Nearly five years ago, the City of Toronto and Ryerson University inked a deal to preserve Sam’s spinning neon signs. What does it really say?
On January 16, 2008, the same day that Ryerson University’s purchase of Sam the Record Man’s former home at 347 and 349 Yonge Street became official, the City of Toronto and the school signed an agreement to protect the music store’s iconic neon signs. That contract was widely reported on at the time and it’s been widely reported on since, but there was a problem: because it was a private legal agreement, no one outside of the City of Toronto and Ryerson staff had seen it, and no one else seemed quite sure of what the terms were—and whether or not Ryerson was planning to break them.
When Sam Sniderman died in September, the CBC reported that “as part of its contract with the city…the university was to restore and permanently remount the sign[s] on the future Student Learning Centre,” a pretty, glass-skinned building planned for where Sam’s once was, at Yonge and Gould. The National Post reported that the contract said the same thing. So did the Canadian Press. So did Torontoist, months earlier. The Star reported as much, too, but added that the agreement “also allows the university to install the sign on an adjacent building.” Depending on which story you read, the news was that Ryerson—which was keeping the signs in storage—was either going back on their deal, or considering going back on it. Either way, the spinning records’ days on Yonge Street suddenly seemed gone for good.
Until now, though, it’s only the gist of the agreement between the City and Ryerson that’s been known, or published. But in the wake of renewed interest in the signs’ fate, The Grid sought, and obtained, the full original contract through a freedom of information request. (It’s embedded below.) It makes two things clear: First, that the signs have never been required to come back up on Yonge Street—but, second, that doesn’t mean Ryerson can get away with not putting them back up at all.
The agreement says, among other things:
1) That Ryerson agrees “to the reinstallation of the Signs on a vertical wall in an appropriate location to be determined by Ryerson on either the Ryerson Yonge Street Lands [341, 347, and 349 Yonge Street] or the Ryerson Library Lands [350 Victoria Street]“; that Ryerson “shall use its reasonable best efforts to identify an opportunity to incorporate the refurbished Signs in an appropriate location on the Ryerson Yonge Street Lands”; and that, failing that, it “shall relocate the refurbished Signs onto the south (Gould Street) façade of the building located on the Ryerson Library Lands.”
In other words, Ryerson has two options: put the signs back up on Yonge Street, or, failing that, put them up on Gould. There’s no third option. Ryerson has never been obligated to re-install the signs on the exterior or interior walls of their Student Learning Centre on Yonge Street, as has been mistakenly reported, though putting them up somewhere else other than on the south side of their library, or not putting them up at all, would constitute a very clear breach of the agreement.
When The Grid asked Michael Forbes, Ryerson’s manager of media relations, what would happen to the signs, he said that “nothing has been decided yet,” and that “we’re still in discussions; there are still ongoing talks.” But the decision’s already been made. It’s right there, in the agreement Ryerson already signed, which hasn’t been changed or amended since. Back up on Yonge Street, or up on Gould.
In a statement issued to The Grid last week, after we specifically asked whether Ryerson intended to honour the agreement, the university again hedged. “Ryerson is respectful of the significance of the Sam’s sign[s] to the many people who have fond memories of the signs at the corner of Yonge and Gould,” the statement reads. “No decisions have been made as to how the Sam’s signs will ultimately be honoured. We recognize the responsibility we have in the agreement with the City of Toronto and we continue to discuss options with the City as to how best honour the signs.”
Mary MacDonald, the City’s acting manager of Heritage Preservation Services (HPS), who helped draft the original agreement, says that the university could propose another possible location, but HPS, City planners, and, ultimately, City Council would all have to approve it.
“There’s a general understanding that having it on Yonge Street is likely not possible,” admits MacDonald. But, she says, “we’re not looking, at this point, for something significantly different than what was agreed to…I can certainly tell you from the City’s perspective that our expectation is that Ryerson will fulfill the agreement.
“If Ryerson were to say, ‘We haven’t found anywhere on Yonge Street, and frankly we haven’t found anywhere at all,’ this agreement as it’s currently written says, well then, it must—it shall—go up on the Gould Street wall. The City can listen to other [proposed] locations, but it’s [the City's] call” as to where the signs end up now, not Ryerson’s.
2) That Ryerson must choose between displaying the signs on Yonge Street or displaying them on Gould Street “no later than 42 months from the execution of this Agreement.”
That’d be July 16, 2011. By then, Ryerson was supposed to have either determined where, between the two locations, the signs were going, or formally requested more time to make their decision. They haven’t. Says MacDonald, “if they’re not close, then it sort of behooves everyone to make it clear how much longer we’re going to talk about this, because the City can’t let it go on forever.”
3) That Ryerson would be responsible for “the storage, eventual refurbishment and installation of the refurbished Signs,” as well as “ensure [their] maintenance.”
This is an easy one. Even if it costs $250,000, as Ryerson’s president Sheldon Levy has said it might, it’s the university’s problem. And that’s not all; the agreement also requires that the signs “are illuminated from dusk to 2 a.m. each day.” A historical plaque alone, or “a walkway of vinyl records in the sidewalk outside the property, or multiple installations” inside the Student Learning Centre (which the Star suggested were possibilities back in September), won’t cut it. “If you have a picture of the sign, or if you have a hologram of the sign, or if you have a representation of the sign, it’s not the sign, and you’ve not lived up to your obligations,” says MacDonald.
4) That the City would “withdraw its Notice” under the Ontario Heritage Act in exchange for Ryerson withdrawing its objection to that notice.
You might’ve heard that the Sam’s signs were protected under the Ontario Heritage Act, the same thing that protects buildings like St. Lawrence Market and Old City Hall. They aren’t, though. City Council began the process of formally designating the signs as heritage properties in July 2007, legally protecting them under the act, but Ryerson appealed it, MacDonald says, on the grounds that the signs didn’t count as “properties” under the Act’s definition, which would have meant protecting them wouldn’t be possible. “It was a question of interpretation of the limits of the act,” explains MacDonald. “You could go over that and it might be interesting to some legal people but, ultimately, we wanted the signs to be saved, we wanted them to be put up, we wanted Ryerson to agree to it, and we wanted that agreement to be formal.” Neither Ryerson nor the City wanted to risk losing the hearing, so they struck up an agreement that, at the time, worked for both parties instead.
In short, it’s not any special heritage designation that protects the signs. It’s the legal agreement that does.
“The agreement is the agreement,” says MacDonald. “And the City’s job right now…is to ensure that this agreement is upheld.” Maybe the signs can’t go back up on Yonge Street, and maybe there’s even a good location for them, other than Gould, that no one’s thought of. But the signs will be back. “The City,” says MacDonald, “has already made its decision.”