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Is Vancouver going to allow rooftop billboards again?

Application active for electronic video billboard in Granville entertainment district.
If successful, a proposal to put an eight-foot-tall by 29-feet wide billboard on this building at Smithe and Granville Streets would be the first rooftop sign allowed in Vancouver in many years.

An application to mount an electronic video billboard on top of a building in the Granville entertainment district is winding its way through Vancouver city hall, despite a staff recommendation to not allow the sign.

Outfront Media, on behalf of building owner Granville Smithe Holdings Ltd., has proposed an eight-foot tall by 29-feet wide billboard be installed on top of a one-storey building at 897 Granville St., which once operated as Champs Sports.

The building is currently vacant.

“Our vision was that this should be a Granville gateway sign and to help people brand and people identify this very special area of Vancouver,” said Steve Wolowich, senior director of real estate for Outfront Media, at an Oct. 3 council meeting.

A rendering of the proposed billboard for Smithe and Granville streets. Image courtesy City of Vancouver

'No rooftop signs in the city'

The application comes despite previous successful legal fights by city lawyers to have all rooftop signs removed. Currently, there are no rooftop signs on Vancouver buildings, with one of the last ones dismantled more than a decade ago from atop the Lee Building at Main and Broadway.

City lawyer Grant Murray conveyed some of that legal history to council at the Oct. 3 meeting.

“One of the things that is very important [to remember] is that there are no other rooftop signs in the city,” Murray said.

“This would be the first time that there would be a rooftop sign approved in some considerable time. In fact, in the 1970s, the Vancouver Charter was amended in order to allow the city to remove rooftop signs.”

Over some 40 years, he added, previous councils all pursued the goal to ensure rooftop signs were removed.

“This council could certainly depart from that, but that’s an important aspect of this — rooftop signs have not been permitted in this city for a considerable amount of time,” Murray said.

'Visual clutter'

Previous councils have likened rooftop signs to visual pollution.

In the 1960s, there was growing concern that rooftop signs were obscuring the natural scenery of Vancouver, impacting the city’s aesthetics, contributing to a cluttered urban environment, negatively affecting smaller businesses and creating safety hazards for drivers.

Like many cities, Vancouver now has regulations related to the number, size, type, form, appearance and location of signs to ensure they do not negatively impact aesthetics, traffic safety and the overall environment of the city.

Staff’s rationale for council to reject the billboard on Granville Street is connected to that history and the sign bylaw, which was adopted in 1989.

Outfront’s application doesn’t meet several of the provisions set out in the bylaw, including proximity to a residence and a traffic control signal.

The building is located at a busy intersection and across the street from a single-room-occupancy hotel, with some of its tenants’ windows directly facing the proposed site of the electronic billboard.

The application requests the billboard operate until 11 p.m.

Staff said in its report to council that the sign would add to “visual clutter,” negatively impact SRO tenants and “pose traffic impacts due to its location in close proximity to a traffic signal.”

'Great opportunity for us'

Staff’s recommendation didn’t convince the majority of council, with ABC Vancouver Coun. Mike Klassen successfully directing staff to investigate whether the city could negotiate more than the proposed 10 per cent of allotted time on the sign for city advertising.

Klassen specifically said he wants to see if Outfront Media would “be willing to offer us some additional time in return for going forward with this amendment to the sign bylaw.” A staff report is expected to go before council before the end of January 2024.

“We know that traditional forms of advertising are going down and being less regarded by especially younger audiences,” he said. “It's a very vibrant part of the city, and I think it's a great opportunity for us to be able to communicate.”

Klassen also suggested the vacant building in question wasn’t “going to be long for the world,” noting development in the area and the city’s plan to revitalize the Granville strip.

It was the city’s planning process for the Granville strip that ABC Vancouver Coun. Sarah Kirby-Yung cited in opposing Klassen’s move. She suggested it would be best to wait until that process is completed before considering the application for a rooftop sign.

“We're going to have robust signage and lighting guidelines for the area, and I think there might be opportunity for broader public benefits there, whether it's time [on a billboard] or revenue share,” she said.

Green Party councillors Adriane Carr and Pete Fry, along with OneCity’s Christine Boyle also opposed Klassen’s amendment. Carr and Fry cited public safety concerns and driver distraction caused by the proposed billboard.

“I don't have a problem with digital signage per se, but I think on a one-storey rooftop right next to a busy one-way street that is arguably in conflict with the traffic signal light, I'd rather defer on the side of caution,” Fry said.

“And I don't think that any extra kickback [for more city advertising on the sign] would accommodate the impacts on public safety potentially.”

Video signs on the side of the Best Buy building at Robson and Granville streets. Photo Mike Howell

'Unique and prominent design'

The site in question is one block from the intersection of Robson and Granville streets, where large video signs already exist on the side of a Best Buy building.

Those signs are among the limited number of electronic signs and screens allowed in the downtown core. The others are at Telus Garden (Richard and Georgia streets), CBC (in the plaza at Hamilton/Georgia), International Village (Pender/Carrall) and the Queen Elizabeth Theatre.

Jane Talbot, president and CEO, of the Downtown Business Improvement Association, wrote a letter to council in support of the proposed sign for the building at Smithe and Granville streets.

“This sign will provide a better sense of arrival that is currently lacking at this intersection of Granville Street,” Talbot said. “The unique and prominent design may also help attract a new tenant to the retail space.”


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