Downtown Sign Issue Highlights Need to Create a Bigger Flap

By Jason Menard

Should Shmuel Fahri take down the gaudy ‘For Sale’ and ‘For Rent’ signs that have papered the City of London’s downtown core? Yes – but only if he promises to put bigger and better ones up in their place.

In fact, if the noise caused by the flapping signs is an issue, I’d recommend Fahri simply repaint the entire exterior of his buildings with the words “Space for Rent/Sale.” And use big, garish, gaudy neon colours that will shine in the night.

Because the issue here isn’t Fahri’s signs – the issue is that Fahri can’t fill his buildings, either for business or residential tenants, because the way this city has been run has made it less attractive to those who may want to live or work in the core.

Apparently, council is finished looking the other way when it comes to Farhi’s banners. Yes, he is contravening a bylaw, but, according to The London Free Press, our politicians instructed staff to look the other way while a compromise was sought. With no acceptable compromise in sight, council’s decided to move towards enforcing that bylaw.

Instead, Farhi and other developers will only allow banner ads to appear around the top of the building – and they’re moving to limit what appears on the banner to a name, phone number, and statements like For Sale or For Rent.

Out of sight, out of mind, I guess. As long as the façade of the building looks pretty, who cares if the inside is empty? Welcome to London; we’re all about appearances.

If the issue is truly about security and noise violations – and, admittedly, the flapping banners can create some noise as they’re flapping in the wind, and they could cause a serious accident if they were to fall on passerbys or drivers below – then I can understand council’s concern. However, one would think those concerns were in place initially and would have been raised back in June when council decided to table enforcement in place of a study.

I have a feeling that these banners are creating some noise – but it’s not the flapping of the signs that’s bothering council. It’s likely the fact that these signs are screaming out “Downtown London? Pretty Vacant.”

The city’s core has long been a sore spot for politicians and residents alike. Despite a redesigned Covent Garden Market (and, may I state for the record, I prefer the old market) and the unquestionable success of the John Labatt Centre, downtown still lingers as a blight on the city’s landscape. There are a handful of businesses in the region, but downtown is far from being a destination for tourists or residents. For sale signs and vacancies are abundant and a walk down Dundas Street is less than inspiring.

Instead of dealing with the disease, the City’s decided to put a bandage over the symptom. We all know how well that works, but council is banking on our residents’ collective apathy when it comes to decidedly non-sexy issues like development.

Like shuttling homeless away from tourist areas, you may improve the appearance of an area, but you ignore the root cause. And without a strong, visual reminder, there’s less motivation to actually get one’s hands dirty and rectify the problem. Out of sight, out of mind.

If council wants to restrict banners to just a small ring around the top of a building, so be it. In some cities, developers allow their buildings to become canvases for local artists creating impressive murals that draw your attention to the message being imparted. Farhi can do the same here, using his buildings to shine a light on the need for council to act responsibly to stimulate downtown development.

London’s much-discussed performing arts’ centre is not the solution, just as the white elephant that is the Convention Centre didn’t revitalize the area. Instead the City needs to work with all parties – developers, businesses, and residents – to create sensible tax incentives, infrastructure support, and focus on the ground-level improvements that will drive traffic back to the area.

If the City is embarrassed about a few flapping banners, imagine how they would feel about a five-story neon advertisement that reminds people, visually, about the issues facing development in the downtown area. A painted building creates no noise and is not a risk to pedestrians or drivers.

But it would certainly cause a flap – and maybe then we’d see some real action on the real issues.

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