsigns.ca and "the language and tone are certainly interesting. There's some strong language in there. I've spoken to our outdoor people. We're looking into it but I'm not sure there's an issue here. If there is, it's industry-wide, not just Astral. Astral has a strong track record in every city we're involved in. We'd be happy to work with Toronto if there are any issues."
A fourth firm named on the website is Megaposter, which calls itself "a new and leading force to provide `other than conventional' advertising spaces... We have made large format advertising our specialty..."
Megaposter's Viktor Lang told the Star, "I won't be able to help you. I don't think anyone will."
Mihevc (Ward 21, St. Paul's West) calls Tabello "a good guy, a mensch. God bless him. He's taking on an industry that has no ability to control its own instinct. That's on one side.
"On the other, we have a city system that was built for an age when signs and advertising were really an adjunct to one's business and didn't have the same prominence as now. We have signs that we don't know are legal or not. It can take you months to discover that. You might even have to go to the city archives. A permit is issued through the building department and then the policing of it is transferred to Metro Licensing and Standards.
"Say I'm opening Joe's Variety Store and I want a sign on my roof, a first-person sign advertising myself. Then after five years I change it to a third-party sign, advertising someone else. They're worth tens of thousands of dollars. You're paying off your mortgage. After that, I do a backlit sign. Then a motion-picture one. All on that original, first-person permission."
Part of the problem, Mihevc says, is that Toronto has no "co-ordinated inventory" of billboard permits. City hall staff are working on reforms, he says, which ideally will include "a licensing system so that instead of a single-payment fee, we get annual revenues to pay to monitor the system. We need transparent, systemized records, all on computer, so John Q. Public can go to a website and see what's legal and illegal.
"And we need tons more staff. MLS inspectors are multi-tasking, everything from this to property standards complaints. What's a greater priority – an eavestrough that's falling on a neighbour's property or a sign that no one's ever challenged because it's too difficult? Sometimes we say to the company, `Show us they're legal.' And the company says, `You show us they're illegal.' They stonewall."
As for the threat of a fine for putting up a vinyl sign on a wall without any permit, Mihevc says it's a non-starter. By the time the city sends out a letter, the billboard is probably down. At least temporarily.
"Drive east along Bloor St. from Bathurst to Yonge," he says. "All the signs you see on the walls; they're all illegal."
Tabello, 32, regards himself and his supporters as "environmental activists. We're lucky. The outdoor advertising industry is the only one whose activities, illegal or otherwise, are specifically meant to be seen by as many people as possible."
Self-employed, he calls himself a "professional speculator. I play the stock market and bet on horses for a living but I don't consider it gambling. I take advantage of inefficiencies in the betting market on horses. It's a systematic financial approach."
His billboard website invites donations. But, he says "it doesn't take a lot of money to do this. We have volunteers who take photos and monitor signs. Our group has been together about a year. When we took our concerns to city hall, they had no idea how prevalent this was."
But not everyone at city hall loves Tabello. He's submitted so many freedom-of-information requests for sign permit information that City Clerk Ulli Watkiss wrote to him in January that she considered most of them "frivolous and/or vexatious." He's filed an appeal for full access to documents.
He points out an iPod ad on a wall on King St. east of Spadina Ave. "It's too big, too high and too close to that Calvin Klein billboard, which is legal. These vinyl signs can't be within 60 metres of each other. This is 10 times larger than it's supposed to be. It's about 300 square metres. The maximum by law is 25 square metres. Apple probably has no idea these signs are illegal. They buy what the advertising agency is selling them."
The agencies themselves are under the gun, Tabello says. "With the building boom, they're losing dozens of their billboards so there's no space to develop legal signs. It's a declining business. It's not going to happen overnight but they're behind the 8-ball. Ultimately, I don't see how they can win this."
He smiles as he drives by the Black Bull Tavern on Queen St. W. "We wrote to the city about the big sign they had up on the wall and now it's gone. The Black Bull has been liberated."
I've only followed ad creep issues lightly, but this site really opened my eyes to how bad the issue was. I now find myself looking for the illegal billboards this site describes from the train, pointing them out to whomever I'm with. I encourage anyone interested in advertisements overdone or corporate recklessness and contempt to visit Illegalsigns.ca
Labels: politics, urban design