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The Globe and Mail

Critics peeved over new sidewalk 'information pillars'

An infographic shows Toronto's newest information pillars.

Sources: City of Toronto, Edward Tubb

Toronto's newest piece of street furniture was going to be the centrepiece of a state-of-the-art tourist information system and then it was redesigned. Now that it's being placed on downtown sidewalks, public-space activists are making their opinion clear: They hate it.

Why? Because they say it looks like nothing more than a garish billboard.

The city calls them "information pillars," but opponents say that name is disingenuous. "They're 95-per-cent advertising and the information they offer is of negligible value," said Tim Grant chair of the Harbord Village Residents' Association. "It is clearly a billboard."

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The pillar is the latest design to come out of Toronto's mammoth 2007 deal with Montreal-based Astral Media. Under the agreement – one of the largest of its type in North America – the company designs, installs and maintains new street furniture, including transit shelters, garbage bins and pay toilets.

In exchange, Astral keeps the majority of revenue it earns from renting the ad spaces on transit shelters and the new information pillars. The company pays the rest, 32 per cent in 2012, to the city, according to a document recently released by the city.

Of that, about 10 per cent – $1.2-million in 2012 – will come from the ads on the 120 information pillars, says Elyse Parker, director of the public-realm office in the city's Transportation Services.

Opponents such as Councillor Janet Davis say Toronto is selling its public spaces for a pittance. "These are supposed to help people find their way and help them enjoy the public space," she said. "Instead, they obstruct the sidewalk and hurt the aesthetic of the street."

Each three-metre pillar holds a board with two backlit six-by-four-foot ad spaces – the same standard size as the posters on a bus shelter. The space for tourist information such as walking maps, however, is much smaller and many of the pillars were installed before the maps were ready. In surface area, there is six times more advertising than space for tourist information.

That's very different than in the pillar's original design. The street-furniture contract initially included a model that Astral COO Jacques Parisien has called the most useful and attractive street pillars in North America. It had a touch-screen interface, an LED ticker and a link to an information hotline. It even won an international design award.

However, the technology proved unreliable and difficult to place, says Fiona Chapman, acting manager of the city's street-furniture office. The design was also bulkier than the new one and had maintenance issues, she said.

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In response to the concerns, Astral proposed the current design, which passed council easily in June. In comparison, it has 60-per-cent more ad space by area and none of the originally promised technology.

It is a modified MegaBin, said Gord Brown, a long-time advocate for the sensible use of public spaces. Mr. Brown – who helped write the city's streetscape guidelines – is referring to the 2006 garbage-bin pilot project that failed after protests over excessive advertising.

"The city killed the MegaBin after people complained. Five years later, they have approved something that looks essentially the same," he said.

For Councillor Adam Vaughan, the problem is not just the information pillars' appearance but also how they are being installed. Unlike the MegaBins, they are designed to be oriented perpendicular to sidewalk traffic. This maximizes advertising exposure to pedestrians and drivers but causes problems on narrow sidewalks.

Partly due to placement issues, Astral has already removed about 6 pillars it installed earlier this fall, said Ms. Chapman.

According to details of the agreement, Astral will pay the city the greater amount of either a guaranteed annual minimum or a set percentage of yearly revenue.

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That amounts to a minimum of $400-million for the city over the 20-year contract, most of it coming in the last five years. If total revenue matches Astral's 2006 projection of $1.5-billion, then the city's share will increase to about $435-million.

For the small portion that comes from the pillars, however, it's not worth it, said Ms. Davis. "It's not a way-finding system, it's an advertising system," she said "We've sold out on our public space objectives."

Editor's note: An earlier version of this story published online incorrectly stated 60 pillars had been removed. Astral Media has actually removed six. This story has been corrected.

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