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The Globe and Mail

Renaming public spaces sponsored by a sensible idea

A proposal to sell naming rights to some public spaces in Toronto has got the city buzzing. Are we about to see the Coca-Cola city hall? Burger King High Park? With tongue in cheek, the Torontoist, a local website, put together a whole TTC map with corporatized station names, including Bufferin, Hugo Bossington and Bed, Bathurst and Beyond.

Not everyone takes the idea so lightly. At a city council committee, a concerned citizen said the policy would leave the city littered with "corporate graffiti." Another said Toronto would lose those quiet places, like parks, where residents enjoy a "respite from commerce." With the hubbub growing, city council's executive committee decided on Monday to send the proposal back for redrafting.

The fuss is overdone. The city already has several venues and events with corporate names such as the Sony Centre for the Performing Arts and Scotiabank Nuit Blanche, not to mention BMO Field and the Allstream Centre. American Express sponsors the Winterlicious restaurant festival and Glad sponsors the annual cleaning blitz called the 20-Minute Makeover. The world has failed to end.

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Other cities have gone much farther. New York has added the name Barclays, a British bank, to one of its subway stations. Chicago has signed a $3.9-million (U.S.) deal with Apple to refurbish a subway station in return for naming and other rights. Chicago transit, in fact, has invited companies to bid for naming rights on just about everything from rail lines to bus routes to special events.

The Wall Street Journal reports that 20 American states are considering corporate sponsorships for public parks, while some hard-pressed cities are thinking about selling naming rights to playgrounds, libraries and school gyms.

It is easy to get carried away and imagine the whole of Toronto plastered with corporate logos and company names, giving the place the cheesy air of an amusement park. That's wildly unlikely.

Karen Stintz, the TTC chair, says she would stop short of altogether renaming subway stations, though she might consider corporate help in fixing them up. Councillor Doug Ford, the most vocal booster of the naming-rights idea, has mused about letting companies display their logos at parks they sponsor. A sign for Earl Bales Park, for example, might say "sponsored by General Motors." Would that be such a tragedy if GM paid for a new splash pad?

Even before the executive committee sent the proposal to be tightened up, city staff were proposing all sorts of safeguards to prevent "the undue commercialization of the public realm." The city would take account of the name's historical or local significance before granting anyone rights to change it. High Park would always be High Park.

The city would reserve the right to refuse any renaming proposal that did not mesh with the city's "goals, values or mission." Tobacco companies are already excluded. The city would keep control of the renamed property and limit renaming agreements to a fixed term.

"The renaming of properties will only be pursued in exceptional circumstances and where considered by the City to be in the public interest," says the proposal, and city council would have the final say over any agreement.

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The city is in a money jam and needs help. If naming-rights deals can bring in funds to spruce up parks or boulevards, great. What if the city could find a corporate saviour for the proposed Fort York bridge, endangered because of budget pressures? Would anyone care if it were called the Telus Bridge or the Tim Hortons Bridge?

Chicago got over this hang-up long ago. It had Frank Gehry design a gorgeous pedestrian bridge to the waterfront Millennium Park, itself dotted with the names of corporate donors. It is called the BP Bridge, after the energy company. Do the people who cross it worry about the plague of commercialization? No. They enjoy the walk.

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