Light has become the new urban flashpoint in downtown Vancouver.
A trio of giant digital signs at BC Place have sparked complaints since last fall from dozens of downtown residents who complained that light from the flashing, beer-advertising sign was invading their living rooms by day and their sleep by night.
PavCo, the provincial government agency that manages BC Place, has tinkered with the largest one that faces Robson Street, lowering the intensity, reducing the flashing and even, recently, turning it off altogether between 4 p.m. and 8 a.m.
But residents still are furious about the glare and advertisements coming from a sign that’s 1,500 square feet – larger than many of their glass-walled condos.
“It’s torment,” says David Cookson, a renewable-energy specialist who lives a few blocks away. “The fact that PavCo is tinkering with it is demonstrating at the core that they’re not listening to what we’ve been asking for.”
City councillors stepped up the fight this week by demanding, in a unanimous vote, that the province comply with the city’s sign bylaws or else.
Councillor Geoff Meggs is warning not so delicately that PavCo could find itself having a rough time as it winds its way through city hall in the next couple of years with its ongoing construction planned around the stadium.
And, he says, they’re doing themselves no favours by alienating residents, who have formed a group called Take the Giant Screen Down Now and are asking PavCo to go through a proper city and neighbourhood consultation.
“We have a lot of decisions to make and there’s a trust gap opening up,” Mr. Meggs said. “I think this is a longer-term problem for PavCo because they’re going to be building all the way around BC Place.”
Two of the signs had existed previously, but the largest one facing Robson, which is placed directly behind Doug Coupland’s new statues commemorating Terry Fox, came as a surprise to many in the city, including city manager Penny Ballem.
Last fall, city officials and politicians said there wasn’t much they could do because the province doesn’t legally have to comply with city bylaws.
But this week, they took a tougher stand, saying that PavCo had promised when it started the process of renovating BC Place and developing the land around it that it would work with the city.
Kathy Delisser, the assistant general manager at BC Place, said management is trying to come up with solutions as a result of neighbourhood complaints.
But she also said that the main sign is tied to a negotiation on an “overall sponsorship and technology program” with a company she can’t name, so BC Place isn’t free to do exactly what it wants with the sign.
She said she couldn’t say how much revenue the sign generates, because that’s also a confidential part of the sponsorship program.
Signs have been contentious issues in Vancouver for decades. It has been aggressive about banning billboards in many places since the 1970s. It fought a decade-long war with one building owner to get a billboard removed from the roof that ended just before the 2010 Olympics.
In recent years, the issue of digital, flashing signs and advertisements projected onto blank walls or buildings has come along to plague the city.
Vancouver typically makes commercial enterprises comply with strict limits on the wattage and size of signs. When the CBC refurbished its building near BC Place, it went through city processes to get approval for signs and screens outside.
It’s not just commercial lights, either, that they have to worry about. A public-art project near Coal Harbour also sparked a resident protest, because they didn’t like the light that was invading their living rooms and bedrooms.